||07-26-2005 09:55 AM
Rick Venturi likes our defense
Well duh Rick. I'd like a job to where my unit can consistently underperform and I keep my job.
Few defensive changes made after unit's strong finish last season
Tuesday, July 26, 2005
By Mike Triplett
You want training camp battles? You came to the wrong place.
Heading into training camp, the Saints' defensive depth chart looks an awful lot like it did at the end of last season -- and that's a good thing -- even though the Saints' defense ranked last in the NFL last season.
The Saints fiddled with different defensive alignments all season before finding a formula that helped them win their final four games.
Ten starters are back from that closing run, with the only new addition being free agent safety Dwight Smith, a bona fide playmaker who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season.
"I'm excited about the fact that we're going with a team that has played together, for my first time here, period," said Rick Venturi, who is entering his 10th season with the Saints and fourth as the team's defensive coordinator. "There's going to be continuity, which should help us early. That's been a problem here. We haven't had continuity. We've had a lot of mass changes, and that makes it hard to be good right off the bat."
A handful of veterans were released in the offseason -- safety Tebucky Jones, cornerback Ashley Ambrose and linebackers Orlando Ruff and Derrick Rodgers, and the Saints made a few notable additions, signing Smith and drafting safety Josh Bullocks and linebacker Alfred Fincher in the second and third rounds.
But for the most part, the changes that will impact this defense took place throughout the 2004 season.
-- The Saints added veteran cornerback Mike McKenzie in an October trade with the Green Bay Packers. He intercepted five passes in 11 games.
-- Linebackers James Allen, Courtney Watson and Colby Bockwoldt didn't start together until Week 14 -- the eighth combination the Saints tried at linebacker last season.
-- Cornerback Fakhir Brown and defensive tackle Howard Green didn't emerge as full-time starters until Week 7.
-- Backup tackle Willie Whitehead missed the first eight games while recovering from a knee injury.
-- The Saints began experimenting late in the season with an effective pass-rushing lineup that included four ends on the field at the same time -- Charles Grant, Darren Howard, Will Smith and Tony Bryant.
"We felt like we started the rebuilding program at midseason, and the fact that the overall numbers will never reflect it doesn't really bother us," Venturi said. "And I don't think that's a spin. We separated that in our minds from a business standpoint."
That's why the Saints didn't act like a desperate team in the offseason. They considered some veteran linebackers in free agency and took a hard look at some linebackers with their first-round draft choice.
But instead, they spent free-agent dollars and that top pick on the right side of their offensive line, which was fine with Venturi, who likes the way his defense has been coming together for a couple years now.
"If you look at what we've done on defense in the last two years, there's been some pretty good acquisitions," said Venturi, who said he was especially pleased with the Dwight Smith signing. "We all really wanted to do it. We make no bones about that. I wanted it, (Coach) Jim (Haslett) wanted it, the front office wanted it. He's a guy that I think is a playmaker. I think he brings a presence to us."
The Saints are hoping to make more big plays, in addition to creating a consistent and stable unit. They intercepted 13 passes last year.
That kind of big-play ability is what made the young linebacking trio so effective at the end of last season.
Allen, a three-year veteran, forced two fumbles and recovered two fumbles in the final six games of the season. Watson, a 2004 rookie, had 33 tackles and a sack in the last four games.
Bockwoldt, also a 2004 rookie, was the surprise of the group. The seventh-round draft choice started the final seven games, making 47 tackles in that span.
"The reality of it is we played our best ball at the end of the season, and I'm not just saying that because of those (linebackers)," Venturi said. "But those guys were a vital part of the reason that we were a much different team at the end.
"So we're very comfortable with those guys."
Veteran safety Jay Bellamy and veteran defensive tackle Brian Young also are back in the starting lineup, but it's not just the starting defense that remains intact as the Saints head into the 2005 season.
Experienced backups like Will Smith, Bryant, Whitehead, Johnathan Sullivan, Sedrick Hodge, Roger Knight, Jason Craft, Fred Thomas and Mel Mitchell return as well.
Sullivan has been a major disappointment since the Saints took him with the sixth overall choice in the 2003 draft, and he has yet to make an impact on the defense. His salary-cap figure will probably guarantee him a roster spot for at least one more year, but the Saints aren't counting on him like they have in the past.
"Sullivan's at a stage where he has to prove it to us," Venturi said of the defensive tackle, who is listed at 6 feet 3, 315 pounds. "We no longer say he has to be there."
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