Saints are confident young linebackers will pick..........
Saints are confident young linebackers will pick up where they left off this season
Saturday, June 11, 2005
By Mike Triplett
After ranking last in total defense and 30th against the run last year, the Saints left their linebacking corps pretty much intact.
The major changes, the team hopes, started in motion last December.
Over the final four games of last season, the Saints featured the trio of James Allen, Courtney Watson and Colby Bockwoldt -- a third-year player and two rookies.
The results were hard to ignore.
The Saints went 4-0 over that stretch, allowing 15.3 points and 285 yards per game.
This season, for the first time since Coach Jim Haslett took over in 2000, the Saints are hoping to start with the same three linebackers who finished the season before.
"I'm very optimistic about our season," defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said. "For the first time, we're going to start with some kids that have already had some impact. Nobody wants to give them a lot of credit, that's fine. But they've already had some impact here, they're sharp guys, they really understand the system.
"And their growth is all going to go forward. They're still young; that's the amazing thing."
The Saints didn't exactly ignore the linebacker position this offseason.
They targeted top free agents such as Ian Gold, Antonio Pierce and Chad Brown, all of whom signed elsewhere. And they gave strong consideration to Georgia linebacker Thomas Davis in the first round of the draft before selecting offensive tackle Jammal Brown.
That draft-day decision was a head-scratcher for many observers, but to hear the Saints' coaches talk about what they have, offensive tackle may indeed have been a more glaring need than linebacker.
"I think they're overlooking that our season, in some ways started with a month to go," Venturi said. "We made some key changes in the lineup, key changes structurally. They paid off at that point. So there is some picking up where we left off."
Allen started the first five games at strongside linebacker before Sedrick Hodge returned from a four-game suspension. Then Allen returned to the starting lineup in week 12 after a strong performance at Atlanta in week 11, making eight tackles and forcing and recovering a fumble.
Allen recovered another fumble at Dallas in week 13 and forced a game-saving fumble at Tampa Bay in week 14.
"He made big plays," Haslett said. "Our defense, categorically, we weren't very good. But we ended up leading the league in forced fumbles (20). If we can continue to do that and get more interceptions on the back end, we'll be a much better team. And I thought James really kind of started that trend."
Watson also started the first four games last season at middle linebacker as a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame. But he lost his job to veteran Orlando Ruff before starting again in weeks 14, 15 and 16.
Watson had 33 tackles and a sack in the last four games of the season.
Watson and Haslett used the same phrase, "night and day," to describe Watson's progress from a year ago to now. As the middle linebacker, he is responsible for calling out plays and adjustments to his teammates.
"The calmness and the way he's calling plays, the way he's attacking the line of scrimmage, and he's smart," Haslett said. "I think he'll be much better than he was last year."
Watson said he knows fans have grumbled about the Saints' defensive performance, but he said he has confidence in the emerging group.
"People are always going to talk, especially in a city like this where people are crazy about football. They're always going to want something a little bit better than what they have," Watson said. "I'm just going to come out and compete and give everything I can to help us win. Hopefully that will be enough."
Bockwoldt was the "surprise of the group," Haslett said. A seventh-round draft pick from BYU, he replaced veteran Derrick Rodgers and started the final seven games at weakside linebacker. He had 47 tackles in that span, including 11 in his first start against Denver.
"I think what we've done is we've built on the success. We have a foundation now," Bockwoldt said. "Any time that you can get a group of guys that play together, each game you play faster, you play smarter, you get to know where guys play, their strengths, their weaknesses, when they're going to take a shot and take a chance.
"I think in this league that's a valuable thing."
The Saints did add Alfred Fincher out of Connecticut in the third round of the draft. He has been impressive in the team's coaching sessions and will push Watson at middle linebacker.
The Saints released Ruff this month. Rodgers, an eight-year veteran set to receive $1.1 million this year, will need to fight for a roster spot, likely battling third-year backup Cie Grant.
Hodge and fifth-year backup Roger Knight are also in the mix.
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Mike Triplett can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3381.
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