1 New Orleans SAINTS

A Lombardi Trophy doesn't mean there's no room to improve, especially on D
September 05, 2010

STATS CAN be deceiving, and the Saints are quick to point out that the numbers misrepresented their defense during last year's Super Bowl run. The unit rated among the NFL's most opportunistic—New Orleans finished second in takeaways (39) and tied for first in points scored off turnovers (141). But overall it was below average (the Saints allowed 357.8 yards per game, eighth-worst in the league) and particularly dreadful against the run, with an average of 122.2 yards allowed per game (21st in the NFL).

What the numbers don't immediately show is just how much the Saints' high-powered offense was responsible for all of this. Last year Drew Brees & Co. often surged to commanding leads before halftime, forcing opponents into furious games of catch-up. While the Saints were effective in keeping teams out of the red zone, they surrendered a lot of yards in between the 20s. Most of those big plays came on the ground. "A lot of times when we would drop into zone-deep coverage to protect leads, teams would run draw plays on us, which would get them 20 yards or more," says Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith, who anchored a line that gave up 11 such plays in '09. "At the end of the game it would look like they had a lot of running yards when really they only had one or two big plays."

This year the Saints have committed to shutting down the run altogether, a goal they believe can be partly achieved through better execution. "There were a lot of correctable technique things that showed up on film," says middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "Stuff like maintaining gap assignments and keeping gap integrity is what we're trying to correct."

What's more, the Saints now have the personnel to get the job done. Though they lost a devastating pass rusher in March when they released defensive end Charles Grant, they brought in two veteran free agents, ends Alex Brown (formerly of the Bears) and Jimmy Wilkerson (Buccaneers). The two are disciplined in run coverage and have the tackles to show for it: Brown had 48, Wilkerson 46 last year, which would have trailed only Smith's 49 for most on the Saints' line.

New Orleans also brings back a healthy Sedrick Ellis to reinforce the middle. When the 6'1", 305-pound defensive tackle missed six games last season with a right knee injury, the drop-off in the Saints' run defense was staggering. After holding four of their first 10 opponents below 100 yards rushing, the Saints gave up an average of 133 yards over their last six games. (It's no coincidence that after jumping out to a 10--0 start, New Orleans lost its final three.)

To protect themselves against another Ellis injury (the third-year vet has yet to play a full season), the Saints traded up in the draft to get 6'4", 307-pound LSU tackle Al Woods in the fourth round. But their ace in the hole may be sixth-year lineman Anthony Hargrove. An end by trade, the 6'3" 272-pounder was moved to tackle last season and thrived, with 42 tackles and five sacks while setting a personal best in fumble recoveries (three). Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams thinks Hargrove can have even better numbers now that he better understands his assignments in this defense. "He really didn't know how to play [defensive tackle] last year, but he played hard and tough," Williams says. "Now with a year under his belt and the whole off-season to develop, he's already playing much smarter and with better anticipation."

With a deep collection of big-but-quick bodies, the Saints have a defensive line that can limit gains on the ground and mount an effective pass rush. The revamped line gives Williams the flexibility to disrupt offenses without having to blitz as often as the Saints did last year, when they brought the house an astounding 208 times on first and second downs alone. "Knowing Gregg, we're not gonna do the exact same thing we did last year," says Smith, who promises that their unit's aggressive approach will remain unchanged. "We still want to put that fear of God in an offense and let them know that when they play against us, they're in for a long day."

PROJECTED STARTERS

WITH 2009 STATS

COACH SEAN PAYTON

OFFENSE

2009 RANK: 1

QB DREW BREES

G 15

ATT 514

COMP 363

PCT 70.6

YARDS 4,388

TD 34

INT 11

RATING 109.6

RB PIERRE THOMAS

G 14

ATT 147

YARDS 793

AVG 5.4

REC 39

YARDS 302

AVG 7.7

TTD 8

FB HEATH EVANS

G 6

ATT 5

YARDS 16

AVG 3.2

REC 10

YARDS 70

AVG 7.0

TTD 3

WR MARQUES COLSTON

G 16

REC 70

YARDS 1,074

TTD 9

WR DEVERY HENDERSON

G 16

REC 51

YARDS 804

TTD 2

TE JEREMY SHOCKEY

G 13

REC 48

YARDS 569

TTD 3

LT JERMON BUSHROD

G 15

HT 6'5"

WT 315

LG CARL NICKS

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 343

C JONATHAN GOODWIN

G 16

HT 6'3"

WT 318

RG JAHRI EVANS

G 16

HT 6'4"

WT 318

RT JONATHAN STINCHCOMB

G 16

HT 6'5"

WT 315

DEFENSE

2009 RANK: 25

DE ALEX BROWN

G 16

TACKLES 48

SACKS 6

INT 0

DT SEDRICK ELLIS

G 10

TACKLES 34

SACKS 2

INT 0

DT REMI AYODELE

G 15

TACKLES 30

SACKS 1½

INT 0

DE WILL SMITH

G 16

TACKLES 49

SACKS 13

INT 1

LB JONATHAN CASILLAS

G 11

TACKLES 20

SACKS 0

INT 0

LB JONATHAN VILMA

G 15

TACKLES 110

SACKS 2

INT 3

LB CLINT INGRAM

G 13

TACKLES 52

SACKS 1

INT 0

CB JABARI GREER

G 9

TACKLES 43

SACKS 0

INT 2

FS DARREN SHARPER

G 14

TACKLES 71

SACKS ½

INT 9

SS ROMAN HARPER

G 16

TACKLES 102

SACKS 1½

INT 0

CB TRACY PORTER

G 12

TACKLES 57

SACKS 0

INT 4

SPECIAL TEAMS

P THOMAS MORSTEAD

PUNTS 58

AVG 43.6

NET 36.0

K GARRETT HARTLEY

FG 9--11

XP 10--11

POINTS 37

PR REGGIE BUSH

RET 27

AVG 4.8

TD 0

KR COURTNEY ROBY

RET 42

AVG 27.5

TD 1

New acquisition

TTD: Total touchdowns

2010 SCHEDULE

2009 Record: 13--3

September

9 Minnesota (T)

20 at San Francisco (M)

26 Atlanta

October

3 Carolina

10 at Arizona

17 at Tampa Bay

24 Cleveland

31 Pittsburgh

November

7 at Carolina

14 BYE

21 Seattle

25 at Dallas (T)

December

5 at Cincinnati

12 St. Louis

19 at Baltimore

27 at Atlanta (M)

January

2 Tampa Bay

(M) Monday (T) Thursday

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL Rank: 27

Opponents' 2009 winning percentage: .469

Games against 2009 playoff teams: 5

ANALYSIS

The numbers say easy schedule, with only five playoff foes—but pitfalls abound. The Super Bowl champs open with the Vikings, who'll be out to prove they should have won the NFC title game. New Orleans has a short week to prepare for its Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas, and potential cold-weather games—problematic for the team in the past—loom at Cincinnati and Baltimore in December.

SPOTLIGHT

Tracy Porter, Cornerback

ONE OF the first things defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did when he arrived in New Orleans last season was go to work on Porter. As much as he liked the 5'11", 185-pound corner's physical skills, the coach thought Porter was too reserved for his aggressive scheme. To toughen him up, Williams harangued Porter over every mistake, no matter how small. That not only thickened Porter's skin but made him more conscientious—and it showed in the playoffs. After snagging just four of the Saints' 26 interceptions during the regular season, Porter had two of the team's four INTs in the NFC title game and the Super Bowl.

His pick-six to seal New Orleans's first NFL crown is a testament to his diligent film study of the Colts' China route, a staple of their three-wideout formations in which the receiver split the farthest wide motions underneath the slot receiver, who runs an in-cut for a short gain. The play appeared so often on film that "it became imbedded in my brain," says Porter, who compared preparing for the Super Bowl to studying for a final. When he finally saw the play live, he felt like a student who knew the answer after reading only half of a test question. "It was like, Here it is. It finally happened," says Porter, who jumped in front of Reggie Wayne on a China route late in the fourth quarter and returned the interception 74 yards for a score.

With another year in Williams's scheme, don't be surprised if this student of the game vaults to the head of the cornerback class in 2010.

PHOTOMICHAEL DEMOCKER/THE TIMES-PICAYUNE/LANDOVWHO DAT Wilkerson joins a rebuilt line intent on lessening its reliance on the blitz. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)