Saints hope MMA-style training can help switch to more press coverage

METAIRIE, La. -- There were two main objectives behind the summer vacation that many of the New Orleans Saints’ defensive backs took to Los Angeles last month:

Team bonding. And press coverage.

Of course they had some fun while they were there, including a stroll down the red carpet at the ESPYS. But it was a working trip too, with training sessions at the Unbreakable Performance Center started by Fox Sports reporter Jay Glazer and former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, among others.

The Saints are planning to switch to more press-man coverage this season. So defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and others helped to arrange the workouts, which feature a lot of MMA-style training.

“Some of the techniques we used, just hand speed, boxing, kickboxing, all that type of stuff, taking down guys, I’d say it really brings like the physicality in our game, and using our hands,” cornerback Ken Crawley said. “We put more emphasis on that in the offseason. So it was a great trip out there.”

The group included cornerbacks Crawley, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann, De’Vante Harris and Arthur Maulet; safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Marcus Williams; and defensive end Alex Okafor.

“[It was about] coming closer with those guys because, I mean, when you spend a week with someone, you really understand what type of person they are. And we all just got closer,” Harris said. “We worked hard. … We worked on hand placement and violence. It all tied in to the fact that we’re gonna be playing press, so I feel that really just helped our hands and our quickness and our violence.”

The Saints' defense showed signs of improvement last year in Allen’s first full season on the job. But they still ranked dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (273.8 per game) after ranking 31st in 2015 (284 per game).

A lot of that was related to injuries to starters Delvin Breaux and Williams. But it’s still plain to see why the Saints want to mix things up scheme-wise.

Press-man coverage also seems to suit the Saints’ bigger corners, such as Breaux (6-foot-1, 196 pounds), Williams (6-0, 196) and first-round draft pick Marshon Lattimore (6-0, 192).

Crawley (6-1, 180) and Harris (5-11, 190) are a bit smaller, but they also have experience in press coverage and support the increased emphasis on it.

Crawley, who has made as many flash plays as any cornerback in Saints camp over the past week, said he has been happy with his performance for the most part.

“Quite a few [of my plays have been positive]. The only thing I’m worried about really right now is perfecting my press technique because we’re gonna run a lot of man this year, and we’ve got to hold up on the outside lanes,” said Crawley, who emerged as a key contributor last year after signing as an undrafted rookie out of Colorado.

Crawley appeared in 15 games with five starts, eight pass defenses, a forced fumble and 43 tackles.

Naturally, he experienced his share of highs and lows, even when he appeared to have strong coverage -- starting with one of the biggest heartbreakers of the season when the Oakland Raiders completed a game-winning 2-point conversion against him on a pass to Michael Crabtree.

Crawley, who also ended the season on a sour note with a dislocated kneecap, said he felt close to having a really good season.

“Just those little minor mistakes,” said Crawley, who has been “tweaking my game” to get better this offseason.

“I always had that ability to just trust in myself, and trust that my play is gonna be there,” said Crawley, who doesn’t think he’s the only one showing that type of improvement.

“I always go back every night when I watch film to watch last year’s practices and last year’s games, comparing them to this year,” Crawley said. “And there’s a huge difference. I go back and watch Breaux, Aggie [Harris’ nickname], P.J. and all those guys. And we’ve done a better job.”