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A Defensive State of Mind

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Giving Saints fans change they can believe in

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (loosely, the more things change the more they stay the same). This old saying surely sums up the New Orleans Saints’ 2008 season and poses a challenge for 2009.

n the past, the Saints have had superior defenses but torpid offenses (under Mora), teams with huge spirit but little talent (under Ditka), and years with good offenses but questionable quarterbacking (under Haslett). Now, under Sean Payton, they have a superior offense—the league’s best—but an underperforming defense. So despite innumerable personnel changes, new faces in several administrations and repeated turnovers in drafting philosophies, Saints fans have seen considerable adjustments over the years, yet the end of 2008 was the same, again—no playoffs. And as the calendar flipped to January 2009, another change occurred, the termination of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs. Fans have to wonder if his replacement will bring more of the same or if it will finally bring change, real change.sports1

Despite having the league’s best offense, a first for the Saints franchise, the team finished 8-8 largely due to a defense that regularly failed at the most inopportune times. In games against Washington, Minnesota, Chicago and Carolina, while holding narrow fourth-quarter leads, the Saints’ defense yielded huge passing gains (by reception or penalty) to the Redskins’ Santana Moss, the Vikings’ Bernard Berrian, the Bears’ Devin Hester and the Panthers’ Steve Smith, crucial plays that ultimately led to losses. In two other games, versus Denver and Tampa Bay, the Saints were victimized by deep touchdown passes to the Broncos’ Brandon Marshall and the Buccaneers’ Antonio Bryant. The 2008 schedule’s final casualty list included six losses of five points or less and five losses of three points or less. The Saints’ defense finished near the bottom of the league in several important defensive categories: seventh-most points allowed; sixth-fewest fumbles recovered; bottom third in sacks, total yards allowed, turnover margin and passing yards allowed; and third-most pass plays of more than 20 yards, in the end finishing with the 23rd best defense out of 32 teams (albeit a slight improvement over its dismal 26th overall ranking of 2007). The team allowed 20 or more points in thirteen of sixteen games. Considering those stats, it’s not difficult to see that just a slight improvement on the defense might make a huge difference in the team’s 2009 fortunes.

In a firm decision indicating a willingness to do whatever it takes to progress, the Saints quickly moved after the end of the season to replace Gibbs with Gregg Williams, the reputable past architect of super-octane defenses in Tennessee, Buffalo and Washington. That midseason coaching switch may prove bigger than any free agency signing or draft pick, as it will affect the entire defensive philosophy and possibly even the very makeup of the defense’s personnel in the coming year. Williams’ defenses are vastly different than the controlled style played under Gibbs; they are known for hard-hitting aggressiveness, for pressuring the quarterback and runners behind the line at all times, and for generating turnovers in bushels. But even given Williams’ impending changes in strategy, the front office will likely have to make some tough choices in reevaluating talent on the defensive side of the ball.

The Saints, for once, are somewhat constrained by the salary cap moving into free agency, so if they want to bring in additional impact players on defense, they may have to cut some well-known stalwarts of the last few seasons. Besides Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and Jonathan Vilma, who will be one of the Saints’ key targets to retain, it is difficult to pinpoint any one defensive starter whose job could be deemed truly “safe.” But one key is that with Williams’ arrival, better players will want to play in New Orleans (witness the arrival of Drew Brees coinciding with the arrival of Sean Payton, without the latter perhaps the former would never have signed). In addition, the draft appears to provide minimum latitude this year because the Saints, due to the Vilma and Jeremy Shockey trades, only have four picks (a first—14th overall—third, fourth and seventh). The most glaring needs appear to be cornerback, safety and pass rushing specialists, whether they be linemen or linebackers. Thus, Tracy Porter (last year’s second-round pick) could be paired with a first-round cornerback in this year’s draft to create an effective future cover tandem, and perhaps Bobby McCray and DeMario Pressley (last year’s injured fifth-round pick) could likewise turn into a fearsome speed rush combination. Several high-quality safeties will be available on the free agent market this year, so there are possibilities for far more success in 2009 if exactly the right personnel moves are made. In bringing the defensive guru Williams on board, it appears that the Saints may finally be in a position to accomplish great things with a defensive version of Sean Payton, someone with a highly aggressive mentality who can also coach up personnel. If that happens, maybe the Saints’ faithful can finally begin to talk about change they can believe in.