It’s so easy to sit back, look at the numbers and say the New Orleans Saints simply need to blow up their defense.
They are the first team in NFL history to allow 400 or more yards in each of its first seven games. The 3,323 yards the Saints have allowed are the most through seven games since the NFL first started tracking total yards in 1933. The Saints also are the only team to allow 24 points in each game this season.
It’s clear Steve Spagnuolo’s defense isn’t working. The Saints should just scrap it and go back to what (dare we say it?) Gregg Williams ran, right?
Wrong. That’s the worst thing the Saints, who host the Philadelphia Eagles on "Monday Night Football," could do for their future. Long before the bounty scandal broke, it became obvious that Williams had to go, and he did, leaving immediately after last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco.
When Sean Payton was making the switch, he realized the Saints needed something they’d never had in his tenure. They needed a consistently good defense.
“Listen, what we always win with around here is complementary offense and complementary defense," said Joe Vitt, who is the interim head coach as Payton serves a season-long suspension. “There have been, quite frankly, a lot of times around here since ’06 that we have struggled some defensively."
Yep, the Saints struggled so badly on defense in 2008 that Payton fired close friend Gary Gibbs and replaced him with Williams, even though the two men knew going in that their personalities and egos probably would clash.
For one beautiful season, things clicked. Williams’ defense, while not shutting everyone down, produced a bunch of turnovers and big plays, and the Saints won a Super Bowl. The next two seasons, the Saints got bounced in the playoffs because their defense wasn’t producing much.
Payton decided to, once and for all, fix his defense permanently. He hired Spagnuolo, who came with a proven system.
It’s not working as it should yet, but this is about the long term now, because the Saints aren’t going to the playoffs this season.
“I think with the veteran coaches [such as] Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil, Ted Marchibroda, if you have dramatic changes and you have [radical] changes, that’s when panic sets in," Vitt said. “All of a sudden you’re going to create a scheme that you have not worked on in OTAs, that you have not worked on in training camp, and all of a sudden all of the things that looked good in OTAs and looked good in training camp all of a sudden start to look bad right now. If you put that panic in, the players can smell the house burning before the match is ever lit."
Leave the panic up to the fans. The Saints have to keep their eye on the ball and work through this or else they'll never get back to being the powerhouse they've been in recent years.
Sure, Spagnuolo can make a few minor tweaks. But the best thing he can do right now is to implement his system fully. The Saints already have decided rookie DT Akiem Hicks is a better fit than veteran Brodrick Bunkley
If safety Roman Harper can’t handle the coverage duties of Spagnuolo’s scheme, maybe it’s time to find out whether Isa Abdul-Quddus can. If Will Smith and Cameron Jordan can’t generate a consistent pass rush up front, maybe it’s time to figure out whether Junior Galette and Martez Wilson can.
Even if the younger guys do show they fit in Spagnuolo’s system, that’s not going to change everything overnight. The Saints faced salary-cap issues and a lack of draft picks in the offseason, and that’s why they weren’t able to stock Spagnuolo’s cupboard with the players he needed.
They’re going to face similar restrictions in the next offseason, but general manager Mickey Loomis is smart enough to work around that. It’s best to use the rest of this season to find out which guys do fit Spagnuolo’s system.
Then, fill the remaining holes in the offseason.
This might seem like a lost season for the Saints. But Payton is coming back next season and, if he has the kind of defense he’s always dreamed of, the Saints could be better than ever.