Saints' defensive policy shift started with departure of Gregg Williams after playoff disaster

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

NEW ORLEANS – The day after he made the infamous speech that would provide a chilling context to the New Orleans Saints' pay-for-injury scandal, Gregg Williams engaged in a conspicuous display of recklessness that some in the Crescent City still find even harder to forgive.

In the final stages of a rollicking, divisional-round playoff clash between the Saints and San Francisco 49ers which featured more mood swings than a "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" episode, Williams, the Saints' blitz-happy defensive coordinator, refused to sit back and play it safe. Even with the Niners 67 yards from the end zone with 40 seconds remaining, he sent extra pass rushers after quarterback Alex Smith, allowing tight end Vernon Davis to make a pair of indelible catches that catapulted his team to a 36-32 victory.

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After the game New Orleans free safety Malcolm Jenkins, burned by Davis in single coverage on the 47-yard reception that set up the tight end's 14-yard game-winner, summed it up succinctly: "We live by the blitz and we die by the blitz."

Suffice it to say that life in the Saints' defensive huddle is much, much different as the 2012 season approaches.

More than two months before he was suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the scandal, Williams, according to a highly placed Saints source, had been essentially fired by coach Sean Payton, who sought a sharp change in defensive philosophy. In January, Williams' lateral move to the St. Louis Rams was publicly portrayed as his own decision, but the source said Payton had made it clear that the Saints were moving in another direction.

Williams was traveling in Asia and could not be reached for comment. However, a source close to Williams insisted that he had received "offers for contract extensions throughout the 2011 season and up until the San Francisco [playoff] game" and had simply allowed the contract to expire.

[Related: Ex-Saint Steve Gleason corrects HBO on Gregg Williams comment]

At least one New Orleans player believes Payton's decision to replace Williams with recently fired Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo was a move for the better, given the way offenses had adjusted to the Saints' blitz-happy approach.

"Well, yeah, teams knew we were going to be in a blitz 90 percent of the time, and they reacted accordingly," defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said Friday night following the Saints' 27-24 preseason defeat to the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. "It started to be where everything was three-step drop. I feel like people started to know exactly what was going on."

Enter Spagnuolo, who before going 10-38 in three seasons in St. Louis coordinated the New York Giants' defense during the team's stirring run to a Super Bowl XLII triumph. While the upheaval caused by Payton's yearlong suspension has received the bulk of the attention from outsiders, the Williams-to-Spagnuolo switch had already triggered a seismic shift within the building.

"The scheme is drastically different," veteran linebacker Scott Shanle says. "Under Gregg, it was man blitz, or you're playing Cover 2. Now it's three-deep and a lot of zone blitzes – everything is opposite, really. And 'Spags' isn't a big rah-rah guy, which Gregg obviously was."

While Shanle is one of many New Orleans defenders who remains highly supportive of Williams, a coach with a strong track record whose arrival in 2009 helped spur the franchise to its lone Super Bowl victory, some in the Saints' locker room are cheering Spagnuolo's arrival. This is especially true on the defensive line, which will be asked to emulate the efforts of the Giants' tremendous front four from the '07 season.

That's a lofty standard to tackle, but the Saints' linemen are eager to be unleashed.

"We're getting after it, every play," second-year defensive end Cam Jordan says. "I love it. There's definitely more of a D-line emphasis. There are more D-line stunts, more focus on disrupting the other team to try to get to the passer. I think it's great."

Agrees Ellis: "There are a lot of things I like about it. It gives a defensive lineman the ability to go out and make plays. I'm excited about the coaches and the system."

In theory the dramatic schematic change makes the Saints less predictable, and less vulnerable to the big play. Whereas Williams' frequent blitzes tended to expose cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson to single coverage, 's zone blitzes give them some protection (in the form of unlikely players dropping into coverage to facilitate zone alignments) while confusing quarterbacks.

"The zone pressures will help," Shanle said. "Before, all a quarterback had to do was identify the one-on-one matchup he wanted to exploit. He can't do that now."

[Related: New Orleans' top rival plans to air it out this season]

One promising development is the deployment of Jenkins, a fourth-year safety who may be the team's most talented defender, far closer to the action. Whereas Williams typically lined up Jenkins in a different parish – the safety was often more than 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage as the blitz's last line of defense – Spagnuolo will enhance the rangy defender's chances of disrupting crossing routes and blowing up running plays.

Though the new-look defense was effective in the Saints' first two preseason games, its collective effort against the Jags was gruesome, causing Jordan to joke afterward, "By the end of this week I'm sure we'll all be professional tacklers." Clearly, it will take time to acclimate to Spagnuolo's scheme, especially at the linebacker position, where a rash of preseason injuries have compounded the season-long absence of suspended veteran leader Jonathan Vilma.

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Then again, continuity wasn't an option. A year ago the Saints, coming off an embarrassing playoff defeat to the Seahawks that featured halfback Marshawn Lynch's game-clinching, 67-yard touchdown run through virtually the entire defense, knew they had to get better on that side of the ball. Yet New Orleans, according to linebackers coach (and interim head coach) Joe Vitt, gave up 99 "big plays"– defined as runs of 10-plus yards or passes of 20 yards or more – in 2011, foreshadowing another painful postseason exit.

"Everything that worked for us in the past and made us who we were defensively kind of blew up in that [49ers] game," Shanle says. "A lot of people point to that last drive and say we should have just sat back in a zone. But that's not who we were."

Much of the noise is gone from the defensive meeting room in 2012– but the Saints hope they'll be more sound.

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