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Chalk Talk Part Three: What Defensive Scheme Best Fits the Saints’ Roster?

After dissecting position traits, prototypes, and the Saints' current personnel, which defensive scheme should the Saints employ?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two weeks, we have learned about the two most used defensive schemes in the NFL, the 4-3 and 3-4 base defenses. There are strengths and weaknesses in both schemes, however, neither will work without the right personnel to employ it.

This begs the age old question of is it better to draft players for the scheme you want to employ, or is it better to implement the scheme that best fits the players on your current roster? In my opinion, in any sport, the coaches should put their players in the best position to use their innate talents and skill set. Why make a quarter horse run the Kentucky Derby when it is more suited for barrel racing as it is a quick twitch, agile, and athletic horse that’s super fast, but only over short distances?

Charles Barkley hates jump shooting teams and couldn’t believe it when the Warriors rolled through the playoffs on their way to their fourth NBA championship last year. It’s true, the Warriors rely on jump shots and threes more than a traditional basketball team should, but no other team has the two best shooters in the league on the same team. They live by the three more than they die by the three because Klay Thompson and Steph Curry average higher shooting percentages from beyond the three point line than many players do from inside the three point line.

So, let’s look at our roster as it is today. Obviously, since we haven’t even entered training camp yet, this is a VERY early diagnosis. Players may get hurt, released, traded, or signed in the coming months; and with each each of those moves, a domino effect can occur that changes how a player is used on the field. For now, I want to concentrate on the players most likely to make the team this season.

I will first present the desired traits for a particular position in each scheme. Second, I will list a prototypical player in the NFL at said position. Third, I will list the current players on our roster, and finally make a prescription for the Saints best scheme fit for our personnel.

4-3 Defensive End Traits

1) Sets edge

2) Keep QB from rolling out and gaining extra yards

3) Strong enough to block tackles, tight end, and double teams

4) Possess intelligence and instincts to instantly discern run from pass play

5) Explosive pass rusher

6) Possess complementary moves and good technique to disengage from blocks

7) Smaller than 3-4 Ends (265-295 lbs)

Prototype: Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks

(6’4", 274 lbs, 5.13 40 yard dash)

3-4 Defensive End Traits

1) Larger than 4-3 Ends (290-315 lbs)

2) Not as fast or agile as they stay along the line and move laterally less

3) Control run gaps

4) Take on more blockers than a 4-3 End

Prototype: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

(6’5", 289 lbs, 34" Arm Length, 11" Hands, 4.84 40 yard dash, top performer at NFL combine for his position in bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, 3 cone drill, and 20 yard shuttle)

Saints Defensive Ends:

Cameron Jordan: 6’4" / 287 lbs / 35" Arm length / 11" Hands / 4.74 sec 40 yard dash


-Long arms and big hands

-Complement of swim and dip moves

-Lacks natural ability to drop into coverage

Bobby Richardson: 6’3" / 286 lbs / 34" Arm length / 11" Hands / 4.99 40 yard dash

-Played well last year considering he was an undrafted rookie

-Long arms, big hands, and relentless in his pursuit

-Lacks height for 3-4 End, and lacks mass for 4-3 DT

Obum Gwacham: 6’5" / 246 lbs / 34" Arm length / 10" Hands / 4.72 sec 40 yard dash

-Elite explosion

-Length and foot explosiveness

-Good at dropping into space for zone blitzes

-Relentless motor

-Loose hips that he can flip easily

Hau’oli Kikaha: 6’3" / 246 lbs / 4.9 sec 40 yard dash

-More effective closer to the line of scrimmage

-Effective pass rusher

-Has trouble setting the edge

-Great hand usage as former judo and wrestling champ

-Easily exposed while dropping into coverage

-Potentially misused by Dennis Allen down the stretch of 2015

Kasim Edebali: 6’2" / 253 lbs / 4.79 sec 40 yard dash

-Excellent special teamer

-5 sacks in 2015 with few starts

-Filled in great for Junior Galette in 2014 after his injury

Prescription: 4-3 Base Defense

With all this speed on our defensive line, why not use it? We have three linemen with elite speed for their size in Cam Jordan, Obum Gwacham, and Kasim Edebali. I think it would be a lot to ask of Jordan to drop into coverage and that’s exactly what he would have to do if asked to switch to a 3-4 OLB. Jordan owns a plethora of counter moves that help him get to the QB, and his versatility allows him to play multiple positions along the line.

As bad as Kikaha was in coverage last year, I’d rather turn him loose on the QB and worry about his ability to set the edge. Improving on the edge seems a more attainable goal than asking him to cover elite tight ends in space. Richardson is kind of a wild card, but he held his own last year, and may show lots of growth as a pass rusher in his second year.

4-3 Defensive Tackle Traits

1) Nose tackle must be large and strong (300+ lbs)

2) Stuff the run

3) Take on double teams to free linebackers to make a play on ball carrier

4) 3 tech DT must be faster and more mobile than nose tackle (300 lbs)

5) 3 tech DT must keep guard from getting to LBs in the second level

6) 3 tech DT must rush the passer

Prototype: Aaron Donald, LA Rams

(6’1", 285 lbs, 32" Arm Length, 10" Hands, 4.68 40 yard dash)

3-4 Defensive Tackle Traits

1) Nose tackle is arguably most physically demanding role in NFL

2) Every down player, not situational

3) Must be huge two-gap stuffer

4) Can’t get pushed back into LBs

5) Takes on a double team EVERY play

6) Huge (335+ lbs)

Prototype: Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs

(6’3", 345 lbs, 32" Arm Length, 9" Hands, 4.98 sec 40 yard dash)

Saints Defensive Tackles:

Nick Fairley: 6’4" / 308 lbs / 34" Arms length / 9" Hands / 4.84 sec 40 yard dash

-More suited as a rotational player and not an every down tackle

-Disruptive towards the passer and good at flushing QB out of pocket

-Injuries, weight, and motor have been problems in the past

-23rd ranked DT in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus

Sheldon Rankins: 6’2" / 304 lbs / 33" Arms length / 9" Hands / 5.03 sec 40 yard dash

-Good instincts to sniff out screens

-Flexible, athletic, explosive

-Good balance and great foot speed for interior lineman

-Powerful, violent hands

-Can play 1 or 2 gap schemes

-Undersized for NFL standards

-Played against average college talent

-If he gains weight, could slow down at the Pro level

John Jenkins: 6’3" / 359 lbs / 5.46 sec 40 yard dash

-Can play both 1 and 2 gap schemes

-Has weight issues (either overweight and slow, or loses weight and gets blown back)

-Doesn’t keep low pad level at times

Tyeler Davison: 6’2" / 309 lbs / 34" Arm length / 10" Hands / 5.19 sec 40 yard dash

-Displays power and versatility

-32 reps on bench press at combine, strong push

-Good rip/pull/push/club/hump moves

-More suited for 4 man front

David Onyemata: 6’4" / 300 lbs / 5.00 sec 40 yard dash

-Big hands and long arms

-Strong and large

-Raw and inexperienced

-Extremely athletic

Davis Tull: 6’3" / 240 lbs /31" Arm length / 9" Hands / 4.57 sec 40 yard dash

-Great motor and doesn't take plays off

-Stays square and uses leverage well

-Short arms and gets plugged by tackles

-Small for DE in NFL

Prescription: 4-3 Base Defense

Without a true 3-4 nose tackle on the roster, I don’t see how the Saints could even think of employing anything but a 4-3 defense with regard to their defensive tackles. John Jenkins is the only DT on the roster with the size to be a 3-4 nose tackle, but after three underwhelming seasons, there’s no way he can be an every down, two-gap, run stuffing 3-4 nose tackle. Even after losing weight last season to improve his speed and stamina, Jenkins repeatedly got bowled over by offensive linemen and was a a terrible liability in the run game. It also doesn’t help that Jenkins is in a contract year, so why would we base a system on a player who may not even be here next year?

Nick Fairley, who I am very excited about actually, has not proven he can be an every down tackle either and plays better in a rotational and situational role. Sheldon Rankins is most compared to Aaron Donald, and that’s a great thing. Pairing Rankins and Fairley as DT’s in a 4-3 scheme makes me salivate. Tyler Davison showed great improvement down the stretch last season and I expect him to have an increased role this year.

Davis Tull and David Onyemata are the wild cards here as their playing experience sample sizes are small to begin with. Word around the street in Manitoba is that the Saints may have taken the steal of the draft in Onyemata. His college coach explained that former Canadian football transplant and former Saint Akiem Hicks had already reached his ceiling by the time he came into the NFL. But when it comes to Onyemata, this coach thought he was still on the ground floor. Apparently this guy is a freak of athleticism, and his potential is limitless.

4-3 Middle Linebacker "Mike" Traits

1) Large

2) Strong

3) Great communicator and QB of defense

4) Above average speed to cover receivers 10-20 yards downfield

5) Stop run

6) Drop into pass coverage

Prototype: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

(6’3", 238 lbs, 31" Arm Length, 9" Hands, 4.58 sec 40 yard dash)

3-4 ILB Strong-side "Mike" Traits

1) Large

2) Strong

3) Bruiser that can take on blocks to free "Will" to roam

Prototype: Patrick Willis (I know he’s retired, but he may be the best to ever play the position)

(6’1", 242 lbs, 4.51 sec 40 yard dash)

Saints Middle Linebackers "Mike":

James Laurinaitus: 6’2" / 248 lbs / 4.82 sec 40 yard dash

-Leader of the defense/ chief communicator

-Tackling machine who wraps up on first contact

-Durable, intelligent, and experienced

-Declining ability to attack run game

Michael Mauti: 6’2" / 243 lbs / 31" Arm length / 10" Hands /

-Valuable special teamer

-Not an every down leader of the defense

-Decent in pass coverage

-Lacks explosiveness and speed

Prescription: How about a big old question mark here?

After seeing the prototypes for this position, I am feeling uneasy with our roster for the first time this offseason. Laurinaitus was great in St. Louis for almost a decade, but his declining production could be more due to age than health even as he dealt with several injuries last year, albeit without missing a game. He wasn't really fast ten years ago, so I can only venture to guess that he’s even slower now. Of course his experience, leadership ability, and communication skills will be an upgrade over Stephone Anthony, but the Saints certainly aren’t upgrading the position with regard to age and athleticism.

Michael Mauti had one of my top favorite plays of last season with his Gleason-esque blocked punt and TD return against Atlanta. But let’s be honest, he’s a great special teamer, yet not a quarterback of a defense. He’s smart with good instincts and pass coverage skills, but he’s an average athlete compared to other NFL linebackers. Obviously the bar has been set extremely high by players like Kuechly and Willis, but Mauti is nowhere in the same realm as those guys.

4-3 Strong-side Linebacker "Sam" Traits

1) Large

2) Strong

3) Able to block strongest blockers, tackles, and tight ends

4) Attack the run

5) Take on blockers

6) Blitz occasionally

Prototype: Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

(6’3", 265 lbs, 32" Arm Length, 9" Hands, 4.68 40 yard dash)

Vonn Miller, Denver Broncos

(6’3", 250 lbs, 33" Arm Length, 9" Hands, 4.53 sec 40 yard dash, top performer for his position in vertical jump, broad jump, 3 cone drill, 20 yard shuttle, and 60 yard shuttle)

3-4 Outside Linebacker "Sam" Traits

1) Cover

2) Blitz

3) Attack the run

Prototype: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

(6’3", 255 lbs, 4.67 sec 40 yard dash)

Saints Strong-Side "Sam" Linebackers:

Stephone Anthony: 6’3" / 243 lbs / 32" Arm length / 10" Hands / 4.56 sec 40 yard dash

-Great size and speed for position

-Good tackler, over 100 tackles rookie year

-Good ball skills and intelligent

-Trouble with shedding blocks at times

-Takes bad angles at times

Craig Robertson: 6’1" / 234 lbs / 4.76 sec 40 yard dash

-Greatly improved in pass coverage

-Good special teamer

-Struggles against the run

-Not an every down backer

Prescription: 4-3 Base Defense

Wow, I feel better already. Maybe Stephone Anthony’s switch to "Sam" this year will allow him to play more aggressively and free without having to worry about calling plays for the rest of the defense. His measurables are almost identical to the prototype, and after proving his durability, tackling ability, and instinctual play, this move may pay instant dividends for the Saints defense.

Craig Robertson was solid yet unspectacular in Cleveland, but he’s experienced and has shown much growth as a pass defender since he entered the league. He will be extremely valuable on special teams and serve as a younger, healthier upgrade to our linebacker depth compared to last year.

4-3 Weak-side Linebacker "Will" Traits

1) Roams more freely

2) Must be good in pass coverage

3) Protects against screen passes

4) Blitzes occasionally

Prototype: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Bucs

(6’1", 233 lbs, 4.65 sec 40 yard dash)

Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals

(6’1", 250 lbs, 5.09 sec 40 yard dash)

3-4 Inside Linebacker Weak-side "Will" Traits

1) Blitz

2) Attack the run

3) Pass coverage

4) Keeps eyes on QB

ILB Prototype: Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers

(6’0", 242 lbs, 33" Arm Length, 10" Hands, 4.70 sec 40 yard dash)

Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs

(6’3", 242 lbs, 4.65 sec 40 yard dash)

Saints Weak-Side Linebackers:

Dannell Ellerbe: 6’1" / 245 lbs / 4.63 sec 40 yard dash

-Great in coverage

-Good ball skills

-Good tackler

-Incredibly injury prone, and has never played a full 16 game season

Nate Stupar: 6’2" / 240 lbs / 4.78 sec 40 yard dash, top performer for his position in 3 cone drill and 60 yard shuttle

-Expert edge setter


-Great special teamer

-Depth player

Prescription: Either scheme would work

I love Dannell Ellerbe. I remember when he made the game clinching tackle in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy since, and has only played in 7 games the last two seasons combined. However, when Ellerbe suited up for the Saints in 6 games last season, they won 5, and it was clear our defense functioned better with him on the field. He’s fantastic in pass coverage and a sure tackler. If he can stay on the field this year, I guarantee the Saints defense will improve, especially against pass catching tight ends, who routinely torched them.

Nate Stupar is another younger, more durable upgrade for linebacker depth. He won’t be a liability in the run and will certainly help solidify the special team unit. If Ellerbe goes down, which sadly is a distinct possibility, the linebacker unit won’t suffer as much as last season.

3-4 Outside Linebacker "Jack" Traits

1) Premier pass rusher

2) Routinely beat right and left tackles on way to QB

Prototype: Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

(6’3", 258 lbs, 4.68 sec 40 yard dash, top performer for his position in bench press, vertical jump, and broad jump)

Saints Outside Linebacker "Jack":

Hau’oli Kikaha: 6’3" / 246 lbs / 4.9 sec 40 yard dash

Prescription: 4-3 Base Defense

After Kikaha started strong last season as a potential defensive rookie of the year candidate, his playing time and production fell off a freaking cliff. This, in my opinion is more due to the way Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen employed his talents than the lingering ankle injury he suffered mid-season. Though Kikaha is calling his role a "Jack" this season, I think the term is being applied loosely, and means that he is going to be rushing the passer more than dropping into pass coverage.

The Saints just don’t have a lights out, dominant pass rusher on the roster to employ the 3-4. Kikaha should hopefully improve in his second season, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to produce like Justin Houston.

It seems clear that Dennis Allen should utilize the 4-3 base defense. In actuality, the Saints will most likely install a hybrid defense with aspects of both systems along with a multitude of nickel packages. The most important factor will be whether or not the system allows the players to play fast, aggressively, and within the bounds of their strengths rather than exposing their weaknesses. It will be truly exciting to see what roles each player will carve out for themselves during training camp. Until then, I look forward to reading your comments and opinions!