If you believe the hype, the New Orleans Saints defense will be virtually unrecognizable from a year ago now that Gregg Williams is in town.
The read-and-react, wait-and-get-there-too-late passivity preferred by former defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs is gone for good. Williams’ new-look Saints will blitz from all angles and disguise their coverages in amazingly creative ways.
Everything they do will have one overriding objective—attack, attack, attack. Finally the defensive philosophy will match coach Sean Payton’s all-out approach on offense.
The theory sounds nice, but there’s one little problem. “Hype” is the operative word.
Consider these numbers:
In 2008, New Orleans had 28 sacks and 15 interceptions. Williams’ Jacksonville Jaguars had 29 sacks and 13 interceptions.
In 2007, New Orleans had 32 sacks and 13 interceptions. Williams’ Washington Redskins had 33 sacks and 14 interceptions.
Stop the presses. That aggressiveness translated into two extra sacks and one fewer interception over two years.
Every time a team changes defensive coordinators, the buzz about the new coach is how he will turn his players loose and release them from the shackles of his predecessor. Often, though, the only substantive change is in terminology.
Williams’ approach to the 4-3 defense will be different from Gibbs’, but don’t look for any dramatic alteration in the Saints’ defensive scheme. Coaches are limited by their personnel, and Williams does not have dynamic enough players to try anything radical.
The Saints’ projected starting front seven—ends Will Smith and Charles Grant, defensive tackles Sedrick Ellis and Kendrick Clancy and linebackers Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, and Scott Shanle—is virtually unchanged from a year ago. The secondary could have four new starters, but the Saints won’t suddenly have shutdown corners and shakedown safeties.
Despite the lack of sacks and interceptions, Williams’ defenses the past two years definitely were better than New Orleans’ defenses. The Saints finished 26th in yards allowed in 2007 and 23rd in 2008. Williams’ Washington unit placed eighth in 2007, and his Jacksonville defense was 17th in 2008.
Successful coordinators get their guys to believe in themselves and play the way they are coached. If the Saints rise up the defensive rankings in 2009, the reason will be improved execution rather than an attacking scheme.
“He’s an aggressive coach, but his units are always sound fundamentally,” Payton told reporters when he announced the hiring.
While the defensive calls figure to change less than most observers expect, the playbook won’t change at all on offense. Payton shifted the responsibilities of his assistants and brought in a new running backs coach, but play-calling on the Saints is a one-man operation—Payton.
With every significant offensive contributor returning except for running back Deuce McAllister, look for the exact same approach as in Payton’s first three years.
He is a pass-first coach—New Orleans had a 652/392 pass-run ratio last season and a 636/398 ratio in 2007—and it was hard to argue with the results a year ago. The Saints averaged an NFL-best 28.9 points and 410.7 yards.
Pointing to those numbers, Payton will ignore critics who insist the offense needs better balance.
He will call whatever he thinks gives New Orleans the best chance to move the ball. The uneven run-pass ratio will inch closer to 50-50 only if the Saints are ahead in the fourth quarter more often, allowing them to bleed the clock on the ground.
Ground-breaking schemes won’t be the story if the Saints morph from pretender to contender in 2009. A new coordinator (Williams) and an old one (Peyton) just need to make sure their players are fundamentally solid.
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