Thursday April 30th, 2009

Now on his fourth assignment as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, Gregg Williams has something at his disposal that he's never had before: A top-ranked offense with which to share a locker room. The Saints last season finished first in scoring, total yards and passing yards, making it rather obvious where the improvement must come if New Orleans is to break out of its 15-17 non-playoff funk of the past two years.

That's where Williams comes in. His task is to get a Saints defense that ranked 26th in points and 23rd in total yards last season to remotely hold up its end of the bargain. With the Saints' wealth of talent on offense, if he can coax any significant step forward out of the defense, you have to like New Orleans' chances to end its underachieving ways and return to the ranks of legitimate NFC Super Bowl contenders -- as it was during its magical post-Katrina season of 2006.

"Since I've been either a coordinator or a head coach in this league, this is the most explosive offense I've ever been around, by far,'' Williams told me Wednesday afternoon, from his office at the Saints team complex. "It's a good situation to be in. We've got a nucleus of talent on defense, and with all the injuries they had last season, I think they've played much better defense here than most people give them credit for. But I think we've got a chance to be even better than that.''

Entering his fourth season as the Saints' head coach, Sean Payton hired Williams to replace his friend and former defensive coordinator, Gary Gibbs, in January because he knows the time to win is now. Though Payton and Williams have never worked together, and knew each other only through competing against one another within the league, Payton coveted Williams for his reputation of instilling his defenses with a sense of intensity and aggressiveness, and being able to generate consistent pass rush in a variety of ways. The Saints' Achilles heel the past two seasons has been a lack of pressure on the passer, which has led to repeated big-play breakdowns in pass coverage.

"I just thought we needed a change in leadership, to be honest with you,'' said Payton, who enticed Williams to New Orleans after he had spent one lost season as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. "I just thought it was time for a change. In our industry, it's the head coach, the quarterback and the two coordinators who can affect real change, right?

"We needed something. Obviously Gregg's not afraid to pressure, with either zone pressure or man pressure. But some of the tougher looks we've gotten from him over the years were just coverage looks, with four-man rushes.''

Change and new looks are everywhere on the NFL coaching landscape this year. By my count, there are 28 new coordinators in the league this season, with 23 of the NFL's 32 teams losing at least one coordinator since the start of the 2008 season. That's a remarkable amount of turnover in a short span, and it has resulted in more ongoing makeover projects on more offenses and defenses than any time in recent memory.

And I'm not sure any of those new coordinators are sitting on a bigger potential gold mine than Williams is in New Orleans, where six of the Saints' eight losses last season were by a combined 18 points. New Orleans has the AFC East and NFC East on its schedule this season, so nothing's going to come easily, but if Williams' defense can finally stay healthy, I like his chances to emerge as a real difference-maker among the league's new coordinators in 2009.

"There is talent here,'' Williams said. "I had [defensive tackle] Sedrick Ellis rated a notch ahead of Glenn Dorsey in last year's draft, because he's got a little bit more movement skills and you can get a little more pass rush out of him. He can be a dominate three-technique tackle in this league. And I think [ends] Charles Grant and Will Smith are really diamonds in the rough if we can keep them healthy. We have to get more out of our defensive ends, that's clear.

"But I like [middle linebacker] Jonathan Vilma a lot and always have. I'm about to put him in touch with [Redskins middle linebacker] London Fletcher so he can hear how things can be in my system. And our other linebackers, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, they remind me in how they play of two guys I had in Washington, Marcus Washington and Rocky McIntosh.''

Williams has added the services of first-round cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and fourth-round safety Chip Vaughn to the Saints beleaguered secondary, where veteran safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Jabari Greer have been signed to lend experience, and holdovers Randall Gay, Tracy Porter and Roman Harper return.

The new bodies are welcomed, but Williams' MO is to help set a new, feisty tone on defense wherever he has gone. "I specialize in flipping the culture and getting guys to play with urgency and intensity, but I really don't have to do that here,'' he said. "Because there's already a good culture and these guys do play with intensity. We've just got to keep people in front of us, and make sure [offenses] don't go over our heads for a bunch of yards all at once. We need to limit that.''

Easier said than done, of course. But everybody at this time of year has a plan for improvement, at least on paper. Here are capsule looks at 10 other new NFL coordinators who will start this season in the spotlight:

1. Bill Sheridan, Giants defensive coordinator -- Don't know much about Sheridan? Once upon a time we could have said the same thing about ex-Giants defensive coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and John Fox, and they're both NFL head coaches these days. Given the recent success of the Giants defense, don't expect him to try to re-invent the wheel in New York. But Sheridan, the Giants' linebackers coach the past four years, will differ from his predecessor, Spagnuolo, in one key respect: He'll call his defensive plays from the coaching booth, rather than the sidelines. Whatever works.

2. Scott Linehan, Lions offensive coordinator -- His 36-game tenure (11-25) as the Rams head coach ended disastrously last season, but there's a reason Linehan was sought after as an offensive coordinator by multiple teams this offseason: His work as an OC in Minnesota and Miami was pretty solid. He's a cerebral, thinking-man's coach, and that's a nice fit with new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, who shares those traits. Linehan's biggest project is obvious. He gets to mold the early development of Detroit's No. 1 overall pick, quarterback Matthew Stafford.

3. Jim Bates, Bucs defensive coordinator -- The last time the Bucs featured a new defensive coordinator, they were still wearing those Creamsicle-colored uniforms and trying to snap a 13-year streak of losing seasons. But Monte Kiffin is indeed gone to the University of Tennessee after 13 years in Tampa Bay, and the task of remaking the Bucs defense falls to Bates, another savvy old hand when it comes to NFL coordinating. We won't notice a big difference, but Bates favors a 4-3 defense that features linemen with a bit more girth than Kiffin's lighter, faster models, and cornerbacks who are asked to play tons of bump-and-run coverage.

4. Jimmy Raye, 49ers offensive coordinator -- What a launching pad this job has been, but not necessarily in the way you might think. Raye is San Francisco's seventh offensive coordinator in seven seasons, and there's some symmetry there because 49ers head coach Mike Singletary interviewed seven other OC candidates before hiring the 62-year-old Raye. (Notice how the head coaches are getting younger and the coordinators are getting older?) Raye is old-school all right, and that's what Singletary was looking for, because he wants to build the 49ers offense around an emphasis on the running game. We'll see how that flies in the throw-happy NFL.

5. Dom Capers, Packers defensive coordinator -- After canning defensive coordinator Bob Sanders following the Packers' disappointing 6-10 finish last season, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy tried to interest both Mike Nolan and Gregg Williams in the job before settling on Capers, one of the most experienced and successful defensive coordinators in recent NFL history. Capers is switching Green Bay to his favored 3-4 formation, and thanks to a draft that brought two key pieces in nose tackle B.J. Raji and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the Packers might be the rare team that makes the full transition in the span of just one season.

6. Greg Knapp, Seahawks offensive coordinator -- Having been paroled from Oakland, Knapp has been reunited with new Seattle head coach Jim Mora for a third time. He served as a coordinator on the same staff with him in San Francisco, and under him as OC in Atlanta. His charge is to return Seattle to the ranks of a top-tier offense, after a near-Biblical plague of injuries wiped out the Seahawks receivers and quarterbacks in 2008. Having a healthy Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback and free-agent receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh on hand represents a big step toward reaching that goal.

7. Mike Nolan, Broncos defensive coordinator -- The Broncos are joining the wave of teams switching to the 3-4 defense, and the ex-49ers head coach was hired by Josh McDaniels to oversee that part of Denver's rebuilding project. Most clear-eyed assessments of the Broncos' progress on that front see a transition that is likely to take at least one more draft. In some ways, Nolan has among the easiest of all jobs in the crop of new defensive coordinators, because there's nowhere to go but up for Denver's defense, which ranked 30th in points (28.0) and 29th in total yards (374.6) last season.

8. Ron Meeks, Panthers defensive coordinator -- Meeks is yet another veteran DC who was on the move this offseason despite having a pretty long track record of success in the league. He spent the past seven seasons running the Colts defense, and while that unit was never the strength of the perennial playoff participant, that's not an insult either. Meeks takes over for Mike Trgovac, who left for Green Bay despite being offered a contract extension. But why was Trgovac asked to stay? The Panthers allowed 30 points or more in six of their last seven games, including that meltdown of a 33-13 loss to Arizona at home in the playoffs.

9. Frank Bush, Texans defensive coordinator -- Houston head coach Gary Kubiak pulled the plug on Texas defensive coordinator Richard Smith after three underachieving seasons and elevated the little-known Bush from senior defensive assistant to DC. Bush promises to feature a more attacking style of play in Houston's 4-3 front, but given the wealth of defensive talent the Texans have drafted in recent years, it's put-up or shut-up time. Linebacker Brian Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin now join end Mario Williams, tackle Amobi Okoye, linebacker DeMeco Ryans and cornerback Dunta Robinson.

10. Clancy Pendergast, Chiefs defensive coordinator -- It's not often that a coordinator helps lead his team to the Super Bowl and gets canned for his trouble, but that was the roller-coaster ride Pendergast went on last season in Arizona. He resurfaced in Kansas City, where his fellow Cardinals coordinator, Todd Haley, was hired as head coach. The Chiefs too are giving in to the 3-4 defensive craze, and he's at least got some bookends to work with in defensive ends Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson, first-round picks in 2008 and '09. Combined with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers, who both started as rookies last year, there's a decent nucleus to work with.

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