STOPPING THE RUN: Addition of Demario Davis and the Return of Alex Anzalone Can Allow Mike Nolan to Finish His "Makeover" of the Saints Linebacker Corps
In popular American culture, the term "makeover" is defined as a radical change in appearance. When the word is used to describe a change in human physical appearance, it may imply a change in clothing, haircut, or cosmetics. But for the New Orleans Saints in the past year and a half, the term is an appropriate one to use while describing the on-going task by linebackers coach Mike Nolan to improve the overall performance of the team's linebacker corps.
Nolan replaced Joe Vitt, who was one of five assistant coaches that the Saints dismissed shortly after the end of the 2016 season, in early January of last year.
The steady-handed guidance and influence of Nolan last year in his first season on the job overseeing this vitally important position group for the Saints defense, was clearly evident — and it was a big reason why New Orleans improved their win total by 4 games (7-9 in 2016 to 11-5 last year) and also jumped all the way up from 31st overall in scoring defense in 2016, to #10 overall in 2017 (an improvement of 21 spots).
Prior to Nolan's arrival, the Saints linebacker corps was considered to be one of the team's biggest weaknesses; and their notable struggles particularly in defending against the run, were considered to be a huge factor in the franchise's 3-year consecutive streak of (7-9) finishes which saw the defense's overall ranking consistently remain at the very bottom of the NFL.
But Nolan in one season's time corrected a lot of the issues that had plagued the unit before his arrival, and not surprisingly; given that Nolan has been in coaching in one way, shape, or form of another dating all the way back to the 1981 NFL season; and has an ample amount of experience (37 years worth) as an NFL defensive coordinator as well as a stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08.
Nolan is considered by some to be a defensive "guru", because of his vast knowledge and experience as well as his flexibility to implement either of the sport's two basic defensive alignments, the 3-4 and the 4-3.
And since Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen incorporates elements of both into his defensive scheme for New Orleans, the hiring of former Saints head coach Dick Nolan's son was a perfect fit for both himself and the team's linebacker corps.
One of the things that aided Nolan in his first year on the job undoubtedly was the the versatility of the group.
Nearly EVERY single player can line up at multiple positions, with recently-signed free agent veteran Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson, and Alex Anzalone all able to play ALL 3 of the spots at Middle LB ("Mike"), Strongside LB ("Sam") and Weakside LB ("Will").
That versatility came in handy, when both Anzalone and Klein were lost for the remainder of the year; and Robertson and Mantai Te'o pressed into action in their absence.
But thanks to those injuries and some inconsistent play (more on that coming up in a minute) by a few veterans at the position, Nolan's job was then — and remains now — far from complete.
Which is exactly why the team chose to sign Davis, the former New York Jets linebacker whom Saints brass targeted immediately in the first wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency a few short months ago.
Davis played at the "Mike" / middle LB spot for the Jets in 2017 and had a phenomenal season, as he recorded 135 combined tackles and 97 solo tackles, both career highs. He also had 3 passes defended, 5 sacks., 13 TFL's (tackles for loss), 15 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery.
But additionally what he brings is a player with the versatility to play multiple roles (he can play at the "Sam" / strongside spot as well, and played the "Will" / weakside in college at Arkansas State) and perhaps most importantly: a linebacker who can play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
More specifically, his capability to stop the run is one of the main reasons WHY the team gave him a three year, $24 million deal ($18 million guaranteed).
In his brilliant film study and analysis for his Saints-themed You Tube channel (click HERE to subscribe), Canal Street Chronicles football / film analyst Walter "Deuce" Windham observes that in spite of the Saints linebacker corps' notable improvement last season from their previous struggles of recent seasons past, they still had issues at times with stopping the running game of their opponents.
Windham points out in particular a play that many Saints fans likely will recall from a game last season at the Superdome in Week #8 against the Chicago Bears, in which the defense yielded a 50-yard run by RB Jordan Howard midway through the 3rd Quarter (the Saints eventually won the game by a score of 20-12).
On the play itself, it's Craig Robertson whom Windham points out was the one to blame for the Bears' big play, thanks mostly in part to his flawed technique as the weakside / "Will" linebacker who has the responsibility of effectively "shooting the gap" and making the stop. (Click PLAY on this video right below).
But Robertson is taken out by Bears left guard Kyle Long, who was pulling on the play and who also was the player that Robertson had to engage one-on-one and beat, to make the play.
As Windham clearly illustrates using his telestrator, Robertson fails not only to stop the play from happening, but takes a dive at Long's feet like a heat-seeking missile instead of simply trying to lock up physically with Long and disrupting the play from happening.
In other words, Robertson's poor technique on that particular play is a prime example of why Nolan's task of giving the LB corps its much-needed "makeover", isn't fully complete yet.
But adding a player such as Davis now should allow him the opportunity (hopefully) to finish the task that began in earnest with the firing of Joe Vitt last January, nearly a year and a half ago.
Now in all fairness to Robertson, it's important to note that the 30-year old and now 8th year veteran shouldn't have even been starting as the weakside / "Will" LB in that same game against the Bears at the Superdome, since it was then-rookie Alex Anzalone's role originally to begin the season.
But Anzalone was lost for the season last year after sustaining a severe right shoulder injury during the first quarter of the Week #5 contest against the Miami Dolphins on October 1st, in London, England.
And while Anzalone's starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker was filled very capably by Robertson, one can only imagine what the difference would have been if the younger and presumably more-talented Anzalone could have remained on the field.
Now with the addition of Davis and the return of Anzalone, it's very likely that the Saints LB corps will be as improved as its ever been.
In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the franchise’s only Super Bowl-winning season of 2009 when Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle comprised the starting unit, to find a better (and deeper) group of players that will man the position going forward in 2018.
You'd say that out of all of the linebackers within the position group, Davis and Anzalone are the two most athletically-gifted and fastest speed-wise; and it's the reason why both were the two linebackers that Allen and Nolan chose specifically to utilize in the team's nickel base defense (only 2 LB's, since the 3rd is replaced by a defensive back) at last week's opening period of OTA's.