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Rookies, young vets expected to boost Saints' D

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; http://espn.go.com/nfl/trainingcamp0...9/1599101.html Rookies, young vets expected to boost Saints' D ------------------------------------------------------------------------ By Brian Allee-Walsh Pro Football Weekly NEW ORLEANS -- There is nowhere to go but up for a Saints defense that embarrassed itself a year ago, finishing 27th leaguewide and ...

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Old 08-22-2003, 06:29 PM   #1
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Rookies, young vets expected to boost Saints' D


Rookies, young vets expected to boost Saints' D
By Brian Allee-Walsh
Pro Football Weekly

NEW ORLEANS -- There is nowhere to go but up for a Saints defense that embarrassed itself a year ago, finishing 27th leaguewide and yielding at least 20 points in all but one game.

The improvement must start up front, particularly in the interior defensive line where the Saints proved vulnerable against the run. Opponents averaged nearly 125 yards per game in 2002.

The tweaking began on Draft Day, when head coach Jim Haslett traded two No. 1 draft picks to the Cardinals for the right to select Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan at No. 6. A day later, Haslett picked up salary-cap room by dealing underachieving defensive tackle Norman Hand to the Seahawks.

Howard has recorded 25 sacks in his three seasons with the Saints.So when the Saints open up the regular season against those same Seahawks on Sept. 7, the starting front four should feature Darren Howard at right end, Grady Jackson and Sullivan at the tackles and Charles Grant at left end.

Howard suffered a sprained knee in the preseason game vs. the Jets, but it wasn't considered a major injury at presstime.

Key reserves are defensive tackle Kenny Smith and swingman Willie Whitehead. Veteran defensive tackle Henry Ford, a late addition to the training-camp roster, has been hobbled by an ankle sprain in camp. Rookie free agent Kenderick Allen from LSU is pushing for a roster spot at tackle.

On paper, the D-line is vastly improved. But Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi quickly will tell you what to do with that paper. Burn it.

"I don't play the game on paper," Venturi said. "It's all talk about how good anybody is going to be. But for us to be real good along the D-line, two things have to happen: Darren Howard and Charles Grant, because of their ability, need to have great seasons. Not good seasons, they need to have great seasons. They need to be impact-type guys.

"Then, secondly, the tackle position has to sort itself out. Johnathan has to play as advertised. Grady certainly can bring it when his game is there.

Kenny is moving upward. Martin has always played hard. Willie can play outside and inside. And I like what I've seen from Kenderick. But, hey, let's go out there and play. Right now it's all speculation."

The speculation began immediately after the 2002 season when Haslett and Venturi decided to revamp a defense that had become soft and slow up the middle.

Just as baseball teams build up the gut at catcher, shortstop, second base and centerfield, Haslett and Venturi wanted to redo their defensive infrastructure up the gut -- at tackle, middle linebacker and safety.

Out went Hand, in came Sullivan. They signed free agent middle linebacker Orlando Ruff from the Chargers and acquired free safety Tebucky Jones from the Patriots.

Other new starters include second-year strong safety Mel Mitchell, veteran weak-side linebacker Derrick Rodgers (acquired in a trade from Miami) and Grant (a second-year end). Veteran cornerback Ashley Ambrose, a free agent from Atlanta, also could earn a starting job.

Now it's a matter of coming together and playing in sync.

"I like the lineup we have now," said Howard, who has posted a club-record 25 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. "We're still trying to figure out who's going to hold down the middle for us for the long run."

Howard, the 33rd overall pick in the 2000 draft, is the longest-tenured starter on the Saints' defensive line (three seasons). He has outlasted former defensive linemates Joe Johnson (who went to Green Bay), La'Roi Glover (to Dallas) and Hand (to Seattle).

"Since I've been here it's been like the caterpillar turning into the butterfly," Howard said. "We started out here three years ago, and like now I'm the only guy left. A lot of people have come and a lot of people have gone over that period.

"Every year it seems like we always lose one guy and gain another guy. The way I look at it now is, I have to accept that we're not going to get those guys back. We (have to) play with who we have now. And I think we have a good chance to be a good defensive line with who we have now."

How good depends on the development of Sullivan inside and Grant outside. Grant, the 25th overall pick in 2002, started six games at left defensive end in 2002 and finished second on the team in sacks with seven. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown against Carolina.

"Last year I didn't get a chance to show what I have," Grant said. "Last year, they didn't believe in a lot of rookies just stepping in and playing right away, so I had to wait my turn. And I ain't used to that. But they worked me in there, and it worked out for the good.

"I'm three times hungrier than I was last year. It's like I'm on a whole different level this year. Like this is something I (have) to do to be successful. I should have had 13 or 14 sacks last year instead of seven. I missed six or seven."

Said Haslett: "It's a talented group of defensive linemen, but we're just going to have to play it out over the preseason. I know this: Somebody needs to step up here the next couple of weeks at defensive tackle for us to be good. And I think that will happen."

Brian Allee-Walsh covers the Saints for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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