METAIRIE — The number of big plays yielded by the New Orleans Saints under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams were plentiful in 2011, to say the very least.
Opponents gashed the Saints for 50 plays of at least 10 running yards and 49 plays of at least 20 passing yards. That does not include another 11 “big’’ passing plays in two playoff games — the most by any team in the postseason, according to NFL.com.
Of those 60 “big’’ passing plays last season, the Saints yielded an NFL-high 17 of at least 40 yards, or nearly one in every three.
“Defensively, we gave up more ‘big plays’ last year than we ever have,’’ Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt said at the conclusion of his team’s Organized Team Activity on Thursday. “We have to get that number on defense down to about 75. Just a little bit more zone defense and not selling the farm is going to give you an opportunity to keep those big (plays) off your back.”
That responsibility — reducing the number of big plays by one-fourth — now belongs to first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who’s using this offseason to plant the seeds of change.
Spagnuolo said he is confident that his 4-3 defensive unit eventually will reap what he sows. But it will take time, the right players and proper schooling to grow his plan.
Three OTAs do not an offseason make.
“I don’t know if I have the personnel part of it figured out quite yet, to be honest with you,’’ Spagnuolo said. “I enjoy these OTAs, but, from a defensive standpoint, it is not real football until you put pads on.
“To assess all of the abilities that we have and what direction we will take, it’s going to take a little while. It is going to take a little while here before, as a staff, we figure out what direction we are going to go. We are going to need some games, some preseason games, some football contact out here during practice, and then, hopefully, we can come up with something that fits best for our guys.”
That said, Spagnuolo has a clear vision of what the finished product should look like.
The defense will be multiple. And to be multiple, he said, a defense needs smart players.
“I think that offenses have gotten so far advanced and quarterbacks have gotten so intelligent about getting their side of the ball in and out of things to put them in the best play, that, on defense, you have to be a step ahead of that,’’ Spagnuolo said.
Based on Spagnuolo’s modus operandi at previous NFL stops with the Giants, Eagles and Rams, it appears the finished product will sport a different look than what Saints fans have witnessed the past three seasons under Williams.
Williams’ defense relied heavily on gadget rush and pass coverage schemes that came from all positions on the field. Sometimes his treachery worked, sometimes it didn’t.
In the Super Bowl XLIV season of 2009, it worked. In 2010 and ’11, it didn’t.
Under Spagnuolo, the Saints will ultilize a more conventional four-man pass rush from down linemen, leaving the back seven players to work against the run and pass.
“I think there’s a big difference than what we’re used to with Gregg Williams’ defense,’’ said Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who, along with strong safety Roman Harper, combined for zero interceptions in 2011. “I don’t think there are many defenses like his.
“Last year, we played a lot of man-to-man and a lot of matchup. This year we’ll still be playing some matchups, but there will be a lot of zone schemes with zone pressures and things like that. It definitely takes a lot of pressure off our corners and there’s a lot less stress on our back-end guys. Me and Roman have to have our eyes on the quarterback and also play left-right so we can be both in the box and in the backfield. Hopefully, that will result in us making some more plays on the ball.”
Like Williams, Spagnuolo, too, will give a lot of responsibility to the middle linebacker, a position that currently is in flux because of the uncertainty surrounding Jonathan Vilma.
Not only is Vilma recovering from offseason knee surgery, but he is appealing a season-long suspension to the league office for his role in the bounty scandal. In addition, he has filed a defamation suit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Veteran free-agent signee Curtis Lofton, a leading man in the Atlanta Falcons’ defense the past few seasons, is working at middle linebacker in Vilma’s absence.
The Falcons passed on an opportunity to re-sign Lofton, an every-down linebacker who suddenly was being discounted in free agency by his former employer and other potential suitors.
“When you are a free agent, every weakness you have they are going to look at,’’ Lofton said. “If you look at my time in Atlanta, my first year, I was a first- and second-down linebacker. My second year, I played more than 95 percent of the snaps. The past two years, I played 99 percent of the snaps. I guess if you play 99 percent of the snaps, you couldn’t say that I was a first- and second-down linebacker.’’
So why the knock?
“As much as you don’t want it, it plays in the money,’’ Lofton said. “That’s what it comes down to. Every team has their makeup of what they think a player can do and what they think he can’t do. A lot of teams may have said that. A lot of teams didn’t. It is on me to prove those guys wrong. I do have that chip on my shoulder. Every day I am going to go out and get better and work on my weaknesses.”
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