Mitchell, Dunbar shine for Saints ‘D’
METAIRIE — As the New Orleans Saints defense faced perhaps its biggest challenge of the season, two of its least-heralded players helped key an outstanding effort.
Linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Marvin Mitchell helped shore up a run defense that was battered by Baltimore a week earlier and shut down an Atlanta running game that had battered it early in the season.
The result was a 17-14 win against the Falcons on Monday, which sent the Saints back into the playoffs and put the defense back on track heading into the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay on Sunday in the Superdome.
Dunbar, starting for the first time in seven games, led the team with six tackles, including five solo, which tied for the team lead, and one tackle for loss. Mitchell recovered a Michael Turner fumble to end an Atlanta scoring threat at the New Orleans 1-yard line.
The Saints de-activated Danny Clark, who had started nine consecutive games at strongside linebacker, and replaced him with Dunbar. They hoped Dunbar could help improve a run defense that had allowed a season-high 208 rushing yards to the Ravens. They also hoped to do a better job against Turner, who had 114 of the 202 rushing yards the Falcons had in a 27-24 overtime victory in Game 3.
“We felt like the way this defensive game plan set up, we were going to be off the ball with that linebacker,” coach Sean Payton said. “We were going to be playing more behind the tackle box area. That’s something that Jo-Lonn does pretty well.”
Dunbar, who Payton said “graded out very well,” entered training camp as the presumed front-runner to replace Scott Fujita, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent, at strongside linebacker. During the preseason, the Saints moved Scott Shanle from weakside to strongside and inserted Jonathan Casillas at weakside. Shortly thereafter, Casillas suffered a season-ending injury, Shanle moved back to weakside, and Dunbar became the starter at strongside.
That lasted just five games, even though Dunbar had 13 tackles in the first game against the Falcons. Clark, signed as a free agent late in the preseason, replaced Dunbar as the starter for the sixth game. Dunbar was inactive twice at mid-season and for the game against the Ravens.
“The only thing you can do is just keep working, keep fighting,” Dunbar said. “It’s a front office decision and you live with it. I did some things well in a few games and I also didn’t do some things well. It’s ebb and flow. Whether it’s right now or later, your time will come.”
Dunbar said he wasn’t surprised when the coaches told him last week that he would figure more prominently in the game plan.
“They’re not going to lose faith in guys,” Dunbar said. “As long as you’re working in practice and getting better, they’re going to give you an opportunity.”
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said Dunbar’s performance was just what he expected.
“The guy comes in, works, watches film,” Vilma said. “Whether he’s playing or not playing, he doesn’t change his attitude, his demeanor, his preparation.
2theadvocate.com | Saints | Mitchell, Dunbar shine for Saints
I can only guess that Dunbar made some mental mistakes that the coaches thought were bad enough to bring Clark in.
Clark was a solid LB in his day, but its obvious he's lost a step.
Dunbar is a natural MLB so its not surprising that he did well against the run. Dunbar isn't the fastest guy so he has to make up for it with mental quickness, no wasted steps.
Sometimes a guy like him tries to think too much, and that slight hesitation is the difference between a tackle at the line, and a big gainer as he arrives a 1/2 second too late.
A perfect example is Ray Lewis. Ray timed slow at the combine, but his reaction time and flow to the ball (no wasted steps or hesitation) are second to none in this league.
Players like Dunbar have to be nearly perfect mentally, or their mediocre speed will be exploited.
If Dunbar continues to show up like that, i'd be happy if he made the permanant move to OLB, gotta give a ton of credit to the guys upfront, forcing turner to bump it outside and not up the middle, thats where the guys like dunbar can make the plays.
If dunbar keeps playing like that, he will find himself in a starting role.
Replacing Fujita was not something any of us wanted to do. If Dunbar continues to play like he did against atl and continues to improve, he will be a nice addition. Listen to GW, stop thinking so much!!
Very good point about Fujita. Draft need.
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