It’s simple right? You just have to take one of the worst units in the history of the NFL, and turn it into a competent defense in a single off-season. No pressure, just your run of the mill miracle, right?
That is the attitude of the majority of those who watch the New Orleans Saints, be it bloggers, columnists, or fans. That pessimistic sarcasm aimed at what has been a pathetic waste of energy here in New Orleans.
The fans are fed up, and the players share that feeling, but the question remains: can they turn it around?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes. YES! The Saints can turn things around. There is enough talent on this year’s roster to be a contender, and while they have ‘achieved’ mediocrity the last two years they have also quietly built a talented young core to build around. The possibility is there and don’t let anyone, be they ESPN or just your drunk uncle, tell you the Saints have no chance.
What that doesn’t mean is that they have a strong chance, or even a likely one, but without a doubt it is a probable one. Right about now is the time where people are saying, “Okay wise guy, if the Saints really do have a legit shot at fielding a competent defense this year, then what will it take?”
In order to improve their defense the Saints need to do three very simple things, but they have to do ALL THREE: create an identity, be consistent, and play together.
I know that sounds like the same kind of vanilla coach speak you can hear by listening to any one of a dozen pointless interviews on TV, but let me explain what this actually means.
CREATE AN IDENTITY:
In some ways this is a reference to picking a scheme and actually sticking to it, but it’s also much more than that. Say what you will about the Saints defense under Greg Williams (and there is plenty to be said), but that defense had one indisputable defining feature; they attacked.
Williams coached an unrelenting defense that was always coming downhill and always looking to force the offense into making a mistake. The results were mixed at best, however despite my personal disdain for Williams there is no doubt that the Saints came out every Sunday knowing who they were and what they were about.
It cannot be stated enough how important that is to a defense, and really for any unit. The Saints have been a mismatched, discombobulated, mess for almost five years now. Some of that is due to poor drafting and personnel decisions, but the lack of a vision and an identity has further exacerbated those issues.
As great as they are, the gap in talent between last year’s Panthers and Saints isn’t that great defensively (it’s indisputable, but not enormous) but the two units couldn’t have been more different. The Saints defense dragged them through the mud once again while the Panthers defense carried them to the Super Bowl (which they lost deliciously). Outside of a star like Luke Kueckly what is the big difference between these two teams? It’s identity.
NFL Spin Zone
The Panthers defense is a cohesive unit that relies on a dominant front seven and a passable secondary. They dominate the interior and make opponents one-dimensional, which lets their two star linebackers fly around and wreak havoc. As impressive as that is, the reality is that its not that complicated (talking philosophy here not X’s and O’s).
The Saints can’t and shouldn’t try to copy the Panthers. They don’t have their personnel. But what they can learn from them and other elite units is to find an identity and keep building upon it. They have always been great at that on the offensive side, but never on the defensive side of the ball… until now.
I have no sources in the locker room and certainly haven’t spoken with Dennis Allen, but just looking at the players the Saints have been adding to the roster there is one theme that jumps out to me immediately: versatility. Being multiple is something that Payton has always liked on both sides of the ball, and its quite possibly the greatest strength of the Saints suddenly young defense.
Nothing is proven yet, but imagine being able to play multiple fronts, against almost any kind of offense, in multiple situations, and not having to make any major changes to your personnel out on the field. If the Saints have found their identity, and that is in fact the ability to be whatever they need to be at anytime (my own theory) then that is great.
But, even if that isn’t what they are building towards, I do believe that they are finally making a concerted effort to bring in players who not only fit a ‘type’, but who fit together and will give them a chance to forge a collective identity that they can build on. If they can finally figure out who they are as a unit, then prepare yourselves to be pleasantly surprised by them (that is a big IF mind you).
This doesn’t just apply to the defense, but to the team in general and it feeds off of the first point. The offense has been much better at this in large part because they have an established identity to fall back on. The defense certainly needs this, but they also need to have a consistent level of effort and execution in general to return to respectability.
This was something that was most definitely NOT there under Rob Ryan, and contrary to his belly aching (ironically in direct proportion to his…well…belly) Rob wasn’t fired because he ‘did a damn good job’. In fact he was fired because he did the opposite. Take the X’s and O’s out of it and the single most important task assigned to any coach is to ensure discipline and consistency. Ryan failed in both regards spectacularly.
Beyond even effort though, the whole team needs to be more consistent, and what would really help the defense out is a more consistent and balanced offense. Giving the defense longer fields, with longer breaks, and less pressure would help a lot. While the Saint’s offense put up some gaudy numbers last year they were very uncharacteristically prone to periods of borderline ineptitude.
I will being covering the offense in my next article, but suffice to say that they have been just as diligent in restocking that cupboard. That is great news for the defense as more points helps dictate terms to the opposing offenses, but also a team that is more consistent builds up its own confidence. Perhaps the greatest gain from simply being consistently average instead of randomly abysmal is that you believe you can always be at least good. That in turn allows you to sometimes be great, and when that happens the confidence builds upon itself and becomes swagger.
If there is one thing this team desperately needs to recapture its the swagger with which they used to play, and the only way to get that back is to stop being an emotional roller coaster every Sunday.
The last one is the simplest, and once again builds off of the previous two, but it’s also the most important. There is a big difference between being called a team, and playing like one. The Saints have (hopefully) gotten rid of the last of the bad elements in the locker room with the release of Brandon Browner, a spoiled veteran with an inflated ego and a bad attitude.
If they can rally together and form a communal identity, and use that to help them become more consistent, then they just might be able to become a competent NFL defense, and perhaps even something more. The only way that will happen though is if they can unite and form a single unit that is more than just a collection of individual players then they will finally be able to maximize their talent.
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The reverse is also true for the Saints as learning to truly play together and trust one another is the key to building an identity and learning to play consistently. It really is all connected, and it really is all quite simple. The Saints finally DO have talent on the roster, they have actually have a lot, but now the question is can they develop and maximize that talent, and that is the real question here because they haven’t ever really done it on that side of the ball.
If the Saints can build a real bond, a collective identity, and manage to stay true to that identity throughout the season I am willing to predict that barring catastrophic injuries (like half your secondary being out for instance) they will have a surprising bounce-back year.
What’s more, though, I believe that it is entirely possible for them to continue to build a strong defense into the future with the pieces they have. The question is: can the Saints under Dennis Allen stick to the principles that make up every successful defense in the league, or will they continue to be a physical manifestation of Murphy’s law?
Only time will tell.