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Intro to 2016 Saints Defensive Coaching Staff

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An in-depth look at this year's defensive coaches, both really old and really new.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I introduced the Saints Offensive Coaching Staff. Already with several new coaching additions on the offensive side of the ball, the Saints welcome several more to the defensive side. Welcome to Part II of my in-depth introduction to the 2016 Saints Defensive Coaching Staff.

Dennis Allen - Defensive Coordinator

Coaching Tree:

Dan Reeves - Atlanta Falcons 2002

Wade Phillips - Atlanta Falcons 2003

Jim Mora - Atlanta Falcons 2004-2005

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2006-2010

John Fox - Denver Broncos 2011

Returning to New Orleans for his second stint in a defensive coaching role, Dennis Allen was first instrumental in building the secondary that helped the Saints capture their first and only Super Bowl victory in 2009. After stops in Denver and Oakland, Allen looks to shore up a 31st ranked Saints defense that made positive strides down the stretch of 2015 following the departure of embattled defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. In Allen’s first three games as new defensive coordinator against Houston, Carolina, and Tampa Bay, the Saints defense posted three of its’ worst penalty stat lines for both number of penalties and number of yards penalized. However, in the final three games against Detroit, Jacksonville, and Atlanta, the Saints showed noticeable improvement by posting three of the best penalty stat lines with regards to number and yards penalized. It appeared that the defense mostly limited egregious misalignments and miscommunications down the stretch as well. Overall, the defense’s performance over the final six games was a mixed bag. The pass defense thrived against Houston, Tampa, and Detroit; while conceding pass yardage totals that have annoyingly become status quo against Carolina, Jacksonville, and Atlanta. The brightest spot of Allen’s brief takeover had to be the marked improvement in run defense and turnover production. The good news here is the arrow can only point up as the Saints have struggled to field a healthy and dominating defense since their now seemingly uncharacteristic performance of 2013. If the Saints can stay healthy and limit mental mistakes - which were becoming all too common under Ryan - maybe they will be able to play confident, fast, and loose again.

Peter Giunta - Senior Defensive Assistant

Coaching Tree:

Rich Kotite - Philadelphia Eagles 1991-1994, New York Jets 1995-1996

Dick Vermeil - Los Angeles 1997-1999, Kansas City Chiefs 2001-2005

Mike Martz - Los Angeles Rams 2000

Tom Coughlin - New York Giants 2006-2014

With 25 years of NFL coaching experience and three Super Bowl Championships with two different franchises, Peter Giunta joins the Saints staff for the first time. Giunta’s first NFL stop was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991 coaching their secondary. That team went on to lead the league in all three defensive categories (passing, rushing, and total yardage), a feat which has not been repeated since. Over the years, it has become clear that Giunta specializes in developing secondary talent. He has helped develop and polish many successful cornerbacks including the new Saints defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn, who went on to become a three time All-Pro and Pro-Bowl selection. Most recently with the Giants, Giunta’s results were quite often polar opposites. The 2013, 2010, 2008, and 2007 squads posted top 11 NFL ranked pass defenses; while the 2014, 2012, 2011, 2009, and 2006 squads posted pass defense rankings near the bottom of the league. The Saints defense ranked 31st the past two years, and yet they have the Giants to thank for not ending up 32nd. Giunta’s best days seem to be several years in the past, but hopefully he will serve as a valuable tutor for the Saints young secondary, highlighted by newcomers Delvin Breaux, Damian Swann, and a healthy P.J. Williams.

Aaron Glenn - Defensive Backs

Coaching Tree:

Mike Pettine - Cleveland Browns 2014

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2016

After starting out as a personnel scout for the New York Jets, and later an assistant defensive backs coach for the Cleveland Browns, former Saints defensive back Aaron Glenn returns home to resume his relatively new coaching career. Like assistant head and tight ends coach Dan Campbell, I expect Glenn to inject former player knowledge and intensity into his coaching style. As a long tenured and successful former NFL cornerback himself, Glenn brings a refreshing perspective to the defensive backs room. As mentioned above, the Saints secondary boasts extremely young talent that leaned heavily on the production of rookies as Keenan Lewis was never able to get fully healthy in 2015. If the Saints can turn Swann and Williams into healthy, reliable starters, their pairing, with the already emerged talent of Breaux and a healthy Lewis, could help transform the Saints secondary from a weakness into a strength. In his first year of coaching defensive backs, Glenn helped the Cleveland Browns field an 11th ranked pass defense. Hopefully, that trend will continue here in New Orleans.

Bill Johnson - Defensive Line

Coaching Tree:

Dan Reeves - Atlanta Falcons 2001-2003

Wade Phillips - Atlanta Falcons 2003

Jim Mora - Atlanta Falcons 2004-2006

Mike Shanahan - Denver Broncos 2007-2008

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2009-2016

Bill Johnson is the second longest tenured assistant coach on the Saints staff behind Joe Vitt. A coaching veteran of over 35 years, Johnson is known mostly as a likable player’s coach. It is evident how much the players respect him. It is well documented that he is a great coach who pays attention to developing proper technique and pass rush ability. Unfortunately, outside of the 2013 season, Johnson’s D-Lines have averaged 20th in yards allowed and 18th in sacks over the past six years. (Thank you for the stats fellow CSC writer Wallace Delery!) In the past two seasons, the Saints D-Line put up similar results by finishing 31st in yards allowed and 25th in sacks. Defenses under Sean Payton have never been stellar, but the in the past two years they have been downright deplorable.  Months ago, Big Easy Believer editor Barry Hirstius, even listed Johnson as one of the top five Saints assistants who should be worried for his job. There seems to be no debate about the quality of Johnson as a human being, but I question whether the Saints poor D-Line performances are due to a lack of coaching and development rather than a lack of talent. Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Cam Jordan, and Junior Galette showed plenty of flashes in 2013, but, with the exception of Jordan, they have since lacked consistency. Former Saint Tyrunn Walker enjoyed a productive season with Detroit last year, as did Tom Johnson with Minnesota.  Did we shop for bad groceries or do we need a different cook in the kitchen?

Marcus Ungaro - Defensive Assistant

Coaching Tree:

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2010-2016

Marcus Ungaro has been working for the Saints since 2007; first as a communications department intern, then as a video assistant before being promoted to coaching assistant in 2010. He assists with scouting reports, practice drills, film breakdown, and playbook composition. It’s hard to say what impact he has on the team’s preparation. After digging through dozens of articles mentioning him, the only interesting information suggests that he seems to get along really well with Dennis Allen. That’s good. After watching Payton lose his cool with Rob Ryan multiple times on the sideline over the past couple seasons, I would love to see a more united front from the coaching staff.

Joe Vitt - Assistant Head Coach/Linebackers

Coaching Tree:

Ted Marchibroda - Baltimore Colts 1979

Mike McCormack - Baltimore Colts 1980-1981, Seattle Seahawks 1982

Chuck Knox - Seattle Seahawks 1983-1991, Los Angeles Rams 1992-1994

Ray Rhodes - Philadelphia Eagles 1995-1998

Gunther Cunningham - Kansas City Chiefs 2000

Dick Vermeil - Kansas City Chiefs 2001-2003

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2006-2016

Joe Vitt has been coaching in the NFL since 1979. He started in strength training and quality control before coaching defensive backs, and finally serving multiple stops as assistant head and linebackers coach. It is difficult to dig up positive reviews of his coaching performances with the Saints since he became Sean Payton’s very first hire in 2006. He served a valuable role as the Saints interim head coach during the fated 2012 season, and has continually acted as Payton’s right hand man in game-planning and running practice. However, in ten years with the franchise, Vitt has failed to develop even ONE drafted linebacker. Vilma, Fujita, and Lofton were more than serviceable during their stays in New Orleans, but they all came in free-agency and were already seasoned veterans upon their arrival. The Saints late-first round pick Stephone Anthony proved last year that he is a promising, intelligent and fast playing leader of the front seven. This seems more accurately attributed to his natural athleticism rather than coaching because, at times, it appeared he was just winging it between the white lines. The Saints second round pick Hau’oli Kikaha, on the other hand almost disappeared from the lineup and stat sheet later in the season after an amazing start that had him in the early conversations of Rookie Defensive Player of the Year. It’s puzzling how such a gifted edge pass rusher was so misused the second half of the season, and whether that falls on Allen or Vitt, we may never know. A common theme, however, because he is yet another close friend of Payton’s on the staff,  is that Vitt’s decade of poor results make him seemingly immune to ever receiving a pink slip.

James Willis - Defensive Assistant/Linebackers

Coaching Tree:

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2016

A seven year veteran of the NFL, James Willis joins an NFL coaching staff for the first time after serving as defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. This hire may be the most exciting among the Saints defensive staff. While Vitt fails to develop linebackers, Willis excels at it. For the past two seasons at ULL, Willis forged a stout defense that ranked second in scoring defense in the Sun Belt Conference. In 2009, Willis groomed Rolondo McClain into an All-American and eventual Butkus Award winner as the Crimson Tide won the National Championship with an undefeated season. Like other new Saints assistants Dan Campbell, John Morton, Ronald Curry, and Aaron Glenn, Willis brings with him the ability to see the game as a former NFL pro. Although this is Willis’ first foray into coaching at the highest level, I expect him to squeeze more juice out of Stephone Anthony and Danell Ellerbe than last year. Ellerbe, when healthy, is fantastic in coverage, and Anthony certainly has a nose for stuffing the run. Maybe this is the year the Who Dat Nation will witness a worthy reprise of the infamous Dome Patrol.

Brian Young - Pass Rush Specialist

Coaching Tree:

Sean Payton - New Orleans Saints 2009-2016

A nine year veteran of the NFL, Brian Young served as a quality interior defensive lineman on the amazing and dynasty sparking 2006 Saints team while recording 46 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Multiple knee injuries would later derail his playing career, but Young has found a second calling as a coach. Yet another former NFL pro turned coach, I expect Young to see eye to eye with our young and mostly inexperienced pass rush. Because Bill Johnson hasn’t dialed up much of a successful pass rush the past six seasons, this move shows that Payton wants to spend extra attention to this area of need. Outside of defensive stalwart Cam Jordan, Young certainly has his work cut out for him. The remaining list of pass rushers includes mostly unproven players like Tavaris Barnes, Obum Gwacham, Bobby Richardson, John Jenkins, Ashaad Mabry, Kaleb Eulls, Kasim Edebali, and Hau’oli Kikaha.

Keep faith my patient Who Dats. After finishing at the bottom of the league in defense for the past three out of four seasons, there is nowhere to go but up! While Payton has chosen to stick with his under-performing friends - for the most part - the new coaching additions also promise a glimmer of hope. Stay tuned for part three of this introduction to the New Orleans Saints coaching staff as I tackle the Special Teams and Training staffs next.