Saints' defense learning Spagnuolo's way

Associated Press  |  Last updated May 24, 2012

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 27: Head coach Steve Spagnuolo of the St. Louis Rams signals during the game with the Arizona Cardinals on December 27, 2009 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals won 31-10. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The all-out blitzing the Saints unleashed during recent seasons appears to be a thing of the past under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins is lining up closer to the line of scrimmage and is no longer a tackler of last resort. Martez Wilson, drafted last year to play linebacker, finds himself practicing at defensive end. New Orleans' defense looks and even sounds different under Spagnuolo, who is more understated than his brazen predecessor, Gregg Williams, though not necessarily less aggressive. ''Spags' defense isn't a sit-back defense,'' Jenkins said Thursday, after the Saints completed their first set of offseason practices, known as organized team activities. ''It's not your all-out pressures that you get from a Gregg Williams, but he does have a lot of pressures coming from a lot of different places and preaches playing fast,'' Jenkins added. ''You'll still see the aggressive style of play with swarming and everybody getting to the ball.'' Williams left the Saints shortly after they were eliminated by San Francisco in last season's playoffs. He then took a job as St. Louis' defensive coordinator, but was later suspended indefinitely in connection with the NFL's findings that Williams ran a bounty program in New Orleans that offered cash bonuses for injurious hits from 2009 to 2011. The Saints' defense is moving on under Spagnuolo, a recent head coach in St. Louis who is perhaps better known for his previous job as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator. In New York, Spagnuolo oversaw a dominant defensive line that battered Tom Brady in the 2008 Super Bowl, allowing the Giants to narrowly upset a heavily favored and previously unbeaten New England squad that had rewritten NFL scoring records. While Spagnuolo might be more inclined to rush four or five defenders than the six or even seven the Saints routinely sent the past few seasons, he still expects to apply pressure on the quarterback. ''We don't care where the pressure comes from. ... We'll bring it from all different directions,'' Spagnuolo said. ''You win up front, offensively and defensively. ... There will be an emphasis on winning up front first, both on the run and the pass, and I think we have guys that can do that.'' One reason Wilson has been moved to right defensive end is because his speed and versatility allows him to rush the passer or drop into coverage. Spagnuolo also wants New Orleans to play more zone, which he believes will result in fewer big plays given up than last season, when heavy blitzing often left cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson in man-to-man coverage with little or no help from safeties. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who coaches linebackers and also is acting as head coach during Sean Payton's season-long suspension in connection with the bounty probe, said the change to more zone made sense ''because of the big plays taking place in the National Football League right now.'' ''Against zone defense, they are less prevalent,'' Vitt said. ''It is a little bit of a transition for Patrick and Jabari, but they have really done a good job so far.'' Vitt said the Saints' defense last season gave up 99 big plays, which New Orleans defines as either a run of 10 or more yards or a pass of 20 or more yards. ''Too many,'' said Jenkins, who used to line up more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage and often was the only one left to make the tackle when the blitz wasn't effective. This season, Jenkins said, he and strong safety Roman Harper will have similar roles, with either able to move up in running situations or drop into zone coverage and do some ball-hawking. ''Instead of it being a clean-up role like it's been the last couple years, I'll be closer to the ball and that'll always give you some opportunities to make some more plays,'' Jenkins said. Spagnuolo also has a number of players on his unit who weren't in New Orleans last season, including free-agent acquisition Curtis Lofton, who will start at middle linebacker if Jonathan Vilma's full-season suspension in the bounty investigation is upheld. Fellow free-agent signing David Hawthorne also is working with the first team. The Saints have another new linebacker in Chris Chamberlain, who played for Spagnuolo in St. Louis. Defensive back Marquis Johnson is another former Ram who is now with New Orleans and is hoping to see time at nickel back. Spagnuolo said he will adapt his schemes to players' strengths and weaknesses, so while some changes are evident already, the finished product remains months away, particularly in light of the fact that players do not wear full pads during OTAs. ''I don't know if I have the personnel part figure out yet,'' Spagnuolo said. ''It's not real football until you put pads on. ... It's going to take a little while here as a staff before we've got it figured out which direction we're going to go, and we're going to need some games, some preseason games. We're going to need some football contact out here.'' Notes: There were no signs of progress in the club's protracted contract negotations with Drew Brees, who is holding out for a long-term extension. Chase Daniel is running the first-team offense until Brees returns. Saints players said they miss Brees but that Daniel is performing well. ''Chase runs the huddle awfully similar to Drew,'' right tackle Zach Strief said. ''The ball is coming out well, Chase is doing a good job, making the right calls and putting us in the right positions. ... It's good for him to get the (work). It can only help our team.'' ... Vilma, who is appealing his suspension, attended all three OTAs this week. He was in meetings but sat out most of the work on the field so he could focus on rehabilitating from minor offseason surgery on his left knee. Vitt said that because the Saints are permitted to have players at headquarters for only six hours per day during OTA's, that approach made more sense. ... Spagnuolo said LB Jonathan Casillas did not practice this week because of a sore back.
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