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tiggerpolice 08-18-2005 07:58 AM

Saints defense hopes to continue strong late-season play
Saints defense hopes to continue strong late-season play

Advocate sportswriter

New Orleans defensive coordinator Rick Venturi watched the Saints defense struggle the first 12 games last season, giving up 28.7 points a game but settle down in the last four games, giving up 15.3 points.
FOXBORO, Mass. -- To watch New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi go through the grueling routine of training camp for the last three weeks, you would never know he feels rejuvenated.
Three months removed from back surgery, Venturi is not yet 100 percent -- and no one has to remind him, especially during two-a-days. But that hasn't stopped him from doing anything to improve a defense that ranked last out of 32 teams in total yards allowed last season.

The pain of the first 12 games, when the 4-8 Saints were at or near the bottom of the NFL in the two most important statistical categories -- yards allowed and points allowed -- took a toll on Venturi.

Eight months after ending 2004 on a four-game winning streak, which was sparked by solid defensive play, Venturi is eyeing a carryover to the 2005 season. But first, the Saints will get a major preseason test against the New England Patriots at 7 p.m. today in Gillette Stadium (Fox, Cable Ch. 6 and WJBO-AM, 1150).

The first syllable of the word rejuvenated is barely spoken before Venturi, who is starting his 10th season with the Saints, fires an answer back.

"Oh yeah, there's really no doubt about it," he said. "It makes all the difference in the world, there's no question about it. I felt like a big part of that turnaround was because of the lights-out defense we played.

"After it was over, we felt like we could say, 'Hey, we were a big part of this.' That wasn't a fluke. It wasn't like we just lucked into some things, we lined up and made some things happen."

After being hammered for 416.8 total yards and 28.7 points in the first 12 games, the Saints turned to a simplified defense that featured more man-to-man pass coverage. They then cut those totals dramatically in giving up 284.8 yards and 15.3 points in the final four games.

"It was the worst of times and best of times," said Venturi, the senior member of the coaching staff in terms of consecutive years with the club. "At times, it was horrific. But with the exhilaration of the last four weeks, you just wanted to keep playing. You wanted it to go on."

It almost did. The Saints wound up in a three-way tie for the final two playoff spots, but lost out on a tiebreaker. While he wanted to play on, Venturi and the Saints coaches went to work -- evaluating what they did wrong and what they did right.

The result was a plan for the upcoming season that included most of the key players from that late charge in 2004. Only free safety Tebucky Jones, who wasn't the impact player the Saints thought he was going to be, was let go and replaced by former Tampa Bay Bucs free safety Dwight Smith.

"We felt that there were some good people that we could build with, and continuity would be an important thing going into this season," Venturi said. "We brought in one key guy in Dwight because we felt we needed one key playmaker from that standpoint. We looked at some other people. We just felt like we could build with what we have."

Encouraged by the play of their three young linebackers -- James Allen, Courtney Watson and Colby Bockwoldt -- and a secondary that included cornerbacks Mike McKenzie and Fakhir Brown, and strong safety Jay Bellamy, Venturi said the Saints can continue to improve.

If they can stop the run after allowing 140.8 yards per game last year, Venturi said the Saints' three-man defensive end rotation of Darren Howard, Charles Grant and Will Smith, who combined for 29 of the team's 37 sacks, can be even more disruptive to opposing quarterbacks.

"The run defense is always going to be the thing you have to be good at," Venturi said. "If we do a good job stopping the run like we did in the last two weeks last season, if we control the running game on early downs and don't give up big plays, it'll lead to situations where we'll be at our best."

That would mean heavy doses of their three speed rushers -- Howard, Grant and Will Smith.

"We'll be able to rush the passer and we'll be able to blitz," Venturi said. "It's vital that you create the good situations, the optimal situations -- second-and-long, which transfers into third-and-long.

"I have optimism, I really do. I've said this from the beginning, I like this defensive team. We did finish on a very high note and we had very good numbers the last four games. We did a lot of good things and were in the top 10 in almost everything you could be in."

But Venturi, who goes against old boss and close friend Bill Belichick in tonight's game, knows the Saints will have to prove it. They should get a good idea of where they're at because they and the two-time Super Bowl champions are expected to play the starters at least three quarters.

"Nothing carries over unless you make it carry over," Venturi stressed. "You really have to force the issue every day. That's the thing about this business, you have to stamp your ticket."

In last week's 34-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the exhibition opener, the first-team defense gave up an 18-yard TD drive after an early turnover by the offense, then forced the Seahawks to punt four straight times before they were removed. The remaining points and bulk of the Seahawks' 216 rushing yards came against second- and third-teamers.

"It's an ongoing thing, but it's hard to evaluate totally," he said. "I think we'll know a little bit more about our top guys (after this game). They played just a short time, and it wasn't terrible."

But Venturi knows what's really important is what happens starting with a Sept. 11 game against the Carolina Panthers. More of that kind of play they ended the 2004 season with, would quiet the critics who called for his head.

"You can't let that bother you," Venturi said. "I've done this for so many years, I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, and that's it in my career at this point. The most important thing is to be accountable to the guys you work with -- and to have their respect. That's the key issue."

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