Saints ‘D’ working to figure out new system
METAIRIE — Strong safety Roman Harper and the rest of the New Orleans Saints defense realize that first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme is new. It is certainly complex — especially when it’s compared to Gregg Williams’ blitz-heavy strategies of the previous three seasons.
Harper just knows that the team has to keep trying its best to master the new system.
“Overall, it’s got a lot of different tools in it,” Harper said. “There are some different little intricate details we’ve got to try to work out. We’ve just got to find the place and time when we can use all of those tools.”
So far, it can be argued, the Saints haven’t been doing a very good job of that.
They rank last in the NFL in total defense, allowing 465.5 yards per game. That’s 34.4 yards more than No. 31 Buffalo.
“That shows we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Harper said. “We’ve got to get the other teams off the field.”
Spagnuolo proclaims he’s “not a stats guy,” adding that “it crushes me to think that people are saying these guys can’t stop anybody, but that’s not really the truth, because when we’ve had to, we do it.”
On the other hand, try this one on for size: In points allowed, the only defensive statistic that really matters, the Saints are giving up 30.3 points per game.
If opponents keep up that pace, they’ll score 485 points this season. That’s only two shy of the most ever given up by the Saints. They allowed 487 points in 1980, when they posted the worst record in club history (1-15).
And if this year’s defense somehow manages to reduce its points-per-game allowed by more than a touchdown to 21.8 the rest of the way, the final tally would be 400 points. In the past decade, only three teams have given up that many and still made the playoffs, although one of those three was last year’s Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Small wonder the Saints (2-4) have a sense of urgency to improve, starting with Sunday night’s game against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos (3-3) at Sports Authority Field.
“There are still some kinks to work out,” Spagnuolo said. “But we’re going into the seventh game of the season. Nobody’s in there saying, ‘We have to learn the system.’ The system is in place. We’ve been doing the same thing for seven months.”
Plus, Spagnuolo said, there are always positives when you give up a season-high 513 yards but still come out with a victory, as the Saints did last weekend at Tampa Bay.
You start with the goal-line stand that followed Malcolm Jenkins’ miracle rundown of Vincent Jackson after a 95-yard reception, focusing especially on Cameron Jordan’s sniffing out Josh Freeman’s bootleg attempt on fourth down.
It was one of five straight possessions when the Bucs didn’t get any points after they’d scored touchdowns on their first three.
Those five stops were followed, however, by an 81-yard touchdown drive that was helped along by three defensive penalties — four if you count holding on the TD — and a 70-yard drive to the 9 where Freeman’s pass to Mike Williams for the would-be game-tying score was thwarted by Patrick Robinson’s heads-up pushing of Williams out of bounds.
Little noticed was Jenkins, doing the same thing to another Bucs receiver on the other side of the end zone.
“That means there are a number of guys are being coached well,” Spagnuolo said. “And guys are embracing it and doing the right things.”
But you always can’t count on once-in-a-career hustle plays or rarely needed rules saving a score. In Spagnuolo’s view, effective defense takes constant communication and adjustments.
That’s why the Saints’ defensive emphasis this week has been to the finish the game. That’s a worthwhile goal when you’re facing a team that has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter 79-6 and is quarterbacked by Peyton Manning — someone interim coach Joe Vitt calls “a football genius.”
“The most important thing we can do is finish, especially against a quarterback and a team that knows how to finish,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “What we’re doing on every snap this week is running to the football and finishing every play. As long as you do that consistently, your results should be better.”
At least the defense should get some help this week.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who participated in 18 of the 73 defensive snaps in his first game since coming off the physically-unable-to-perform list, has seen increased activity in practice.
And fellow linebacker David Hawthorne, who missed the last three games with a hamstring injury after starting the first three, has a chance to play, as well.
Perhaps more important than that, Vitt has returned from his six-game suspension because of the bounty scandal, not only as the interim coach but as the linebackers coach.
Compared to the mild-mannered Aaron Kromer, who served as interim coach in his absence, Vitt can be heard all over the field.
“Overall, as a team, his being out there yelling, getting after guys, restarting things when the looks aren’t right, hearing his voice, hearing his confidence, really makes a difference,” Greer said. “Aaron would say things on both sides, too, but he never overstepped because his side of the ball is on offense.”
In the end, though, linebacker Curtis Lofton said, it’s up to the players to execute whatever system they’re given to work in.
“This is a players’ league,” he said. “The coaches can put you in the best situation, but they don’t make that much of a difference. It’s all about a unit playing together and starting to jell. Each week we’re playing better and we’ve just got to continue to do that.”
Vitt said he sees that happening as the players gain a better grasp of Spagnuolo’s scheme.
“It’s a work in progress, just like anything else this time of year,” he said. “But you don’t make goal-line stands like we made and you don’t make plays like Malcolm Jenkins did unless you have a lot of believers in that room who believe in what Spags is teaching and have great resolve.”