Venturi emphasizes club's speed, strength
By DON HAMMACK
THE SUN HERALD
NEW ORLEANS - Saints look for winning formula
He resembles a mad scientist at times.
His grey-streaked hair can be somewhat of a mess coming off the practice field. His speech has a little bit of a ranting quality until he winds down from supervising his charges.
That's Rick Venturi, the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, for you. In fact, you can almost picture him in his office, combining the contents of beakers (or pieces of defensive schemes) and trying to invent new compounds (or infuse new players).
He's also one of the best quotes around.
He's using a throw-them-into-the-fire technique to get his young players ready for the 2003 season.
"There's no way to learn but by doing," Venturi said. "What you learn by watching is you learn how to watch good."
Venturi called the first minicamp in early May a "gym class" and said he'd never lost a spring practice in his 20-plus years as a coach.
The winning and losing comes in the fall and all the preparation the Saints coaches are making now will determine which side of the ledger is weighted more heavily come the first of January.
Venturi knows that his crew of defenders had more than their share of problems last season. They gave up 20 or more points in every game but the season finale. They allowed opponents an average of 4.5 yards per rushing attempt, a number not conducive to winning.
It didn't take much analysis to pinpoint the club's primary weaknesses. It provided one clear mandate in the rebuilding plans.
"We are a faster team," Venturi said. "I don't think we compromised strength, either. That was an objective."
Perhaps no player personifies that objective more than Tebucky Jones, the man brought in to replace Sammy Knight.
Jones is bigger than Knight. He's faster than Knight. He's got better cover skills than Knight, whose vulnerability there became obvious when teams spread their offenses to keep up with the track meets the Saints offense turned games into much of last season.
Jones played cornerback for the New England Patriots, who felt like they never utilized his full potential. The Saints have struck gold by trying to nab players whose careers are ascending (see Joe Horn) and are hoping the same happens here.
They are hoping his skill set can dramatically alter their approach in substitution patterns. Instead of sending in the nickel package in obvious passing situations, they hope to defend some of them in their base personnel package by using Jones to cover wideouts.
"That has a shotgun effect. If you can do that, it helps your run defense," Venturi said. "I felt our biggest run problems last year came in the nickel defenses. We're going to play those better, hopefully, but I also think we can play some regular defense with him."
Overall team speed becomes all the more important after you look at the Saints' schedule. When you play against teams with quarterbacks like Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, Tennessee's Steve McNair, Chicago's Kordell Stewart, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Houston's David Carr, limiting their mobility is important.
It's life-or-death when you have to play Michael Vick twice. In fact, the Atlanta dynamo provides one-third of an NFC South challenge. His elusiveness is offset by Tampa Bay's reliance on pocket passer Brad Johnson running Jon Gruden's expansive offense and Carolina's vanilla offense that tries let its dominating defense provide the sparks to win.
"We have to be adaptable in that sense," Venturi said. "I think there's more of a premium in front seven speed than there's ever been."
Gone is the Heavy Lunch Bunch. In its place is a revamped approach to line play.
The Saints plan on starting first-round pick Johnathan Sullivan as the nose tackle always lined up over the center. Kenny Smith is the tentative starter at defensive tackle and will line up outside one of the offensive guards.
Relying on young players like Sullivan and Smith highlights one of the problems today's NFL coaches face: Where does your leadership come from?
"In modern day football, you don't nurture a team," Venturi said. "Guys that were leaders back in the Sam Mills era, those guys played together for years. This stuff has to be established in the next four months."
Four months for the mad scientist to try to gin up an improved defense.
Here are the top three questions facing the Saints as they continue their offseason work:
1. Can the cornerbacks get the job done?
The only tweaking the Saints did at this position was signing Ashley Ambrose. He's 33 and it means that the top three cornerbacks (Dale Carter, Fred Thomas) on the Saints roster will be at least 30 by the regular-season home opener.
2. Can the youngsters step up?
The Saints will be relying heavily on third-year veteran Sedrick Hodge, second-year player James Allen and Mel Mitchell and rookie Johnathan Sullivan.
3. Can they stop the run?
The Saints ranked 26th against the run, the second season in a row they struggled against it. They're hoping their improved team speed will help fix this problem, but it remains to be seen after the implosion of the Heavy Lunch Bunch.
Venturi emphasizes club's speed, strength
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