When the Saints hired Steve Spagnuolo to run their defense, the major hope was that they were getting an elite defensive mind minus the pay for performance program (and perhaps more) that came with some. "Spags" brings a new scheme and mindset with him, though the term that best describes his style isn't disimilar from the previous regime: aggressive. The main difference is less blitzing and less man coverage, while still putting major emphasis on getting to the quarterback. The reality of the NFL is most coaches have decent systems and most will work with the right personnel if the players buy into it. If you don't believe me, look how much success the Saints had in year one in Gregg Williams' scheme, and how much they struggled thereafter. It's not like Gregg Williams magically transformed himself from a superstar coach to a bad one in one year. There are so many variables that factor into a team having success, but the bottom line is it's the players carrying out the scheme and they are the ones that ultimately have control on performance. Obviously the Saints felt the talent level on defense was lacking as we saw a roster tweak this offseason.
Coming into the season opener this Sunday against the Redskins...
the Saints will feature four new starters. The difference is just three if you consider Will Smith will come back to start once his suspension is over. That's both significant and surprising, as the changes are big by name but low by volume. The defensive backfield will remain the exact same minus Tracy Porter, but by the end of last season Patrick Robinson had already asserted himself as a superior player. The Saints will count on Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Robinson, all guys they trusted going into the playoffs a year ago. The new "starters" if you will, are at two of three linebacker spots (Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne) and defensive tackle (Brodrick Bunkley). Will Smith will cede his starting spot for four games as mentioned, most likely to a combination of Turk McBride/Junior Galette, before regaining his deserved place the moment he returns. Ironically the one guy Saints fans have always viewed as most replaceable, Scott Shanle, is once again entranched in the starting lineup. Bunkley, Lofton and Hawthorne will dramatically improve run support and tackling, but they'll do very little to improve coverage and pressure on the quarterback. So the message is simple: the Saints believe the talent they have on defense is enough to have success if they can simply stop the run. Bunkley, Hawthorne and Lofton will help them do that. Whether or not the plan is sound is a different question. The big question remains: are McBride/Smith/Cam Jordan/Martez Wilson/Galette good enough to get to the quarterback on their own with less blitzing? That is what it will take for this defense to be successful. If the answer is no, expect a similar experience to what we suffered through as fans in the last two years of the Gregg Williams defense. Ironically, the success of this defense rests largely on those five players, five players the Saints had on their roster a year ago who didn't perform well. Granted, the Saints have the luxury of counting on those five for success because we can largely take for granted that, if healthy, Bunkley/Hawthorne/Lofton will combine to make a massive upgrade over the 2011 version of Aubrayo Franklin/Jo-Lonn Dunbar/Jonathan Vilma. But while the Saints fixed some holes, makes no mistake, they're also relying on the growth and improvement of guys that struggled last season.