Every Batman needs a Robin.
New Orleans Saints inside linebacker Curtis Lofton is the unquestioned leader of the Saints defense (unless you ask fellow linebacker Jonathan Vilma). His tenaciousness, productivity and savvy may be superseded only by the ferocity with which he displays.
His ability to read and diagnose has been one of the capital reasons for New Orleans' defensive resurgence. In fact, his recent departure from the Atlanta Falcons is one of the primary reasons they won't be winning the Super Bowl—in a year they were considered the odds-on favorite.
With that being stated, the Saints' brass may have quietly found his equal.
The Saints acquired former Seattle Seahawks linebacker David Hawthorne last season in an under-the-radar move. Most of the attention went to fellow free-agent acquisition Lofton, who was coming off of perennially being one of the league leaders in tackles.
Both Hawthorne and Lofton entered the league in 2008, after playing at colleges that now reside in the Big 12 conference (Lofton at the University of Oklahoma, Hawthorne at Texas Christian University). Lofton ended up being a second-round selection after totaling 156 tackles as a junior for the uber-popular Sooners.
Hawthorne went undrafted after a rather quiet career (as far as fan fervor) at an equally quiet school—in terms of national recognition.
But having to earn recognition is nothing new to Hawthorne. In fact, he thrives on it.
As an undersized backer (6'0", 227 lbs in college), Hawthorne had to earn his keep through a variety of ways. His versatility and humility are the chief reasons for his success. He had to work his way up the ladder in high school (Corsicana, Texas) and college, as well as in Seattle and New Orleans.
His size has always been viewed as a detriment, that is, until pundits let his pads do the talking! As a ferocious tackler and sideline-to-sideline linebacker, Hawthorne has literally played every position a backer can.
He first came to prominence as a "Mike" backer in Seattle. After going through sort of a redshirt season as a rookie in Seattle, Hawthorne exploded with a 117-tackle, four-sack (two forced fumbles) and three-interception (five passes defensed) performance, all while filling in for Pro Bowl linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
Hawthorne then proceeded to lead the Seahawks in tackles over the next two seasons prior to joining the Saints.
In Seattle, Hawthorne floated between the Mike and the "Will" in its 4-3-based alignment. The weak-side backer, or Will, usually has the responsibility of blitzing and covering screens. This player is usually the fastest of the three linebackers due to those additional duties.
The middle backer is usually the hammer. He has to read, diagnose and react. This player usually racks up the most tackles due to being covered up by linemen, as well as the outside backers.
Size is not usually prerequisite for backers in an even-front alignment defense, athleticism is. When Lofton and Hawthorne joined forces with the Saints, former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo ran a defense similar to Seattle's. Only problem is that both Lofton and Hawthorne were used to being Mike backers.
In addition, incumbent middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was viewed as one of the best linebackers of this era. Fortunately for the two, Vilma was embattled with both a knee injury and a looming suspension for his role in the infamous bounty scandal.
With Hawthorne being the better athlete, he was penciled in as the weak-side backer.
But a knee injury, and subsequent hamstring injury, caused him to get off to a slow start in his Saints tenure. And when Vilma finally returned, Hawthorne was moved to the Sam, which is a total departure from his normal responsibilities.
A strong-side linebacker has to drop in coverage in addition to dealing with tight ends on a regular basis. Needless to say, Hawthorne—at times—looked like a fish out of water. His 11-game total of 38 tackles made that quite apparent.
Hawthorne's poor play was a microcosm of the Saints season, as statistically they finished as the worst defense in NFL history. It was clear a change was needed, and boy did they make the correct choice.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has employed a multi-scheme attack that requires players with enough versatility to make it work. The defense spends most of its time in a 4-3 alignment, but is a 3-4 scheme in philosophy.
Ryan needs players that can affect the game from a plethora of positions, and the Saints have just the right personnel to implement his scheme. For a versatile player like Hawthorne, it's a match made in heaven.
Here is Hawthorne lined up at the weak-side linebacker position against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills are in a heavy set and are running a read-option fake, quarterback keeper. Hawthorne's role is to search and destroy as he will be chasing the play down from the backside.
The blocking scheme is executed to perfection, but having a player like Hawthorne can destroy all plans.
At the mesh point, Hawthorne must decipher what's happening quickly. His goal is to not get caught up in the trash. If he does encounter a blocker, he must dispose of him rather than going around him. This is what's called a stack-and-shed technique.
You engage the blocker, and then you get rid of him.
Here, everyone is engaged with a blocker, or two. It's strictly the will to make a play that will get the job done.
Hawthorne sheds the block and is the only defender free to make a play. He quickly resets and locates the ball.
When Hawthorne spots the target, he's like a heat-seeking missile.
Hawthorne tries to hit through the target. He'll very rarely miss a tackle, because he usually employs perfect technique. He gets his head to the outside of the target, and wraps up on his tackle. There's no substitute for proper technique.
In addition to his superior-tackling prowess, his speed and quickness makes him a factor in the blitz game. You can bet your bottom dollar that Ryan identified Hawthorne's athleticism early in training camp.
In this still, Hawthorne is coming on a delayed blitz. There's not much technique to this; the results are based on pure quickness.
Hawthorne shoots the gap so quickly that the quarterback doesn't have much time to respond. When you have a linebacker that can blitz, cover and form tackle, you have a player to build around. The Saints happen to have two in Lofton and Hawthorne.
Remember those 38 tackles Hawthorne had in 2012? He's already replicated that in only seven games. In addition, he has two sacks and one forced fumble. You can bet he's chomping at the bit to garner an interception—as he twice totaled three in his time in Seattle.
With Lofton (27) and Hawthorne (28) both entering their respective primes, fans of the Black and Gold will enjoy a Batman and Robin-like show for the foreseeable future.
Sure is quite the departure from last season's debacle, isn't it?
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