Defense wins championships. This is a motto that has been around for ages, and over the past few seasons, the New Orleans Saints have shown us from the other side of the equation how this is still true.
From 2001-2005 the New Orleans Saints had a combined record of 35-45, never reaching the playoffs and sporting a winning record just once.
Coming off of a 3-13 season in 2005, in 2006 the Saints decided to shake things up and take a gamble by signing Drew Brees to a six-year, $60 million contract only three months after Brees underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder.
The investment clearly paid off, with Brees leading the league in passing yards in 2006, en route to the team’s first ever NFC championship appearance.
While Brees has continued to light it up on the field, finishing second in passing yards in 2007 and first in passing yards in 2008 to go along with his 2008 Offensive Player of the Year Award, this offensive show has not translated into continued success in the win-loss column.
Despite Brees’ robust play, the team has only won 15 games over the past two seasons, never finishing higher than third in their own division.
Some place the blame of recent failures on the disappointing play of Reggie Bush and the injuries to players such as Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Deuce McAllister and other skill players, but it is pretty clear that Brees has managed just fine without them.
The real problem the Saints have is on the other side of the ball, where it seems almost any team is able to march up and down the field at will—matching touchdown for touchdown with Brees and the Saints offense...and then some.
While the Saints have managed to score a whopping 842 points over the past two seasons, they have also been torched for 784 points, and that has not added up to winning football.
It seems that after three years of playing shoot-out style football, attempting to out-gun the opposition, Sean Payton and the Saints are finally turning the corner and are paying some attention to the other side of the ball.
With the defense showing little to no improvement last year, despite the additions of LB Jonathan Vilma, CB Randall Gay and the No. 7 pick DT Sedrick Ellis, Sean Payton realized it was time to get rid of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs.
Stepping in his place is Gregg Williams, a former head-coach who made a name for himself as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans from 1997-2000, where his league-leading defense helped lead the Titans to Super Bowl XXXIV.
While changing coordinators was a certainly a step in the right direction, it was only step one in the process. GM Mickey Loomis’ offseason moves this year has proved he is dedicated to do more than just change coordinators to improve this defense.
The No. 1 priority area for the Saints during the offseason this year was the secondary. New Orleans gave up 221.7 passing yards per game last season, good for 23rd in the league.
While that was an improvement over their previous year, when they gave up 245.3 passing yards per game and finished 30th in the league, it clearly is not anywhere close to the playoff caliber defense the Saints are trying to build.
So with the 14th pick in the draft the Saints selected Malcolm Jenkins, a hybrid CB/S from Ohio State. Jenkins was widely considered the best secondary prospect in the draft, and projects to immediately start. His combination of size and speed is nearly unmatched and will give the Saints a player in the secondary who can match up with a variety of players.
The Saints also signed veteran safety Darren Sharper, the NFL’s active leader in interceptions, and CB Jabari Greer from Buffalo in an effort to shore up the secondary. Both will be placed into starting roles and have solid track records that indicate they should improve the defense right away.
Another addition to the Saints secondary will be the return of Tracy Porter. A second round draft pick in 2008, Porter showed a lot of promise last season before dislocating his wrist and missing the final 11 games. Now that he is fully healthy, he gives the Saints one more reliable option at cornerback.
While bringing in three new guys to start in the secondary may not exactly sound like a recipe for success, having a leader like Darren Sharper at safety should help this talented bunch gel pretty quickly. Getting rid of Mike McKenzie and Josh Bullocks, both starters in last year’s secondary, is only going to help this team.
The Saints had more problems though than just the secondary last year. While Vilma was a solid force at MLB, veterans such as Charles Grant, Will Smith, and Scott Fujita just simply did not produce up to expectations.
In order to beef up the defensive line the Saints brought in veterans such as DE Paul Spicer and DT Rod Coleman to give some more competition and push the other veterans. While most likely neither will start, having depth on the defensive line is critical if the Saints are hoping to get any pressure up front.
Line play is extremely tiring and even as backups these players will be seeing a lot of playing time. Having two more proven veterans is going to give the starters more relief and keep everybody fresher at the end of the season.
Combined with the expected growth of last year’s first-round pick, Sedrick Ellis, and this defensive line could end up surprising a few people.
The Saints still have to address their most serious problem though—the linebacker situation. While signing Vilma to a five-year contract extension solidifies the middle linebacker spot for years to come, that is the only linebacker position that Saints fans should feel comfortable about.
Scott Fujita was ineffective last year at strong-side linebacker, yet the Saints did not really bring in much competition for his starting spot this year. The team signed Anthony Waters, but as a rookie last year he only played in seven games and managed a meager three tackles.
While he still has potential, he cannot be counted on to be a regular contributor in 2009.
The other player who was looking for some playing time is fourth round pick Stanley Arnoux. Without a choice in the second and third round, the Saints then chose Arnoux with their second pick, a linebacker who many believe the team reached for and should have gone a few rounds later.
But now he will not even get the chance to compete, as he tore his achilles tendon on the first day or rookie mini-camp and is now out for the season.
If the Saints are looking to get good play from their linebacking corps, it seems like Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, their two incumbent starting outside linebackers, are going to have to step up and simply improve their play.
But with a new defensive coordinator and much better talent surrounding them in the secondary and on the defensive line, it is not out of the question. Both are capable starters and did not show the type of players they are last season.
While the Saints do not appear to have made major improvements on the defensive side and are relying on a lot of their front seven to simply just play better than last year, they do not need to become an elite defensive team to make the playoffs.
Last year this team gave up 24.6 points per game, finishing 26th in the league, and yet still managed to outscore the opposition by 70 points. If the Saints can improve just enough to become a middle-of-the pack defense, this team has playoffs written all over it.
With all the major pieces of the NFL’s top ranked offense returning fully healthy, once again the Saints can expect to top well over 400 points and be among the most prolific offenses in the NFL.
And with Gregg Williams now in at defensive coordinator combined with the numerous additions to the defensive side of the ball, this team may actually make a stop once in awhile.
Put it all together and the New Orleans Saints could easily turn back to the dangerous team that made it to the NFC championship game in 2006, or maybe even better. If the Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl with just the 19th ranked defense, it seems pretty fair to say anything can happen in the NFL.
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