I recently wrote another article of a similar nature for the Saints offense, and decided I might as well try to cover both sides of the ball (and maybe just maybe the Saints will do the same this season). Before I get too deep into looking at how the Saints defense could evolve in 2017, I want to point out a key difference between the offense and the defense (beyond one being good and one being....not).
An offensive system is primarily based on the idea of leveraging playmakers to create matchups and dictate coverages to the defense through the use of formations and personnel groupings. At its most basic, the driving force behind an offense is the individual’s ability to capitalize on their opportunities. However, a defense is based around the ability to negate and take away these attempts to seize control by the offense. In their very natures, offense is proactive and defense is reactive, and this changes how both must be designed to succeed.
Any defense, regardless of scheme or personnel, is designed to minimize the viable options available to an opponent, and with the exception of one position, this cannot be done by any one player, but MUST be a team effort. The one exception to this rule is a defensive end or EDGE player who is able to directly impact the offense. They do this by neutralizing the offensive line and ending a play before it can develop. The reason why these players are so coveted in the NFL is that asking 11 players to consistently and cooperatively negate the efforts of their opponents is very difficult, and asking them to do so when the only ones who know exactly what the offense is trying to do on any given play are the offensive players themselves is pretty much impossible.
Without an elite defensive end (and really a complete defensive line as a whole as well), there is no way to truly shut down the opposing offense. However, what you can do through scheme and personnel is narrow the margins for error for an offense and drastically increase the difficulty of executing for them. The goal of the defense is always to narrow the margin for error so much, that the offense has to be close to perfect on any given play, and because of how many plays occur in a game this gives the defense many opportunities to stop their opponent, or better yet take the ball away.
With all of that said, the question is how does this apply to the Saints in 2017, and what can they do to reduce those margins for their opponents. The answer comes in two parts: Identity and Personnel.
In large part due to injuries, the Saints played a LOT of zone coverage last year, and it was something that drove fans nuts. I lost count of how many times we saw the corners lined up 6 yards off from a receiver when it was 3rd and 8, and watching the receiver easily pick up the first down. Watching them give up first down after first down was exasperating, but it was also by design. The Saints didn’t have a great pass rush, had an extremely vulnerable interior (especially in the games Kenny Vaccaro didn’t play), and had known liabilities playing corner. They made a choice to make teams beat them through sustained drives while desperately trying to minimize ‘big plays’, and for the most part it worked.
There is a degree to which personnel will dictate scheme as you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) run a defense that you don’t have the players to execute. With that said, every defensive coordinator has certain tendencies and preferences when it comes to how they run their defense. Ideally, Dennis Allen would like to be able to run more man coverage where he shades the safeties over to help certain players based on the matchups, and leaves the front 7 open to be multiple and aggressive. That means any player can blitz, can drop into coverage, or can ‘stay home’. Allen loves to create confusion in the front 7 and send pressure from different alignments in order to get more opportunities to affect the quarterback. Obviously, every scheme works best with a team full of Pro Bowlers, but Allen’s defense (when executed) allows less than elite players to still have a positive impact.
With just a little bit of injury luck this year, the Saints should field a defense that approaches the game very differently from last year. Due to injuries and talent deficiencies, last year’s defense was forced to rely on a bend and try really, really hard not to break mentality. This year’s defense should field actual NFL level corners and will not be employing a cadaver opposite Cameron Jordan, which opens up the playbook. More than anything expect there to be a much more aggressive approach from the defense.
This isn’t limited to just ‘dialing it up’ and sending in the blitzes like Gregg Williams used to do. The Saints should have a very good front 4, and an improved front 7 overall which mitigates the damage they will suffer to their greatest weakness, a lack of speed up front. The 3-safety sets will very clearly be a major part of the defense, and the advantage that gives the team is the ability to adapt coverages to fit the opponents personnel groups, without having to change players on the field. The more things you could possibly do, the more things the opponent has to prepare for, and the more things they have to prepare for the longer it can take to make decisions which always helps the defense.
The one area I fully expect the Saints to aggressively target as a major focus area is stopping their opponents from running the ball and attacking the short/intermediate areas of the field. This was a critical weakness the last few years, and the combination of better linebackers (we hope) and having both Vonn Bell and Vaccaro lined up within the first 10-15 yards will help improve the team’s ability to execute.
As much grief as Saints fans have given the team for the embarrassing performances the defense has put in the last few years, not all of that is in the hands of the coaches. While certainly all of the coaches who have been let go since 2011 deserved it, there has also been a serious deficit of talent on the roster. The combination of poor coaching for development, bad drafts, injuries, and free agent busts is one that no team could recover from. The question is how do you address these issues.
The first step to building a defense is to establish and build an identity. This defines not only your scheme, but also your approach and how you as a defense approach the game. The second step is to analyze current personnel and how they fit into that vision, adjust the vision slightly as needed to best maximize your best players, and then begin adding in talented players who fit into the new vision to best maximize your potential.
The Saints have now completed the first two steps, and are working on adding in the personnel they need to achieve their maximum potential as a defense. Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are both sure tacklers who have the necessary range and coverage ability to play in both nickel and base defenses. Delvin Breaux and Marshon Lattimore both have shut down potential which allows a defense to be MUCH more aggressive up front because they can trust the coverage on the back end. Marcus Williams brings athleticism and playmaking to a deep safety role the Saints have wanted to fill since the criminal had one last great year in 2009. Rafael Bush provides the presence of a consistent and reliable veteran who still possesses range and a tendency to leave an impression when he hits.
The biggest change is in the linebacking corp. The Saints fielded exactly one NFL level athlete at linebacker last year (two if you count Stephone Anthony’s body and Ellerbe’s half season as a complete player). They added A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o (meh), and Alex Anzalone to help bolster the unit. The goal clearly isn’t to have the Dome Patrol in New Orleans again, but to bring the unit to a level where they are at least competent. Not being a liability is one of the forgotten keys to being a good defense (fans focus way too much on stars who make big plays and not enough on JAGS who make the right play every time).
Finally, the Saints have what could be a dominating front 4 with Cameron Jordan, Nick Fairley, Sheldon Rankins, and Alex Okafor. While Okafor isn’t likely to be a Pro Bowler, he is a proven veteran who still has positive athletic traits which wasn’t something we could say opposite Jordan last year. The Saints were one of the league leaders in quarterback hits last season, and if the coverage improves slightly and teams are less able to take Jordan out of the game by virtually ignoring the opposite spot, it’s a very reasonable assumption to say they will convert more hits into sacks. With what could be an elite interior the Saints should have the ability to minimize or even shut down the run game, which will significantly improve the overall performance.
The reality is that the Saints have a good scheme, seem to be working towards a real identity as a defense, and can reasonably be expected to improve. However, if they want to step into the next tier of defenses and move into the top 10, then they will have to get better from a talent perspective, and specifically they need to get faster. I expect the Saints to be aggressive and to try to take the ball away a lot this year, and there should be greater improvement in this regard. But to be a true ‘good’ defense they still have work to do.