Compared to its beleaguered 2007 counterparts, New Orleans on defense this season should be faster, more athletic, deeper, with a greatly enhanced pass rush and much less propensity to give up the big play in the secondary. At least that's the idea. It's a little early for regular-season pronouncements, but from what I've seen so far the Saints defense is my easy pick to be the most improved unit in the NFL in '08.
Of course, that's partly because there's plenty to improve upon. New Orleans' defense rightly received most of the blame last season for the Saints -- a popular preseason NFC Super Bowl favorite -- slipping back to 7-9, despite a high-scoring offense that ranked fourth overall and third in passing. The shorthand in 2007 said with quarterback Drew Brees topping 4,000 yards passing for a second year in a row, it was largely the 26th-ranked defense's inability to pull its weight that sentenced the rollercoaster-riding Saints to a losing record and all those unmet expectations.
All of which made the focus of New Orleans's offseason crystal clear: Fix the defense, at least enough to the point where it allows the offense to provide the difference between winning and losing in an unpredictable NFC South that has never featured a repeat champion in its six seasons of existence.
Or as new Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma put it to me one day recently in the team's training camp cafeteria at Millsaps College, speaking on behalf of the team's re-tooled defense: "We don't want to be the reason the Saints are losing 45-34.''
I'd be shocked if that's the fate of this year's Saints defense, with New Orleans making a conscious effort to jack up its pass rush. The belief is that will cure many of the ills that plagued its shoddy, 30th-ranked pass defense, which surrendered 245.3 yards per game last season, 32 touchdown passes and a whopping 54 completions of 20-plus yards.
"You have to get to the passer in this league,'' said Saints head coach Sean Payton, who admits he became convinced of what his team needed to do while watching the Giants defensive line overwhelm the Patriots' pass protection in the Super Bowl. "You just have to. If you can affect the passer, first off your secondary gets better. And that's important. When we looked at the offseason and talked about where we needed to improve, we knew there were some pieces missing on defense.''
The Saints believe they acquired one of those pieces in free agency, luring defensive end Bobby McCray -- an underrated and athletic third-down rush specialist who posted a 10-sack season as recently as 2006 -- from Jacksonville. They got another in the draft, when they aggressively traded up from No. 10 to New England's No. 7 spot to out-maneuver No. 9 Cincinnati for Southern Cal's play-making defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
The two moves give the Saints the potential to emulate the Giants' versatile and pass-rush-rich defensive line that everybody in the league suddenly envies. In its all-important nickel package, New Orleans now plans to have the speedy and lean McCray creating pressure off the edge from the left side, with starting left end Charles Grant shifting inside to tackle on passing downs. Next to him inside will be Ellis, whose pocket-collapsing skills at USC made him much more than a run-stuffing tackle, while the team's premier pass rusher, 2006 Pro Bowl pick Will Smith, will stay on the field at all times at right end.
Rotating in at tackle in order to keep both Grant and Ellis fresh will be veterans Brian Young, Kendrick Clancy and Hollis Thomas, giving the Saints more depth and more options in an effort to make their pass rush a four-quarter-long race to the quarterback (although Thomas this week underwent surgery for a right triceps injury and could be lost for up to two months). Again, the game-changing heat that the Giants brought last season, with their seemingly endless supply of pass rushers, was the model for the Saints, who finished with just 32 sacks last season (ranking 19th overall).
"Since I got here [in 2004], we've never had this much depth,'' said Smith, who led the Saints with just seven sacks last season. "The Giants may not have started this trend, but they kind of perfected it. They showed everybody last year in the Super Bowl that the defensive line can win the game itself. We watched that game several times, and we know how a defensive line can control the tempo of a game.
"That was one of our major focuses this year, and the guys we've got now are making a big difference, giving us that nickel rush that we've always wanted. We're really deep, and I think we're going to surprise a lot of people. The defense is faster, and we're running and flying around better than we ever have in the past. We're going to be a much better team.''
The defensive line's new commitment to the pass rush has been noticeable in training camp, even making life a little less comfortable for Brees, the Saints Pro Bowl quarterback. During the team's intrasquad scrimmage two weeks ago, Brees was personally introduced to Ellis and several other Saints pass rushers, clearly more than he would have liked.
"[The defense] has gotten after us a little bit here in this camp,'' Payton said. "To the point where we've had to step it up a little bit in order to protect the passer and do a better job offensively.''
Added Brees: "The defense looks great. We get to see them every day and it certainly looks like they kind of have a chip on their shoulder, because they took a lot of criticism last year. But there's lots of good depth and good competition on that side of the ball this year.''
But the upgrade on defense didn't stop with just New Orleans' additions up front. During Senior Bowl week, well-respected defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was hired away from the clutches of Jerry Jones and the Cowboys, who also wanted him for an opening on Wade Phillips' staff. The intense and hard-driving ex-Ole Miss head coach once led the D-lines at both USC and the University of Miami, and him having recruited Ellis on behalf of the Trojans was one big reason New Orleans moved up in the top 10 to draft him.
At linebacker, the Saints traded a fourth-round pick to the Jets for Vilma, whom New York felt was miscast on the inside in its 3-4 defense. In New Orleans, Vilma is back at middle linebacker in the Saints' 4-3, the position he thrived in during his first two years in New York. He's coming off last year's ACL surgery, but with returning health he's expected to give the Saints an intelligent and proven play-making presence in a role held capably but unspectacularly last season by Mark Simoneau.
"I definitely think if everything comes together we could be the most improved unit in the NFL,'' Vilma said. "These guys are beyond the point mentally where they're saying, 'OK, if we just don't give up X amount of points, we'll give our offense a chance to win the game.' It's more a situation where we feel we can dominate. Physically you can see we've got it. From up front, to the back seven. If we put the work in, we can really become a dominant defense, instead of worrying about just holding our own.''
In the secondary, the Saints signed cornerback Randall Gay away from New England in free agency, and drafted Indiana cornerback Tracy Porter in the second round. Gay is a solid and versatile veteran with plenty of big-game experience as both a starter or a nickelback, and Saints coaches say he has been better than even advertised thus far. New Orleans is also counting on a better second season from 2007 free-agent addition, cornerback Jason David, and a return to form by No. 1 cornerback, Mike McKenzie.
Without a doubt, there are a lot of ifs involved in the Saints defense taking a quantum leap this season. But New Orleans is undoubtedly more talented on that side of the ball, and coordinator Gary Gibbs has more options than ever at his disposal. That's a start.
"We're going to create pressure this year, and that's going to help the back end of our defense so much,'' said outside linebacker Scott Fujita. "It's not a wholesale change on defense. They just tinkered with some things, and in this copycat league, we're going to try and emulate what the Giants did last year. Now we've got a few things in the pressure game to hang our hats on.''
The bottom line is whether the Saints did enough to ensure their defense holds up its end of the bargain in relation to their high-octane offense? It didn't happen last year. But in three weeks or so, we'll start finding out about 2008.
"I know we accomplished what we set out to do in terms of getting the talent level improved,'' Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "How that integrates, and how the guys mesh, and how guys play, who knows? There are a lot of things that need to happen. But we've got some tools that we didn't have a year ago. Now we've got to perform.''