Saints LBs erase preseason uncertainty
METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints linebacker corps featured a lot of uncertainty leading up to the season opener against Minnesota last Thursday.
The team began training camp looking for a replacement for Scott Fujita, last year’s starter on the strongside who signed with Cleveland as a free agent.
When weakside backup Jonathan Casillas had a standout performance in the preseason opener, the team decided to move Scott Shanle from weakside to strongside to create room for Casillas in the starting lineup. Then Casillas suffered a season-ending foot injury in the preseason finale, leaving the outside positions uncertain.
Meanwhile, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma suffered a groin injury in the second-to-last preseason game, and his status for the opener was uncertain in the days leading up to the game.
In the end, things stabilized quite well as Vilma was ready to go (six tackles, one interception, one pass defensed), Shanle seamlessly moved back to the weakside (team-high nine tackles, including one for loss), and Jo-Lonn Dunbar inherited the spot on the strongside (seven tackles, including one for loss). Marvin Mitchell, Vilma’s backup, got in on the act when New Orleans used its 3-4 scheme and made four tackles and had one hit on Brett Favre.
The linebackers played a key role in the 14-9 victory against the Vikings, and coach Sean Payton said their tackling was outstanding.
“I thought the linebacker play was very good,” Payton said. “It was inspiring to see Vilma play the way he did. Both Shanle and Jo-Lonn did a good job. We had snaps where Marvin Mitchell was in the game. We played a lot of people in a number of different packages. I thought the play of our linebackers was very good.”
The linebackers will play a key role at San Francisco on Monday night against running back Frank Gore and the 49ers short passing game.
“There were disruptions, but we’ve played enough football together,” Shanle said. “It’s our second year together in the system, and when those lights came on we knew that ultimately we were going to make plays and help this defense.
“We weren’t concerned. We might have been if we hadn’t played a lot of football, but all three of us have played a lot of football.”
The Saints use 28 defensive packages, which include various combinations of linebackers, trying to play to the strengths of each.
“We’re going to piece everybody in,” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “One of the things this staff does a good job with is that we take the strengths of a guy and don’t necessarily focus on the weaknesses of a guy. Every player has a weakness. What we try to do is to put in packages and have them do the things they do best.
“Of all the linebackers that dress for a ballgame, it will be pieced out through all of them, so usually if you watch us on game day, whoever we dress on game day, there’s a package for that particular guy that’s in, and it’s called. We can highlight a lot of different packages.”
Bring in AJ Hawk. That would definitely solidify the LBers. Make it happen Loomis........
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