An early look at the New Orleans Saints 2012 linebacker core

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Out with the old and in with the new — defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left for the Rams — and the New Orleans Saints replaced him with their former head coach, Steve Spagnuolo, whom they hope can inject some pass rush life into a rather limp squad.

Obviously there are fundamental differences between Williams and Spagnuolo.

Starting with the most obvious, Williams loves to utilize the blitz, sending “the house” after quarterbacks far too often.

In his three seasons as the Saints defensive coordinator his game plan became well known, as he blitzed more than any other d-coordinator in the league — in fact last season nearly 60% of the time.

That left some defensive players in compromising one-one-one pass coverage situations, that often times lead to big gains for opposing offenses who were able to exploit these miss-matches.

Even though they blitzed more than any team in the NFL it failed to generate the sack totals one would expect with that much pressure — registering only 33 last season — which ranked 19th in the NFL.

Regardless of whether Williams chose not to leave the Saints for the Rams, the team likely would have looked elsewhere this off-season in an amicable split as the defense has been the primary reason New Orleans was bounced from the playoffs the last two years.

Spagnuolo on the other hand is not afraid to blitz, but chooses instead to generate a pass rush with his front four while dropping his linebackers and safeties into coverage with a more balanced attack.

Under his direction the Giants defense, utilizing the “fire zone blitz”, was among the best in the NFL at generating sacks in both the 2007 (58 sacks) and 2008 (42 sacks) seasons.

It was this defense that also helped win the Giants a Superbowl title (XLII) over the New England Patriots in 2007, as they were consistently able to pressure quarterback Tom Brady throughout the game after sacking him five times.

But with fundamental scheme changes comes personnel changes, and the unit likely to see the most shake-up under Spagnuolo is the linebacker core.

No longer will they be fired at the line of scrimmage, but dropped into coverage, and you need ultra athletic linebacker’s who can cover well to make the scheme work.

Last season the Saints primarily used Jonathan Vilma at middle linebacker, as well as Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar at outside linebacker, with some help from Jonathan Casillas, Will Herring, and rookie Martez Wilson on the edges.

Here is a look at the depth chart heading into the offseason this year:

  • Middle linebacker: Jonathan Vilma, Ramon Humber
  • Weakside Linebacker: Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Nate Bussey, Jerimiha Hunter
  • Strongside Linebacker: Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Will Herring, Martez Wilson

Here is what the depth chart could look like heading into the 2012 season (excluding free agent signings, potential draft picks):