And the hits just keep on coming in our search for fresh new front page talent here on Canal Street Chronicles, to make the best Saints blog on the net even better.
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Darren Sharper: The Missing Factor
Does Darren Sharper still have anything left in the tank? If so, Mickey Loomis please bring him out of retirement.
During the Saints 2009 Super Bowl season when Sharper was the starting free safety, the defense displayed many of the same vulnerabilities that have plaqued it in 2010 and 2011. While Who Dat Nation has been blessed by a Black & Gold Golden Age over the last three seasons, the defense's tendency to give up big chunks of yard on the ground along along with an inconsistent pass rush under former Coordinator Gregg Williams' heavy blitz scheme have continued to be works in progress. In what has been particularly gut-wrenching for Saints fans, these flaws have been put on full display while ending the Saints playoff march towards a Lombardi repeat. The highlight clips of running back Marshawn Lynch stiff-arming his way right through the Saints defense for his 67 yard touchdown run to clinch the Seahawks 2010 Wildcard win, and 49ers quarterback Alex Smith going untouched leading his team down the field before throwing the 14 yard game winning touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with nine seconds left seems to have run endlessly.
The Saints' Super Bowl winning defensive unit of 2009 also at times gave up too many big plays on the ground and gave the quarterback too much time in the pocket. They did not seem to display the kind of toughness that would draw comparisons to the Dome Patrol, the Steelers Steel Curtain Defense of the 1970's or the 1986 Chicago Bears defense under outspoken coordinator Buddy Ryan. However, the 2009 Black & Gold defense did one thing very well that compensated for the amount of yards they gave up that the 2010 and 2011 versions have failed to replicate. They created turnovers as if it was widespread grand theft larceny. They snagged twenty one interceptions, five of which were returned for touchdowns, including Tracy Porter's pick six off of Peyton Manning in the final minutes of the Super Bowl, which forever will be one of the greatest plays in franchise history.
This past year the defense had nine pass interceptions returning only one for a touchdown. That's quite a dropoff. WWL Radio Hosts Deke Beleveia and Bobby Hebert had an over the air contest in 2009 for coming up with a nickname fo the defense. Fans would often call in suggesting names like Swamp Dawgs and Dome Patrol II. I never called in, but my idea was Den of Thieves because they were constantly taking the ball away from the opposing offense.
Nine of those twenty one interceptions in 2009, came at the hands of the hands of 13 year NFL veteran Sharper. Sharper not only had a nose for the ball, but a nose for the end zone. He returned three of those picks for touchdowns and had a fourth called back on a penalty. His 376 interception yards set a new NFL single season record. Darren Sharper only had one full season as a Saint, but I would argue that he has had as great an impact of any Saints defensive player in franchise history with the exception of Rickey Jackson (that would just be blasphemy). Sharper resigned with the Saints after becaming an unrestricted free agent in 2010. However, health issues kept his playing time at a minimum, and the likely future Hall of Famer eventually retired.
I don't want to sound overly critical of the current Saints defense. They have produced some standout performances over the last two years. In the 20-10 victory over the Steelers in the Superdome on Halloween Night in 2010 and their sack fest of Chicago Bears Quarterback Jay Cutler early this season in that 27-9 victory they definitely demonstrated they could play old school, hard-nosed football. However, the thieving ways that marked the unit when Sharper patrolled the secondary seems to have disappeared.I am also confident that had Sharper been back there against the 49ers, Vernon Davis would have been held in check and not caught the winning touchdown pass.
Malcolm Jenkins, Sharper's replacement at free safety, is an incredible talent with a high degree of playmaking potential. But with just three interceptions over his three year career, he falls far behind Sharper in creating turnovers. I sometimes wonder if Jenkins, who was the Saints first round draft pick at cornerback out of Ohio State in 2009, would be a better fit at his original position or at strong safety. At 6 feet, he seems a little short for free safety. Ironically, in the 2008 BCS National Championship between Ohio State and LSU, Jenkins intercepted a Matt Flynn pass which led to a Buckeyes touchdown. After he was drafted by the Saints, I wondered if his interception in the Superdome would be a foreshadowing of more to come.
Hopefully under new Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo it will be, and the big shoes left behind by Sharper will finally be filled. Jenkins' best day as a pro is already linked to Spagnuolo. Two of his three career interceptions came against Spagnuolo's St. Louis Rams in 2010, one of which he returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
At the age of 34, Darren Sharper intercepted nine passes and outraced players much younger to set up Drew Brees and the offense in excellent scoring position, or he just took it all the way back himself. Three years later, I say he is still good for four interceptions and a touchdown return. If Father Time hasn't totally physically wiped out Sharper, then General Manager Mickey Loomis should make an offer to re-sign him. Or at least hire him as the new secondary coach to replace Tony Oden who has gone to the Jaguars. Maybe some of his turnover creating tendencies would then rub off and the void would be filled.