Playing With Fire: Supplementing Scheme With Talent by Preston J. Gary, Jr.
With the approach of Free Agency, every fan has a wish list of players they believe would complete their team. If the team lacks a big name at a certain position, you can bet fans will be screaming for one of the top 3 players thought to be available. Some players fit well in the system and scheme their coaches employ; while other ( more rare) athletes transcend system and scheme and can star in any offense or defense.
The most successful Front Office and Coaching tandems generally find talent everywhere, from the draft to undrafted free agents to veteran free agents. They ear mark certain skill sets and intangibles for each position and don't necessarily pursue those household names fans pine for. Building a team and balancing the salary cap is much easier when you have organizational stability with a coaching staff adept at player development and innovative at building a scheme to get more out of less.
Everything works hand in hand. When building a defense, you must first consider your offense. Next, you have to consider league wide trends, paying particular attention to the teams in your division. During the Sean Payton & Drew Brees regime, the Saints have had arguably the most prolific offense in that span. League wide, three and four wide receiver sets are becoming the norm. In division, teams have gone out of their way to acquire that top tier TE to go with bruising rushing attacks while they work to build their WR corps.
With that in mind, we'll discuss the Saints' defense. Specifically, how and what it is built for, as well as the direction it is headed.
Our defense is built to play with the lead.
Over the past few seasons, defenses have played out of Nickle (5 defensive backs) over 50% of the snaps for the majority of teams in the NFL. There are a few reasons for this, most notably the evolution of the passing attack where you see many teams using 3 and 4 WR sets more often than say the I formation. Along with this shift towards a more prominent passing attack, the S position has evolved. Instead of a traditional "in the box" SS and a "centerfield" FS, teams are drafting safeties who are more interchangeable, specifically safeties with "cover corner" skills. The emphasis is more on athletic prowess and range nowadays.
What this means is that teams who don't have a Troy Polamalu are forced to take a safety off the field and replace him with a 3rd corner over 50% of the time (or a LB-- depending on who is the weakest link or has the worst match-up in the scheme). This is why players like Roy Williams have suddenly looked horrible; it is why teams are trying to find that explosive Tight End who creates separation or a running back with Reggie Bush type skills catching the ball out of the backfield. It's all about creating mismatches.
Another reason teams play in the Nickle the majority of the time is because they have a big lead, and the other team is forced to become more one dimensional and throw more in order to overcome a deficit as time runs down.
Bill Walsh had a great philosophy concerning this. He believed that if you knew your offense was potent and would probably have the lead in most games, it was better to build your defense to preserve the lead. In other words, a Nickle defense, with either 3 good corners or S personnel who are versatile enough to play like a 3rd corner is more important than a traditional defense with 3 solid LB's and 2 traditional safeties. Simply because the player who comes in for the Nickle package will be used more than the player who goes out; that Nickle Back is more of a starter than the player he replaces.
I think with Malcom Jenkins and our CB's-- Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson, and Johnny Patrick, our secondary is very versatile, and more built to preserve the lead. All 5 of those players have "man to man" or "cover corner" skills. This is especially important because playing "man coverage" (as opposed to zone) allows Gregg Williams to be more aggressive with the blitz. He can send more blitzers safe in the knowledge that he has no weak cover guy. Roman Harper isn't known for man coverage, but he is a good blitzer.
In short, that focus on a great Nickle defense helps make up for what we lack in a pass rush from our front 4. Granted, give a QB enough time and he can complete a pass no matter who plays CB. However, when our offense builds a lead, we force the opposition to throw when they would normally love to run, and it means that we don't have to keep in those big defenders on the dline; we can go to our quick pass rush specialist more often. You've seen Gregg Williams sub DE's at DT for their quickness, and you've seen those "tweener" DE's man the edge on third and long.
So what happens when our defense isn't playing with the lead? Gregg Williams has been in the top 3 with the amount of blitzes called. However, our defense has had pedestrian sack numbers. To be blunt, our blitzes aren't as effective as you would like; it's no secret we lack a pass rush. Sacks don't tell the whole story; pressures become a much overlooked stat, and we did finish top 3 in turnovers the year we won the Super Bowl. While Gregg Williams is known to be aggressive, I believe a great many of those blitzes were a necessity to mask for a lack in talent.
Now before the above statement gets taken out of context, let me say that Rome was not built in a day. This article isn't meant to poo poo what our defense lacks, but to examine what happens when Gregg Williams gets more talent in the front 7 (defensive line and line backers). Upgrading the talent at Line Backer, Defensive End, and Defensive Tackle allow Gregg to become more efficient with his blitzes. Becoming more versatile (especially at the OLB position) affords Gregg the luxury of breaking a few tendencies. He doesn't have to sub out liabilities as often. He gains more ability to create pressure WITHOUT having to blitz as often-- the less you blitz, the less you'll be exposed. When he does blitz, he will be able to get there (to the QB) in quicker fashion, and that's the point.
For the past few years, Gregg Williams has done a lot with a little. Credit his scheme, credit his coaching and developmental abilities, credit his on the fly adjustments. But imagine what Gregg can do with a few playmakers. Imagine what happens when you supplement his scheme and philosophy with versatile, talented players. Imagine a front 7 that can wreak havoc despite the secondary.
In conclusion, our defense is already tailored to play with a lead. The recent acquisitions of Shaun Rodgers, Cameran Jordan, Martez Wilson, Johnny Patrick, and Greg Romeous will help take this defense to the next level. This defense is on its way to becoming a force in its own rite. It won't need a lead to play well. I'm not sure we have that great a need in free agency; however, the less time our rookies get during this lock-out, the longer it will take to reach fruition. Like every other fan, I'll be hoping we sign a few household names in the front 7, but with this coaching staff, we may not need them.