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saint5221 07-23-2003 08:42 AM

Venturi discusses the defense

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After a season in which the defense sprung numerous leaks, defensive coordinator Rick Venturi accepts the challenge of turning things around, and an influx of speed is expected to help

Wednesday July 23, 2003

By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

The Saints will be younger, faster and, some believe, decidedly more talented on defense this season.

But there's only one variable that matters to veteran defensive coordinator Rick Venturi.

Will they perform better?

"I honestly don't know," Venturi said Tuesday. "We won't know until Week 16. But, honest to God, I like it this way. It's going to be a challenge."

When the Saints' defense takes the field against Seattle in the opener Sept. 7, as many as eight new starters could be in the lineup.

The club exhausted every resource in its mission to improve a unit that ranked No. 27 in total defense and allowed 20 or more points in its first 15 games last season.

It traded for safety Tebucky Jones and linebacker Derrick Rodgers. It recruited linebacker Orlando Ruff and cornerback Ashley Ambrose in free agency. It drafted defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and linebacker Cie Grant. And, from within, it promoted young reserves Mel Mitchell, James Allen and Kenny Smith to primary roles.

The result has been one of the most extensive defensive overhauls in recent club history. The projected starting lineup includes six players with three years of experience or less, including one rookie and three second-year players. The average age of the starting lineup is expected to be 25.6 years, which could be the youngest in the NFL.

For a club that finished one game out of the playoffs last season, the overhaul could be considered radical and risky.

"We could have sat still after going 9-7, tweaked it a little and said, 'We were just a play away here or there.' But that's not us. We acted like we didn't win a game. We've rolled the dice, and we're going to see what comes up," Venturi said.

The influx of new talent will create competition for starting spots at several positions during training camp, which starts Saturday.

Ruff and veteran Darrin Smith will compete for the starting middle linebacker spot. Rodgers, who was acquired in an April trade with Miami, will try to beat out second-year player James Allen for the starting weak-side linebacker position.

Ambrose and incumbent Fred Thomas will battle for the starting cornerback position opposite Dale Carter. Kenny Smith and Grady Jackson are expected to compete for the starting defensive tackle job opposite Sullivan.

"The overwhelming challenge is to bring all of our new guys together," Venturi said. "The talent is there, no question. We made a commitment to a certain type of player, and it's the job of our staff to bring that together quickly."

After an offseason of study and evaluation, Venturi identified three primary points of emphasis for this season:

-- Eliminating big plays. The Saints define "big plays" as runs that cover 10 or more yards and passes that cover 20 or more yards.

"That's No. 1," Venturi said. "That encompasses scheme, speed, discipline and pursuit. If you keep the rabbit in the circle, you always have a chance to make a play."

-- Improving against the run. The Saints ranked 19th in the league in run defense last season. During their 6-1 start, they allowed an average of 99.1 rushing yards a game. In their 3-6 finish, they allowed an average of 144.1 rushing yards.

-- Controlling "loose plays." Venturi uses the term to describe runs from spread formations, screen passes and quarterback scrambles. Call it the Michael Vick factor.

"Those are the things that hurt us a year ago," said Venturi, whose unit, in addition to its two meetings with Vick, also will face Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Kordell Stewart this season. "We have addressed that schematically, talent-wise, speed-wise. Controlling the movement of the quarterback is huge."

Recent history shows that Venturi's job is not impossible.

Carolina brought in four new starters last season and improved from last in the league to eighth in total defense.

The previous season, the Rams went from 23rd to third in total defense and earned a Super Bowl trip after overhauling their defense with nine new starters.

Coach Jim Haslett and Venturi oversaw a similar improvement in 2000, when the Saints climbed from No. 20 in overall defense to No. 8 and led the NFL with 66 sacks.

"Honest to God, I like the challenge," Venturi said. "I don't know that we've ever worked harder in the offseason to get things going and force things on guys. We don't have the luxury of taking things slow. We took a course in the offseason, and we know we've got to get a lot better. We're going to play hard, play fast and play physical. We're going to get after it."

. . . . . . .

Jeff Duncan can be reached at or (504) 826-3405.

lumm0x 07-23-2003 09:34 AM

Venturi discusses the defense

We took a course in the offseason, and we know we\'ve got to get a lot better.
We\'ll be okay on defense guys. Venturi took a course. It\'s all good now. He knows we need to be better. Problem solved.

SaintNik 07-23-2003 08:42 PM

Venturi discusses the defense
Let\'s hope it wasn\'t the golf course! Then again, he may plan on teaching defense how to hit Eagles, Birdies and such, and avoid that Bogus play of last year.

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