Saints add speed to revamped defense
Wednesday, August 6
Saints add speed to revamped defense
By Len Pasquarelli
METAIRIE, La. -- In the office of Rick Venturi, leaning against a wall behind the big screen television on which the New Orleans defensive coordinator is half-watching Wolf Blitzer, while charting some blitzes for the next day's practice, is a placard that spells out the veteran coach's 10 commandments for playing great defense.
You know, nuggets such as these, in coach-speak: Eliminate explosive plays. Eliminate dumb penalties. Eleven-man run defense.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“ The record book might say we were 9-7 last year but, when we sat down and started to analyze where we were and where we wanted to get to, we treated the defense as if we had been 1-15. So we tweaked some of the stuff we do. We put an emphasis on some new areas. And we brought in a lot of guys who can run. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â€Â Rick Venturi, Saints defensive coordinator
Some of the commandments deal with mental preparation. Most address the physical side of the game. And of that latter subset, several are devoted to skills in which speed clearly is implied. Now here's the twist: In 2003, speed will be applied by a Saints unit that was dramatically overhauled in the offseason.
"The record book might say we were 9-7 last year but, when we sat down and started to analyze where we were and where we wanted to get to, we treated the defense as if we had been 1-15," said Venturi, sucking down coffee, chomping hard on his gum and, for the most part, just being the mad scientist/defensive tinkerer he has been for two-plus decades in the league. "So we tweaked some of the stuff we do. We put an emphasis on some new areas. And we brought in a lot of guys who can run."
The result is that a defense which statistically finished No. 27 in '02 could have as many as seven new starters, at least two at every positional unit, this season.
The Saints moved up in the first round of the draft to select tackle Johnathan Sullivan. They traded for strong safety Tebucky Jones and weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers. Second-year veterans Charles Grant and Mel Mitchell, at the left end and free safety spots, respectively, were elevated to starter's status. Veteran linebacker Darrin Smith was moved inside, where he will compete with veteran free agent Orlando Ruff for the middle linebacker post. Cornerback Ashley Ambrose, released by Atlanta, was signed as a free agent and is competing with Fred Thomas for the spot opposite Dale Carter.
A lot of moves, for sure, but all aimed at creating more speed and playmaking skills on a defense that surrendered far too many big plays in 2002.
One element of the makeover was that the Saints, playing in the NFC South, will have to contend with Falcons quarterback Michael Vick twice annually over the tenure of his career. But that was simply a tiny component of the need for speed. Venturi has always emphasized running to the football, getting three and four helmets to the point of attack, and his '02 defense, frankly, was clearly sluggish.
In the Saints' complex, they regularly employ the Venturi-coined term "loose plays" to describe one of the defense's blatant shortcomings of last season. Essentially a "loose play," is one in which the field is spread: a draw play, a screen pass and, the ever-dread quarterback scramble.
Coaches can design defensive rules and methodologies, of course, to limit the "loose plays," but there is no better antidote than speed to chase them down. And while the Saints might not win many Olympic medley-relay sprints, their speed is significantly better than in recent seasons. Coupled with that, Venturi has made some fairly subtle changes in coverages, with more zone looks, and with what he calls better "vision to the ball," which translates into keeping the ball in front of you and seeing it better.
"You can tell people to get to the ball but that's a hard thing to do when you don't know where the heck the ball is," Venturi said.
One key area at which the combination of speed and mechanics was obvious during a Tuesday evening practice was the safety spot. New Orleans coaches believe that, just as in baseball, a defense has to be constructed from the inside out. Strength up the middle -- at tackle, linebacker and safety -- is imperative.
New Orleans is gambling that Mitchell and Jones, two superior athletes, will be tough enough and quick enough to make plays. The team chased Jones hard in the offseason, finally striking a deal with New England to land him, and the former first-round choice is a critical performer in the Saints makeover.
Regarded as a tremendous athlete during his five-year New England tenure, Jones still had a dearth of big plays on his resume, and there were some extenuating circumstances. He began his career as a corner. The Patriots used him extensively on special teams. And he logged just 62 percent of the defensive snaps.
Outside of an eye-opening stretch in the final month of the 2001 season, and extending in the playoffs through the Pats' victory in Super Bowl XXXVI, the veteran safety flashed a hint of what he could be when put in position to succeed. Of all the moves that the Saints made, acquiring Jones might be the most intriguing, because he's such a rare combination of size and speed and untapped potential.
Venturi plans to tap that vein this season.
"He has a chance to be the 'alpha dog' in this pack," Venturi said. "There is no Lawyer Milloy here to overshadow him like there was in New England. So we think he's going to step up and be a player for us. I mean, we'll see, you know? With both he and Mitchell, yeah, there's some uncertainty there. There's a little bit of the unknown. But if you're going to change both your safeties, you might as well get guys who can run, some guys with the kind of speed we want around here."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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