In The NFL it's era of the sack and of the forced fumble, the strangled quarterback and the slow, grinding running game. It's the era of ugly football, and the New Orleans Saints are its darlings. At half-time of their game with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Saints were up 7-3 and Rickey Jackson, their left outside linebacker, who came to the team as a rookie 10 years ago, just after the fans started wearing bags over their heads, told quarterback Steve Walsh. "Just get us 10 points and we'll win this thing."
Ten points would be enough to beat the Niners? At one time they would have scored that many getting off the bus. But times change, and San Francisco was down to its third quarterback. Steve Bono, who was getting his first nonstrike start because Steve Young had strained ligaments in his left knee against the Atlanta Falcons the previous week. Sunday's game was in the Superdome, with all that noise, and the Saints were riding high at 8-1 and challenging the Philadelphia Eagles for bragging rights to the best defense in the league.
So on his first possession of the second half, Walsh drove New Orleans to the Niner four, and Morten Andersen made a chip-shot field goal to give the Saints the 10-3 lead Jackson had asked for. Then the game came down to turnovers, a New Orleans specialty. It leads the league in turnovers forced (31), sacks (37), fewest third-down conversions allowed (24.6%) and other nasty statistics.
When the Niners reached the New Orleans 29 with 11:40 to play, right outside linebacker Pat Swilling, the NFL's sack leader with 13½, swooped in on Bono and flicked the ball loose, and inside linebacker Sam Mills recovered it. With four minutes left, San Francisco, shortening its pass routes—and Bono's drop—moved to the Saints 17. Running back Harry Sydney got the carry, but Jackson popped the ball free, strong safety Brett Maxie made the recovery, and the game was over.
Between them, Swilling and Jackson have forced eight fumbles and gotten 21½ sacks. Fifteen NFL teams don't have that many sacks, but splattering the quarterback isn't the whole story of this superb New Orleans defense. To get the sacks, you first have to stop the run and force the enemy into a passing mode, and the Saints are tops in the league in that department. And to make the quarterback take that extra look, you have to have effective coverage downfield, and the Saints have that, too. But sacks set the tone—they get teammates fired up, they bring the crowd into the game—and Swilling and Jackson form the best pass-rushing tandem in football.
Both are in the last year of their contracts, and both are having their best season. They feed off each other's success, and Jackson says that the race to the quarterback has become a kind of competition between them. "My weight is down this year, and my speed is up." says the 6'2", 243-pound Jackson. "It's what I focused on in the off-season. You can go for years being one of the best linebackers in the league, playing against the tight end, keeping from getting hooked inside—a Carl Banks kind of player—but when it's time for the Pro Bowl voting, all they look at is sacks. Pat was always a step faster than me, getting around the corner. I'd have a bead on the quarterback, but he'd get there first. The man was costing me sacks. So I worked on speeding it up."
With six regular-season games remaining, Jackson has eight sacks, more than he had in each of the last three seasons. He's primarily a power rusher, but now he is on a pace to exceed the career-high 12 sacks he racked up in 1984, one of his four Pro Bowl seasons. For Swilling, a 6'3", 242-pound two-time Pro Bowl player, all good things start with his 4.55 speed—"plus an inside power move that I've gone to this year, plus a spin," he says. "You could say that my arsenal is full."
How good are Swilling and Jackson? According to Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau, who faced them two years ago when the Colts needed a win to make the playoffs but got swamped 41-6, "They were just blowing me up on every third down. I thought I could exploit their secondary, but I never got a chance, because I never could protect myself. I was always getting out of this damn guy's way or that damn guy's way."
"They get back there and yell, 'Get used to it, because it's going to be like this all day,' " says Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "And they're right."
"It's even worse in the Dome, where your offensive tackle has trouble hearing," says Minnesota Viking line coach John Michels. "If he can't get off on the snap count, that's all those guys need. Half a step, and the pocket is gone."
If you try to work your way inside against the Saints defense, the going isn't any easier. Mills and Vaughan Johnson, the other inside linebacker, have each been to the Pro Bowl twice. "If all four of us don't make the Pro Bowl this year, it'll be a disgrace," says Swilling. Four linebackers in the Pro Bowl? It has never happened. The Steel Curtain Steelers had three—Jack Ham, Jack Lambert and Andy Russell in '76—but four? A case could be made.
The 5'9", 225-pound Mills, known as the Field Mouse, plays the strong side. Too small, they said, when he washed out in trials with the Cleveland Browns and the CFL Toronto Argonauts in 1981. A year later he was teaching shop and photography at East Orange (N.J.) High when the USFL beckoned. He waded through a mass of 110 hopefuls at a Philadelphia Stars tryout before he caught the eye of Stars coach Jim Mora. He hasn't been out of Mora's sight since. They won two USFL championships together. Then Mora took over in New Orleans in 1986, and he invited Mills to join him after the USFL expired seven months later.
An instinctive player blessed with wrestler's strength and leverage. Mills immediately became the defensive signal-caller. "Too short to get low on, and if you cut him, he gets right up and scrambles into the play," says 49er guard Guy McIntyre. "He's a real pain in the neck to play against, and he's so smart he puts other people in position to make plays."
The same year Mills arrived, Swilling joined the Saints as a third-round draft choice, and Johnson showed up from the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL. At 6'3", 235 pounds, Johnson is equally gifted as a downfield cover guy and as a big sticker at the point of attack. "They call him the Werewolf," says Green Bay Packer center Jim Campen. "You want to talk about a blood rush to the brain when he hits you...." With Jackson already in place—he had his Pro Bowl skins on the wall—the remarkable linebacking quartet was formed in '86. Before that year the Saints had never had a winning season. But in the six since then, New Orleans has had only one losing record, 7-9 in '86.
The pieces of the puzzle have continued to fall into place. Right end Frank Warren returned this season from a one-year drug suspension and became the anchor of the defensive line. The strongest lineman and the Saints' best penetrator, the 6'4", 290-pound Warren is having the finest of his 10 seasons with the team. For the first time New Orleans has the depth to do something the 49ers made a living doing during their Super Bowl era: rotate two complete three-man fronts to keep fresh legs for the fourth quarter.
The last piece to the defensive puzzle was the pass coverage. Maxie and Gene Atkins had been solid safety-men for years. Toi Cook, a converted free safety—"I used to beg them to let me try it at the corner," he says—started coming into his own as the right cornerback last year. But when the left corner, Robert Massey, was traded to the Phoenix Cardinals in the preseason, people wondered why. The answer was Vince Buck, a well-kept secret who had played nickelback as a rookie last season.
Going into the combine workouts before the 1990 draft, Buck, out of Central (Ohio) State, was rated as the second-best available cornerback, behind James Williams of Fresno State. But then he ran a series of 4.7 40s, while Williams was putting up a 4.29. "I was sick that day, nauseous," he says. "A scout told me to run anyway and get it over with. So I did. That advice cost me about $500,000."
The Saints wanted another look at him and sent a scout, Carmen Piccone, to Central State to work him out. Piccone clocked him in 4.51. Although Buck wasn't a burner, something was appealing about him—his size (6 feet, 198 pounds), his break to the ball when he was supposedly beaten. "When we had our draft meeting," says Mora, "Carmen stood up at the table and fought for him."
"I'd been in an auto accident two weeks before the draft," says Buck, "and I had a bruised chest and elbow, and a cut over my eye. Then I started hearing that people were saying I'd broken my leg. I didn't rate my chances too highly at that point."
Still, New Orleans took him in the second round, and now he's playing at All-Pro level. He was tested three times in man-to-man coverage against the Niners. The results were a three-yard completion to wideout John Taylor, a completion to wideout Jerry Rice for a one-yard loss and a pass to Rice that Buck knocked down.
All this adds up to a defensive unit that trails Philly's by 38 yards for the NFL lead in total defense. Coaches will tell you that yards allowed aren't as important as points allowed, and the Saints are No. 1 in the latter with 100. That's 53 fewer points than the Eagles have yielded. Privately, though, the players admit that as long as the league ranks defenses by yardage, they'll fight for every inch.
"When Robert Delpino of the Rams caught a 78-yarder against us," said Cook on Sunday, "I was figuring, 'Damn, that'll average out to almost nine yards a game.' Against the Niners today, when Gene Atkins got flagged for a 44-yard interference penalty, he said to me, 'I cost our defense all those yards.' I said, 'Cheer up, it doesn't count on the stats.' "
Another thing this defense has accomplished is to hide the shortcomings of the battered New Orleans offense, which accounted for only 191 yards on Sunday. Missing are starting quarterback Bobby Hebert (right rotator cuff), halfback Dalton Hilliard (foot, knee, hip—you name it), fullback Craig Heyward (foot), flanker Quinn Early (knee) and linemen Steve Trapilo (knee), Derek Kennard (torn pectoral) and Chris Port (shoulder).
For now, with a four-game lead in the NFC West, the Saints can afford to get by on whatever the defense can salvage for them. But come the playoff's, which will have lots of good defensive teams with offenses to match, New Orleans could be in trouble. In the meantime the Saints are enjoying their 9-1 success, their sacks and forced fumbles, and all the madness in the Dome. Ugly football looks just fine.