METAIRIE — The way Steve Spagnuolo and his players see it, he didn’t accept an invitation to become the new defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints to try to re-invent the wheel.
Nonetheless, he knows it’s his responsibility to give the Saints a new, fresh look after they ended the past two seasons by giving up 41 and 36 points in playoff losses to the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
The 52-year-old Spagnuolo is clearly back in his element as a defensive coordinator after a three-year stint as the St. Louis Rams head coach ended when he was fired Jan. 2 with a 10-38 overall record.
Spagnuolo, who cut his NFL teeth under one of the league’s most-respected defensive coordinators in the late Jim Johnson, is better known for his two years as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants from 2007-08.
It was with the Giants that Spagnuolo made a name for himself, drawing up the masterful game plan for Super Bowl XLII that ended the New England Patriots’ bid to become the first team to go 19-0.
Tom Brady and his prolific offense were shut out for the first three quarters and managed just two touchdowns and 274 total yards in the Giants’ shocking 17-14 victory.
Just like that night, however, Spagnuolo says it’s more about players than the game plan or the scheme.
“It all comes back to the players,” he said of trying to help the Saints get back to the Super Bowl after those last two playoff setbacks. “Sometimes, all a coach can do is screw it up. That’s just how I feel about the game.
“We don’t play as coaches, but we certainly have to give them enough to give them a chance to win or be successful. We hope to do that every week.”
That’s great news for fans whose joy of watching the Saints hold Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to 17 points in a Super Bowl XLIV win was offset by the 77 points they gave up the past two postseason outings under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Gone is Williams’ aggressive man-to-man defense and all-out blitzing tactics that often left linebackers and defensive backs susceptible to long passes down the field.
In is Spagnuolo’s zone-blitz defense, which drops quicker defensive ends off the line of scrimmage to help out in coverage while defenders who would normally be covering receivers rush the quarterback.
“Spags is not coming in here to try and change any of these other things or our attitude or anything like that,” Saints strong safety Roman Harper said. “He loves the way we play. He’s just playing a different scheme.
“We’re just going to have some different calls. It’s not like he’s changing the whole thing here. It’s a winning attitude, it’s a winning coach who has a team and that’s what you want to be a part of. We want to keep that.”
Indeed, the Saints have won 41 games including the playoffs with a Super Bowl title the past three seasons.
But the defense has been vulnerable against the run, giving up more than 4.3 yards per carry — including 5.0 yards a pop last season — in each of Williams’ three seasons, and big pass plays as well.
Last season alone, the Saints allowed 99 big plays — defined as runs of 10 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or longer.
Interim head coach Joe Vitt, who has also served as linebackers coach for the past six seasons, and Spagnuolo said they would like to drop that total to 75 or less.
“Big plays on either side of the ball, or big-play differential, has a huge relation to winning or losing games,” Spagnuolo said. “The more you can eliminate them and the more you can create them on offense increases the chances you have of winning the game.”
Spagnuolo’s philosophy is that starts with the big guys up front.
“You try to keep as many out there as you can,” he said with a smile. “We could put 11 out there, but those guys wouldn’t be able to cover the wide receivers. But we do believe in winning the game up front.”
In Spagnuolo’s two seasons with the Giants, his defense ranked seventh and fifth against the run and were fifth in fewest points allowed in 2008.
“One of Steve’s biggest assets is his ability to put players in what they do best and in the right positions,” Vitt said. “He’s a very creative coach. He’s got a great mind, and he doesn’t ask players to do what they can’t do. The players come first with him, not the scheme. I think that’s exciting.”
He’s excited about having three unrestricted free agents — defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne — as well as holdovers in defensive ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan, Harper and fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins, and cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson to build around.
“Most coaches will tell you this, but what I enjoy the most is the teaching part of it … getting your hands dirty,” Spagnuolo said. “Sometimes, when you serve as head coach, there are a lot of other pulls in a lot of other directions that take you away from that.
“I’m refreshed to be back in the trenches. The focus is strictly on the defensive guys and the defensive coaches, and I’m enjoying it right now.”