New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said upon his return to his coaching duties Wednesday that his team’s defensive play was the one thing that kept him up at night during his season-long suspension.
He admitted a lot of things need to be done to rebound from a 7-9 season that kept the Saints out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but a defense that allowed an NFL single-season record 7,042 yards was at the top of that list.
Payton took the first steps toward fixing that Thursday when he fired first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and secondary coach Ken Flajole.
In making the announcement, Payton said the Saints will switch from their familiar 4-3 defense they have used for nearly two decades, and which Spagnuolo favored, to a 3-4 alignment this fall.
As a result, the Saints will have their third defensive coordinator in as many seasons in 2013. Spagnuolo succeeded Gregg Williams, whose contract expired following the 2011 season.
“I personally want to thank Steve and Ken for their contributions during what was an unprecedented 2012 season,” Payton said in a statement posted on the team’s website. “Philosophically, we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment and right now is the best time to accomplish this transition.”
The Saints allowed 440.1 total yards per game last season as they easily eclipsed the old mark of 6,793 yards by the 1981 Baltimore Colts. They gave up at least 400 yards in 12 of 16 games, including the first 10.
They also ranked 31st out of 32 teams against the pass in giving up 292.6 yards per outing and were 31st in allowing 28.4 points per game.
The switch to a 3-4 is a growing trend in the NFL, as at least 11 teams used that alignment last season, although the Dallas Cowboys went back to a 4-3 base defense when they brought in Monte Kiffin to replace Rob Ryan after the season.
Scheme was one of the things that Payton talked about during a 45-minute news conference Wednesday.
“Generally, when you have great success, it’s because you have the right players,” Payton said. “You have very good players and you have coaches doing a very good job and you’ve got the right scheme.
“When it goes the other end of the spectrum as far as it did with us this year, generally you’re not doing as well with the players and coaches,” he added. “So that blame and accountability is always spread.”
Furthermore, he said the trick was in evaluating what they were doing, who was doing it and move forward from there.
Apparently, after an evaluation of the defense Wednesday night with coaches and members of the player personnel department, Payton decided it was time for change among the coaches.
The list of available defensive coaches that can come in and implement the 3-4 isn’t a long one when you consider many teams filled openings on their staffs while Payton was completing his bounty-related suspension.
However, coordinators that have used the 3-4 in the past include former New England Patriots assistant coaches Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. Crennel was recently fired as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Mangini has spent the past two seasons as an ESPN analyst.
Also available is former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, a well-regarded defensive specialist, although he used a 4-3 throughout his tenure there.
Whomever Payton hires will have some talent to work with.
Defensive ends Junior Galette and Martez Wilson, their quickest pass rushers, would be strong candidates to be standup outside linebackers in the 3-4, while fellow end Cameron Jordan, a first-round draft pick in 2011, could also fill that role.
Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, who is an unrestricted free agent, applauded the move on his Twitter account.
“Going to 3-4 d makes perfect sense with personnel Saints have. Happy for (Galette and Wilson) will be great olbs in that d,” he tweeted.
Like Payton on Wednesday, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis wouldn’t talk about the coaching staff while meeting with a group of reporters Jan. 9.
When asked about Spagnuolo, whose group also ranked last in allowing 147.6 rushing yards per game, Loomis wouldn’t evaluate him although he did say he thought Spagnuolo was a good coach and a proven coach.
“When you don’t do well,” Loomis said, “whether it’s record, whether it’s special teams, defense, offense — everyone has a hand in that. I have a hand in that, our players have a hand in that, our coaches have a hand in that.”
Spagnuolo, who was fired after the 2011 season after three years as head coach of the St. Louis Rams, was brought in by Payton in hopes that he would be the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle. New Orleans went 13-3 in 2011, but lost to the San Francisco 49ers (36-32) in the divisional round of the playoffs after Williams’ defense twice failed to hold leads in the final four minutes of the game. Spagnuolo brought Flajole, who was his defensive coordinator for all three seasons with the Rams, with him to the Saints.