GW is molding the defense into multiple specialized units with 9 linebacker packages
New Orleans Saints could mix and match different bodies at strong-side linebacker | NOLA.com
There is no front-runner yet in the battle to replace former New Orleans Saints strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita.
Kerry Maloney/The Times-Picayune
New Orleans Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar is one of the guys fighting for playing time at the linebacker spot that was Scott Fujita's.
"In fact," defensive coordinator Gregg Williams insisted Saturday, "there may not be a front-runner all season."
Williams said Fujita was unique in that he was able to adapt into several different defensive packages. But this year the Saints might do a lot more mixing and matching to feature the specific skill sets of guys like Clint Ingram, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Troy Evans, Jonathan Casillas and Stanley Arnoux.
"Right now, we've got a front-runner in X package, we've got a front-runner in Y package, we've got a front-runner in Z package. And what I'm gonna do is a juggling act, where we've got a starter in each package," said Williams, who said the Saints have 28 different packages on defense, including nine different linebacker-oriented packages.
"There's really about four of these guys right now battling in that one spot, so it will be fun to see," said Williams, who added that the "morale stays really high" when so many players feel like they're playing a valuable role in the defense.
So far in training camp, Evans and Dunbar have been rotating pretty evenly at strong-side linebacker with the first-string defense during team drills, while Ingram remains sidelined as he recovers from April knee surgery.
Williams said he expects Ingram to be heavily in the mix, though, when he returns to the field. Williams knows Ingram well, having coached him for a year as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator in 2008, and he was eager to add him as a free agent despite the injury concerns.
"He'll be in the 'crash dummy' package,'" Williams said of the 6-foot-2, 240-pounder, who figures to be used more as a hammering run stuffer and pass rusher than as a guy who drops back in coverage.
"What you guys are going to like about him, and I think the fans are, he plays so hard," Williams said. "If there's a knock on him, it's that he plays so hard that he struggles to stay healthy, because a body part on him is going to fall off or a body part on you is gonna fall off if he hits you. He doesn't know any way to play in a controlled manner. He plays all out, all the time. That's why I loved him when he was at Jacksonville, and that's why I think he'll fit in here good, too."
Ingram likes the fit, too.
Though he was a starter for most of his four years in Jacksonville, the former third-round draft pick out of Oklahoma never fully realized his potential, and he clearly craved a change in atmosphere.
"It's always good to be around a head coach who doesn't look at the ground when he walks by you and avoids talking to you, versus what I just came from," Ingram said, referring to an apparently fractured relationship with Jaguars Coach Jack Del Rio.
Ingram never had a public falling-out with Del Rio in Jacksonville, but the marriage clearly wasn't working after Ingram battled a series of nagging injuries and inconsistent play over the last four years.
However, while the Jaguars may have gotten frustrated with Ingram's shortcomings, Williams is optimistic that he'll be able to maximize Ingram's strengths in specific packages that suit him best.
First and foremost, Ingram needs to get back on the field. He was hoping to be back in time for the start of camp but admitted that wasn't a very realistic timetable after he had an arthroscopic surgery to remove a cyst, which included a minor microfracture procedure.
Instead, Ingram hopes to be back on the field within a week or two.
"I don't think I'm all the way back, but I don't think I'm too far off," said Ingram, who has been running off to the side with the training staff and working on change-of-direction and other "football movements."
"I'm doing all I can do without going up and hitting someone else," Ingram said.
The other two starting linebackers are set, with Jonathan Vilma in the middle and Scott Shanle on the weak side. Veteran backup Marvin Mitchell fits best as a middle linebacker, who could see time in 3-4 alignments.
As for the other linebackers in that crowded mix for playing time:
- Evans (6-3, 238) has been a special teams specialist throughout his nine-year career, with his first two starts coming last year as an injury replacement for Fujita. But the Saints haven't ruled out a promotion for the trusted veteran, who is a smart player and sure tackler.
- Dunbar (6-0, 226) is a third-year pro with five starts under his belt as an injury replacement. He's a bit more athletic than the other top candidates, which makes him more valuable in coverage, and he's also a solid tackler who has earned the coaches' trust on special teams since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College.
- Casillas (6-1, 227) has been working as the backup weakside linebacker. He's a very athletic playmaker who turned heads last year after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin. But he's not as physical as the other guys and might have more trouble fitting on the strong side unless the Saints are in a specific package that calls for him to play off the ball.
- Arnoux (6-0, 232) is an unknown quantity after his entire rookie season was wiped out by a torn Achilles tendon during rookie minicamp last year. But the Saints are very high on the potential of the fourth-round pick out of Wake Forest and feel like he has the greatest potential to fit in a variety of packages at a variety of positions. Arnoux was a middle linebacker in college and may be used on the weak side or strong side with the Saints.
- Anthony Waters (6-3, 238) is a fourth-year pro who re-signed with the Saints late last season to beef up their special teams after he had been released on the final cut-down day last September. He's a long shot for a starting job, but he made plays in the preseason last year.
GW is proving to be the SP of the defense. Is your head spinning yet?
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