JACKSON, Miss. -- Of all the remodeling jobs an NFL offseason invariably brings to rosters around the league, I think I like the extensive -- but not necessarily expensive -- work done on the Saints defense best of all.
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
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
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
The Saints believe they acquired one of those pieces in free agency, luring defensive end
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
Rotating in at tackle in order to keep both Grant and Ellis fresh will be veterans
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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