COOL RUNNINGS: Saints Willing to Stop the Run
TCU Dan | Saintsreport.com Staff Writer
In the modern, ever-evolving league of trends and fads, success in the NFL always comes back to two words: running game. Every coach, player, fan, and grandmother knows that for a team to be competitive, it must stop the run, first and foremost. The ability to run the ball consistently doesnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t hurt either. Only teams with a dominant defense, such as the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have prospered in spite of an inconsistent run game.
Such rhetoric has become clichÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© thanks to countless sound bytes from coaches and analysts. But one need look no further than the Saints' 2004 season for physical evidence. For the first 12 games, the Saints were largely inconsistent running the ball and completely unsuccessful at containing their opponentsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ running game. This led to a 4-8 record. But in the final four games, the Saints were able to pound the ball with Deuce McAllister and shut down their opponentsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ runners, allowing no 100-yard rushers in the final 4 games, including a hot, budding star in Julius Jones who became the only player in CowboyÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s history to carry the ball for 30+ times in three straight games (that streak ending against the Saints).
The SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense remains an enigma in the minds of most, thanks largely to the last four games where they went from the bottom of the defensive barrel to a rising top-five performer. Some will credit the mid-season acquisition of Mike McKenzie and his contributions down the stretch to the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defensive success. Others will cite an improved, aggressive defensive scheme. Some even may credit the rapport of a young trio of linebackers, which included two rookies in second round pick Courtney Watson and seventh round pick Colby Bockwoldt.
But the true answer is much less tangible than a playmaker here or a scheme there. The change in the Saints' defensive fortune occurred thanks to a change in their defensive mentality. Perhaps this resulted from the contagious confidence of CB Mike McKenzie, faith in a more aggressive scheme, or simply a bunch of young guys being on the same page, regardless of whether they were knowing or blowing their assignments. But regardless of the catalyst, the end result was the defenseÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s desire, will, and decision to stop opposing running backs dead in their tracks.
So what will it take for the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defensive success to carry over into the 2005 season?
The Saints defenders must maintain that confidence and swagger, that desire to dominate their offensive opponents. If camp is an early indication of things to come, the Saints look to be doing just that. The defenders all appear to possess renewed confidence and comfort in the scheme. The coaching staff has rewarded the successful linebacking trio of James Allen, Courtney Watson, and Colby Bockwolt by giving them all secure starting positions. Each is a player who has yet to peak, and the staff is undoubtedly looking for each to be his brother's keeper in hopes that they will peak as a unit rather than individually.
One can also sense a trickle-down effect, as the entire defensive depth chart is showing a motivation and desire uncharacteristic in recent years. Oft-injured Cie Grant has become a training camp darling, continuously making plays from his natural weakside linebacker position and putting pressure on the coaching staff to keep him on the field. Rookie MIKE linebacker Alfred Fincher, who needs little outside motivation, has impressed early and is pushing for situational playing time. Even the chronically overweight Jonathon Sullivan has shown renewed motivation, though the jury is still out on how effective he will really be.
Desire conquers all doubts, covers all bases, and cures all ills. And if the words of third-year DT Howard Green are any indication, the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense has found the will that has eluded them for so long. "We're going to get in there. We're going to stop the run. We're committed to doing that and everything else is going to take care of itself.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
HOME SWEET HOME
Two players who have impressed early in camp are wide receiver Talman Gardner and cornerback Jimmy Williams. Both are Louisiana natives and have exceeded expectations this offseason. Gardner, who has been referred to by Haslett as the ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“best receiverÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? on the field early in camp, appears to have grasped the speed of the NFL and learned to catch the ball with more consistency.
While discussing Gardner with a friend of mine, who is a scout in the college ranks, the name of a perennial pro bowl receiver came up in the conversation. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“Terrell Owens was a third round pick coming out of college because he couldnÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢t catch a cold,ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬? said my friend. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã…Â“He was always known for being physical and hard-working, but ran a pedestrian 40 time and let passes into his body too much.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬?
Talman Gardner = Terrell Owens? HmmmÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦ sounds a little premature at this point, but I can definitely see the similarities. Gardner is a physical receiver who possesses great acceleration and quickness. And while he does not have world class speed, he does have the ability to get on top of defenders and can be classified as a deep threat. He is explosive, physical, and can separate after the intermediate catch. No one is asking Gardner to be T.O., but if he can catch the ball consistently once the bullets are flying, he will give the Saints an inside, physical threat who can punish nickel defenders at the line and beat safeties to the end zone.
Jimmy Williams, on the other hand, is reminiscent of a player currently on the Saints roster: Fakhir Brown. Brown came to the Saints as a special teams standout who eventually flourished into a starter under the tutelage of New OrleansÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defensive staff. Williams has taken a similar path to the Saints. A student under Willy Robinson in San Francisco, the 28 year old Vanderbilt alum was a standout punt returner and special teamer with the 49ers. Williams gained starting experience in 2004 because of injuries to the secondary and is currently 5th on the Saints depth chart at CB, but will likely go the direction of Brown, being activated on Sundays thanks to his special teams prowess. And while he is not as physical as the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ starter at left CB, Williams has the size, speed, and quickness to emerge as a contributor down the stretch and in seasons to come.
The early MVP of the Saints defense has to be free safety Dwight Smith. But to simply label Smith as a free safety would be an injustice. The former Buccaneer is everything the Saints envisioned two years ago when they broke the bank for Tebucky Jones. The Saints planned to move Jones around, utilizing his speed not only in coverage but as a disruptive blitzer and a match-up player against tight ends and slot receivers in order to keep their base personnel on the field.
The Saints staff and fans quickly learned that Jones had the fluidity and lateral agility of a three-legged Basit Hound. He was not only a liability in man coverage, but also a liability against the run. Such deficiencies relegated Jones to time out in deep center field and left Jim Haslett kicking his own rear end.
The Saints have cut ties with Jones and sacrificed his size and speed for a proven but overshadowed playmaker in Smith. Smith not only possesses a natural feel for the game, but a swagger that Tebucky Jones simply did not possess. He has the versatility to play either safety, cornerback, or linebacker. He can regularly be seen covering tight ends in passing situations, and has on multiple occasions kept the ball out of the hands of Zach Hilton, who edges Smith by nearly a foot in height.
SmithÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢s prowess will not only infuse more confidence into the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense, but it will allow the other defenders to perform their duties without worry or doubt of whether the job is getting done on the back end. If the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ defense makes a jump from last in the league into the top-10, Dwight Smith should be the first in line for a plane ticket to Hawaii.
SPEAKING OF DEFENSEÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â¦
I hear a lot of fans wondering if/hoping that the Saints will make the switch to the 34 defensive front, which employs three defensive linemen and four linebackers, as opposed to the current 43 defense (do the math). This is simply not a possibility.
Those in agreement with me at this point will likely say that the Saints cannot make the switch because they simply do not have the wide, two-gap nose tackle so integral for a successful 34 defense. This is partly true, but the matter reaches much deeper than a nose tackle.
Since the 2000 draft, the Saints have invested a lot of money in their current defensive ends, from second round pick and currently franchised player Darren Howard to first round studs Charles Grant and Will Smith. This trio of young defensive ends combine to give the SaintsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã¢Â„Â¢ their strongest, deepest position on defense, if not the entire team. Each player is a quick, speedy edge-rusher built for the 43 defense, where they can exploit one-on-one edge matchups against offensive tackles. They are simply not built for the 34 defense, which demands defensive ends that are usually 300-plus pound wide-bodies who would be interior linemen in a 43 scheme. Players like Richard Seymore and Marcus Spears are great examples of 34 defensive ends.
For the Saints to switch to a base 34 defense, they would be essentially playing their best, most expensive players out of position, where they could not use their natural ability to make plays and change games. While we will surely see some 34 subpackages in certain situations, the New Orleans Saints have far too much money and talent invested in the 43 to make the switch any time in the near future.
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