METAIRIE, La. -- The rehabilitation and remaking of a New Orleans defense that was historically generous last season includes more than just the injection of confidence and aggressiveness supplied by new Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Creative coaching can cover up plenty of holes in the NFL, but ultimately the playing talent determines the trophy chase.
So while Ryan's arrival in the Big Easy has been front and center, during my visit to Saints camp I couldn't help but notice New Orleans is much better in the back. A secondary that got routinely torched last season looks ready for a rebound, and the resurgence is built around the underrated free-agent signing of ex-Steelers cornerback Kennan Lewis and the drafting of hyper-energetic University of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.
Lewis is a New Orleans native whose life-long dream has been to suit up for the hometown Saints. His challenge is to help them erase the memories of last year's nightmare, when the Steve Spagnuolo-coordinated defense surrendered more yards (7,042) than any team in NFL history, 4,681 of them through the air (292.6 per game). The Saints ranked 31st in pass defense in 2012, were tied for second worst in touchdown passes allowed (31), tied for last in yards per pass attempt (8.1) and fifth worst in quarterback rating (93.8). In New Orleans last year, they said thank goodness for Tampa Bay, because only the Bucs' beleaguered secondary back-pedaled more.
Ryan, in that understated way that is his family's trademark, has fallen head over heels for his new cornerback, labeling him this year's "best free agent out there on defense,'' and admitting "I had no idea he was this good.''
Do tell, Rob: "Have you seen him?'' Ryan asked, after I had just watched a scorching 90-minute Saints intra-squad scrimmage last Saturday morning. "He doesn't give up completions. I knew he looked great on tape, and had played in that great system in Pittsburgh for Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau, but hell, he's a great get for us. He's long, he's smart, he's tough, he has an unbelievable work ethic and he's a hometown hero. Everything about this guy is great.''
And the news for Saints fans gets better when you consider Lewis isn't even the addition to the Saints' secondary that has generated the biggest buzz this preseason. That would be Vaccaro, whose physical style of play and general state of feistiness has impressed -- and at times irritated -- his teammates on the Saints' high-flying offense, not to mention inspired several practice-field skirmishes. Vaccaro has brought a Cortland Finnegan-like competitiveness to the secondary, and his fly-around playing style fits perfectly with the lean-forward, attacking brand of 3-4 defense Ryan is preaching in New Orleans.
As an early-camp dust-up with Saints star tight end Jimmy Graham illustrated, Vaccaro is not afraid to tangle with anyone, even defiantly tossing the ball off Graham's helmet after the two landed on the ground with a simultaneous catch. Moxie? Check. And in no short supply.
The Saints probably can't wait to turn him loose on the rest of the NFL, because he's done enough damage to his own teammates, throwing running back Travaris Cadet to the ground by his shoulder pads in one practice, laying out running back Pierre Thomas in a non-tackling 11-on-11 drill and, in Saturday's scrimmage, tackling No. 3 receiver Joe Morgan from behind on the play that resulted in Morgan's season-ending ACL injury. (Morgan and other Saints absolved Vaccaro of all blame for the knee injury, calling it a routine hit.)
But Vaccaro undeniably has been in the middle of a lot of contact so far this summer in Saints camp, and the New Orleans' defense doesn't get its first chance to punish an opponent until it opens the preseason Friday night at home against Kansas City. Somebody really should warn the Chiefs about Vacarro's full-throttle style, because I don't think he really distinguishes between August and the games that really count.
"I nicknamed him ... Tasmanian Devil,'' said Lewis, of Vaccaro, the 15th overall pick in April's draft. "That guy just flies around and chews things up. So that's his new nickname from now on. I want everybody to start calling him Tasmanian Devil. And we don't want him toning it down. I need him flying around like that all the time.
"He reminds me of a guy by the name of Troy Polamalu, a guy who just goes off his instincts and plays ball. Every day at practice he amazes me how he's picking up the defenses and going out there and giving it everything he's got. Honestly, if they didn't remind me, I wouldn't even think he's a rookie any more.''
Always seeking to set an aggressive tone with his defensive play-calling, Ryan loves to feature press or man coverage in his 3-4 formation. Lewis is 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, with long arms and a physical style of play. Taking a page from his brother Rex's old Jets playbook, look for Rob Ryan to ask Lewis to match up 1-on-1 against the best receivers in the NFC South, no small feat when you consider the skill sets of Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones, Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Carolina's Steve Smith.
Vaccaro, a tightly wrapped 6-0, 214 pounds, isn't expected to beat out veteran Roman Harper for the starting strong safety job. But Ryan has already begun using him like a wildcard in his defensive deck, lining him up in a variety of roles, including as a slot defender. He may not start, but don't worry, he'll play plenty and announce his presence rather dramatically and forcefully this season.
"I tell you, he's beautiful,'' Ryan said of his rookie safety. "He's too tough for Rob Ryan, I know that. We love him. He's not intimidated by anyone, and I know the fans in New Orleans are going to absolutely love Vaccaro. He's smart and tough, just like Rodney Harrison, who we had in New England. This guy is cut from the same cloth.''
With Lewis and Vaccaro to build around, the Saints' secondary has a chance to get some of its swagger back after a humbling season that saw its confidence dwindle as the toll of New Orleans' suspension-marred 2012 mounted. Lewis will start opposite Saints veteran cornerback Jabari Greer, while safeties Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and fellow newcomer Jim Leonhard join Vacarro to upgrade both the tackling and coverage in the defensive backfield.
Lewis is the centerpiece of the new-look Saints' secondary, having signed a five-year, $26.3 million deal with New Orleans early in free agency. Last year, in just his first season as a starter for Pittsburgh, Lewis finished second in the league in pass break-ups, with 23, one fewer than chatty Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. The Steelers, who ranked first in pass defense and total yards allowed last year, wanted to re-sign Lewis, but salary cap issues restricted their ability to compete in his market. Not that it would have really mattered once his beloved Saints called.
"When coach [Sean] Payton called me and presented me with the opportunity to play for my hometown team, I canceled all my other visits and told everybody I was going to be a New Orleans Saint,'' Lewis said. "I had success in Pittsburgh and they wanted to get a deal done with me, but I'm proud to be here. I couldn't wait to get to work with the Saints, and I couldn't ask for anything more than this.''
Ditto for the improved Saints' defense, which surrendered ground in historic fashion last season. With Lewis and Vaccaro providing play-making and newfound strength in the secondary, and Ryan on hand to call the shots, the New Orleans' defense looks primed to move forward after last year's retreat.