NEW ORLEANS — It’s only a coincidence, of course, that the two teams that will meet in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will use the same defense the New Orleans Saints are implementing this spring.
While it’s been said many times that the NFL is a copycat league, Saints coach Sean Payton wasn’t just reacting to the fact that the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have enjoyed much success with a 3-4 base defense that uses three down lineman and four linebackers.
Saints’ fans can only hope it works as well for their team.
Payton joined a growing trend in the NFL last Thursday when, one day after being reinstated from a season-long suspension for misleading investigators looking into a pay-for-performance program, he fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
In doing so, Payton scrapped the familiar 4-3 base defense his team ran since his arrival in 2006 — the one opponents used to gash the Saints for a single-season NFL record of 7,042 yards as they staggered to a 7-9 finish.
Despite having to watch from afar as the defense give up more than 400 total yards in its first 10 games and 12 of 16 regular-season outings in all, Payton could see clearly that something had to be done — and done fast.
Part of the change in philosophy on that side of the ball was dictated by the proliferation of young quarterbacks whose skill sets force defenses to game-plan almost as much for their running ability as their passing prowess.
And the emergence of rookies Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson this season — along with second-year pros Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton — aren’t making things any easier on defensive coordinators.
Kaepernick will start for the 49ers on Sunday night.
The necessity to get more athletic defenders on the field to combat the pistol formation and read-option attacks those four quarterbacks use will only continue to spiral upward in the coming years.
The Saints will have to go against the shifty Wilson and Kaepernick next season and face Newton, who is an even bigger version of those two, twice.
Niners outside linebacker Aldon Smith certainly likes playing in the 3-4, which is no surprise.
As a rookie in 2011, the 6-foot-4, 263-pounder recorded 14 sacks and broke up four passes even though he didn’t start a single game. As a starter this year, Smith racked up 191/2 sacks to rank second in the league — coming within three sacks of Michael Strahan’s NFL record.
“In the 3-4, you can do a lot more,” a smiling Smith said Monday when asked about the advantages of that alignment. “You can rush the passer, or you can drop into coverage and have a chance for interceptions. … You can do anything.
“Obviously, you can make more plays,” he said, still smiling.
For Payton, that’s obviously not a bad thing.