A rapid fire look at the defense....
A RAPID-FIRE LOOK AT THE SAINTS' DEFENSE
By Brian Allee-Walsh
Unsung hero: Cornerback Fred Thomas . . . It seems each season people try to write Thomas out of the equation, and each season he steps up to the challenge. He's a quality player who doesn't always get the recognition he justly deserves.
Irreplaceable: Middle linebacker Darrin Smith. . . . His vast experience could prove a godsend this season, especially playing middle linebacker where he excels at putting teammates in the right position. His presence is comforting to defensive coordinator Rick Venturi.
Key stat: The Saints are 16-8 in road games under Coach Jim Haslett since his arrival in 2000, a stellar .677 winning percentage. Only Philadelphia (18-6) has a better road record the past three seasons. On the other hand, the Saints are a disappointing 10-14 at home. That won't cut it.
Did you know? The team's sack total has tumbled from a franchise-high 66 in 2000 to 53 in 2001 to 39 in 2002. That's a significant drop-off. Just wondering if it has anything to do with the departures of La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson.
Impact newcomer: Free safety Tebucky Jones. . . . Haslett wanted this player during the offseason because of his size and speed. Jones, who has a reputation for being a big hitter, brings a certain presence to the secondary. Now he needs to make plays.
Something special: Fred McAfee. . . . Fast Freddie seems to get better with age. A Pro Bowl performer in 2002, McAfee loves to play the game and serves as a leader on and off the field. He's a difference-maker on special teams.
Worst-case scenario: For the Saints to improve on defense this season, rookie defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan and veteran left cornerback Dale Carter must produce at their positions. If they don't on a consistent basis, the defense will suffer because of it.
Best-case scenario: On paper, Saints' officials appear to have upgraded the defense. Now all the new and old faces must come together and play as one. The sooner that can be accomplished, the better the team will be. With possibly six new starters on defense, that might be easier said than done.
Super sub: Defensive lineman Willie Whitehead . . . He had a chance to leave via free agency but decided to re-sign with New Orleans. He is a capable end and tackle and gives Haslett much-needed flexibility. He plays with a lot of passion and quietly gets the job done.
On the spot: Defensive tackle Grady Jackson. . . . Although Jackson had team officials worried when he didn't participate in the offseason conditioning program, he seems to have his head screwed on right going into the regular season. He can be a force in the middle when his mind and weight are right.
Breakout season: Right defensive end Darren Howard . . . Haslett and Venturi are expecting great things from Howard, who's in the final year of his contract. He has a club-record 25 sacks in his first three NFL seasons. An impact season could result in a mega-bucks deal.
Haz says: "I'm excited about where we are and with all the new players we've brought in on defense since the end of last season. Now we've just got to go out and play the way I know we're capable of playing. I think we will. Time will tell."
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