|Jonathan Vilma and the Saints are having a tough year all around. (US Presswire)|
The New Orleans Saints aren't just awful on defense. They're historically awful, on track to set league records for futility, incompetence and downright deplorable play, and that's a problem. It would be nice if you could point to a player, scheme or game that's responsible ... but you can't.
And that's a bigger problem.
According to coaches, scouts and personnel directors who studied the Saints' defense, there are no quick fixes out there. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo acknowledged as much, saying he can't wave a "magic wand" to make the Saints better. Read between the lines, people: What he's telling you is that this might take more than a season to correct.
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And the reason is simple.
"They just don't have the players to run the scheme right now," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst with the NFL Network and Fox.
Billick's comments were echoed by four others I polled on the subject, and their responses were unanimous: The root of the Saints' defensive headaches extend far, far beyond a new scheme implemented by a new coordinator -- and you can start with the players that New Orleans fields on defense. They're not fast. They don't produce takeaways. And there's not an elite pass rusher among them.
Add a new coordinator with a plan that requires a lot of movement and players in the right positions, and you not only have a dilemma; you have the league's worst-ranked defense.
"It's 180 degrees from what Gregg Williams was doing," said one GM. "They've gone from being a pressure defense that plays a lot of man-to-man to a pressure defense with a lot of blitz zone.
"I understand this was going to take time for players to get because there was going to be a lot of thinking -- instead of reacting -- that was involved, especially early, where players weren't sure they were in the right positions and where they were thinking more about where they should be. And that's happening. I guess what I'm saying is that you're not really going to know about these guys until Year Two."
That means this defense isn't fixable -- at least not this season -- and more than one respondent all but guaranteed it. Their point: Under Williams, the Saints thrived on takeaways, with coach Sean Payton content to have a unit that surrendered yards and points as long as it produced turnovers. And Williams' defenses did.
In fact, when the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009, they had 39 takeaways -- second only to Green Bay (40) -- with safety Darren Sharper tied for the league lead in interceptions (9). They ranked 25th in overall defense, but it didn't matter. Their takeaways produced short fields -- and points -- for their offense, and Drew Brees took advantage.
You can look it up. Nobody scored more points or more touchdowns that season than New Orleans.
Well, that's not happening anymore. Look at this week's NFL statistics, and you'll find New Orleans with nine takeaways. Only seven clubs have fewer. Worse, look at their safeties. They have one, and, as one scout told me, "that's hard to do." Not here it's not, which is where Brees and the Saints' offense come in.
New Orleans' defensive problems aren't just the product of players who don't fit ... or get ... Spagnuolo's scheme. The Saints' offense has something to do with it, too, and let me explain. When the 2009 Saints won the Super Bowl, there was no more efficient or effective unit out there than Brees and Co. It ranked first in yards, first in scoring, fourth in passing and sixth in rushing. Furthermore, Brees was the league's leading passer -- a guy who produced a raft of touchdowns (34) and few mistakes (11 interceptions).
Now, fast forward to this season, and you find Brees and the Saints' offense out of sync. Where they averaged 31.9 points per game in 2009, they average 27.1 today. Where Brees completed 70.6 percent of his passes in 2009 he completes 59.7 percent today. Where his passer rating was 109.6 then, it's 93.0 now. Where the Saints could run then, they can't now.
I think you get the picture. The loss of Payton has had more than just an impact on Brees and the Saints' blitzkrieg offense; it's had an impact on the entire operation.
"When you're lousy on defense," one coach said. "your offense has to help you."
Well, that's not happening, either. The Saints used to score in bunches, often getting on top of opponents early and forcing them to take chances. Result: The Saints had 64 takeaways in 2009-10. Now, they're often forced to play catch-up, trailing at halftime in five of their first seven games. The impact has been felt by an overwhelmed defense that can't afford to take chances.
"It's easy to blame the new scheme," said one personnel director, "and that's part of it. But a lot of it has to do with their players. There's no speed, there's no pass rush and there are no playmakers. They're just not very athletic on defense. All of their good players are on offense."
The results speak for themselves. The Saints rank 30th against the pass and 31st against the run; opposing quarterbacks have an NFL-best 110.6 passer rating; opposing backs average 5.0 yards per carry; the Saints yield an average ... an average ... of 474.7 yards per game, with all but one opponent scoring 27 or more points on them; and they lost to Kansas City ... Kansas City, for crying out loud ... after blowing a 24-6 second-half lead.
In short, they stink, and there's no immediate fix. Where Spagnuolo had elite pass rushers for his front four with the New York Giants, he doesn't have them in New Orleans. Where he had a running game in New York and St. Louis to complement a passing attack and wear down opponents, he doesn't have one in New Orleans. Where there was hope with his last two defensive units, there is none now.
The New Orleans Saints are broken on defense, and it's going to take time to correct. Moreover, it's going to take players who fit Spagnuolo's design -- not the design of past Saints defenses -- and that's another dilemma: Will the Saints have the patience to ride this one out, or will Payton want to make a change when he returns in 2013?
"Essentially, it's do you want to go for the short-term solution?" said one coach. "Or do you make a commitment to 'Spags' and his philosophy for the long term? Because if you do, you're going to have to get different players."