Saints' defense recovering from playoff upset
OXNARD, Calif. – As the New Orleans Saints' defenders streamed into a semi-darkened room for their first meeting of training camp in late July, there wasn't much mystery as to which horror flick might await them.
There, at the podium, was high-strung defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, preparing to release more than six months' worth of pent-up, lockout-fueled frustration.
There, on the video screen, was Seattle Seahawks halfback Marshawn Lynch(notes), preparing to rip through the Saints on a 67-yard touchdown that clinched Seattle's stunning, 41-36 playoff upset of the defending Super Bowl champs last January.
Suffice it to say that The Beast was not especially well received by this focus group.
"It was classic Gregg Williams," recalls cornerback Tracy Porter(notes), one of the eight New Orleans defenders who had a clear shot at tackling Lynch on the play – and the only one who got violently stiff-armed to the Qwest Field turf. "He wanted to give us that motivation coming into this year. He didn't want us to come into the season not knowing we had a bad taste in our mouth. He showed that [play], and it definitely put us on edge.
"Now it's time for payback."
Just as Porter knows what it's like to spend an offseason reveling in the splendor of a ubiquitous highlight – his 74-yard interception return for a touchdown of a Peyton Manning(notes) pass clinched the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV victory over the Indianapolis Colts 18 months ago – he and his teammates now understand the bad side of that equation. Williams, who also displayed quotes about Lynch's run from various analysts and screened several of the Seahawks' other big plays from that game, will be charged with preventing a sequel.
To that end the Saints brought in some reinforcements in the draft, picking former Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan(notes) in the first round and ex-Illinois linebacker Martez Wilson(notes) in the third. A pair of tackles acquired via free agency, Shaun Rogers(notes) and Aubrayo Franklin(notes), offset the departure of Remi Ayodele(notes) (Minnesota Vikings); linebacker Danny Clark(notes) and veteran safety Darren Sharper(notes) were not re-signed.
The result is a revamped lineup that has the Saints' best defensive player, third-year free safety Malcolm Jenkins(notes), thinking big.
"We feel, as a defense, we're right on the brink of greatness," Jenkins says. "We think we have the pieces to do it."
Jenkins, not coincidentally, didn't play in that playoff debacle against the Seahawks, having sustained a knee injury in the team's regular-season ending, 23-13 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The decision not to rest his starters for that game haunted Saints coach Sean Payton all offseason.
"I probably should have done it differently," Payton said last Thursday from Oxnard, where he took the team for an extended week of training camp in advance of Sunday's preseason game against the Raiders in Oakland. "I've thought a lot about it, and I may have gotten that wrong."
In Payton's defense, the Saints still had a mathematical chance of winning the NFC South and clinching home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Yet in addition to defeating the Bucs, New Orleans would have needed the league's worst team, the Carolina Panthers, to upset the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
By the time Payton realized that wasn't going to happen – the Falcons cruised to a 31-10 victory – Jenkins, halfback Chris Ivory and tight end Jimmy Graham(notes), an emerging star – had already sustained injuries that would keep them out of the Seahawks game.
Coming off an impressive, 17-14 Monday night victory over the Falcons in late December, the Saints looked like a legitimate threat to defend their title. Then, at Qwest Field, the league's fourth-ranked overall defense allowed 415 yards, more than 100 above its regular-season average.
Though Lynch's run was the game's marquee moment, the league's No. 4 pass defense also struggled mightily, as quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes) singed the Saints for 272 yards and four touchdowns.
"The way we played defense all year long, and the expectation we had going into that game – and the way it started [with New Orleans taking a 10-0 lead] – we felt very good about ourselves," veteran linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) says. "Then things got crazy. That game was unlike anything that had happened all season."
As a result, the Saints spent an offseason coping with the fallout. Most tried to avoid highlights of Lynch's run, with limited success. "I hated the ESPYs this year," says Shanle, who missed the first tackle on the play.
Jordan, in a shout-out to his fellow Cal alum, exhorted his Twitter followers to vote for Lynch's run to win an ESPY as the year's "Best Play"; he quickly got cyber-shouted down by Saints fans who were still experiencing post-traumatic stress from the seismic jolt.
"I don't bring that up," Jordan says. "Around here, it's blasphemy."
Jordan, the Saints' coaches hope, can help improve a pass rush that lacked consistency in 2010, which was one reason the Saints' takeaway total declined so precipitously. After forcing 39 turnovers in '09, just one off the NFL lead, New Orleans had just 25 last season, including a league-low nine interceptions.
Williams, who turned down a chance to interview for Denver's head coaching job (he went 17-31 as the Buffalo Bills' coach from 2001-03), let his defenders know they have to improve in that area, too. The message seems to be resonating. Payton says he has noticed that the defense has been "playing with an edge" since the start of camp, and the man who makes New Orleans' offense go has picked up on that, too.
"They always play with an edge," quarterback Drew Brees(notes) says of his defensive counterparts. "I think that stems from Gregg Williams. He's a self-proclaimed nutcase. He certainly gives them a swagger, an element of confidence, and just a super-aggressive mentality. You can really see it [this summer]."
The challenge for Williams' players is to carry over that intensity to the regular season, beginning with the daunting Sept. 8 opener against Aaron Rodgers(notes) and the defending champion Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
"I think there's gonna be a bit of an edge this year, because we're a hungry defense," Pro Bowl strong safety Roman Harper(notes) says. "We know we can be better than what we showed in our last game. We have to take advantage of having one of the top offensive units in the league.
"Hopefully, we can make a big splash and get people to stop talking about the way last season ended."
In the meantime, they can look forward to regular reminders from their defensive coordinator.
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