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'Spags' has Saints defenders trying on new roles

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

When Steve Spagnuolo came to New Orleans this year, he brought a philosophy that includes asking players to do things they've never done, as long as he believes they can do them.

''That's part of coaching and doing it right,'' the new Saints defensive coordinator said. ''When you put the scheme in, you're still deciding along the way what they can and can't do. I don't have all those answers right now.''

Spagnuolo's fresh look at personnel already has led to a handful of conspicuous changes.

There was the move of quick, lanky linebacker Martez Wilson to defensive end, giving New Orleans an additional speed rusher off the edge as well as someone who could drop into pass coverage from that position. Spagnuolo has also experimented with moving defensive ends to the interior of the line on third downs to add more speed to the overall pass rush.

For now, Spagnuolo said, second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan is moving from the outside to the inside on third downs and also dropping into pass coverage at times, responsible for passes in the flat or sometimes short throws toward the middle.

''When a D-coordinator and a player have two different dreams, they don't always collide very well,'' Jordan said. ''But it's so great for me because I see myself as a versatile player and he sees me as playing so many different roles. And so we come together and this is great for me. I think anything he allows me to do, I can do. I'm all for it.''

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also oversees linebackers, said Spagnuolo's ability to maximize players' versatility is one of the reasons the Saints wanted to hire him last winter.

''One of Steve's biggest assets is his ability to put players in what they do best and in the right positions,'' Vitt said. ''He is constantly watching film. He's a very creative coach. He's got a great mind and he doesn't ask players to do what they can't do. The players come first with him, not the scheme. I think that's exciting.''

Safety Roman Harper said that while defensive players have so far adjusted well to Spagnuolo's scheme during offseason practices and minicamp, the coach has made it apparent that he will continue to introduce new concepts and new assignments during training camp.

''He's telling us he's going to continue to install as much as we can take in,'' Harper said. ''As long as we continue to learn and get a good grasp of it, we're going to put it into the play on the field. I think he's going to continue to put more on us, just different calls, checks ... so we can go out and play the game, and just not let the offense dictate what they want to do to us, but we can dictate to them.''

Harper and other incumbent Saints defenders say Spagnuolo's scheme is drastically different from the one in which they played the past three seasons under former coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams had the attitude that a successful defense was as much about winning psychologically as schematically, so he called relentless blitzes designed to unsettle quarterbacks. The scheme also left defensive backs in man-to-man coverage, meaning that their backs were often to the quarterback as they followed their assigned receivers.

Spagnuolo has instituted a zone defense that assigns defenders to certain spots on the field and allows them to face the play more.

''We get to react more on the quarterback, and get some better breaks instead of always putting our back to the quarterback,'' Harper said. ''Now we actually get to see the quarterback and react to him.''

The new defense is designed to generate a pass rush primarily with the front four defensive linemen, meaning there will be less blitzing and more ''press zone'' coverage in which defenders make legal contact with receivers within 5 yards from the line of scrimmage to disrupt their routes then go to their assigned spots on the field.

''One thing I do know and feel comfortable about is the package that we are putting in is proven to have been successful at a lot of different places,'' Spagnuolo said. ''So I think our guys are buying into that.''

Spagnuolo spent the past three seasons as head coach in St. Louis, but is perhaps best known for his previous job as New York Giants defensive coordinator.

In New York, Spagnuolo oversaw a dominant defensive line that battered Tom Brady in the 2008 Super Bowl, allowing the Giants to narrowly upset a heavily favored and previously unbeaten New England squad that had rewritten NFL scoring records.

Before that, Spagnuolo worked in Philadelphia under the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who he considers one of his biggest influences.

Saints center Brian de le Puente, who has to call blocking assignments on the line, said the way Spagnuolo mixes and matches the front four defensive linemen ''definitely gives us challenges at practice.''

''It's just a different defensive mentality,'' de le Puente added. ''They have a lot of crazy packages.''

The key is how well the Saints have the new scheme down by the time the regular season opens against Washington on Sept. 9.

''I'm still learning a lot of new things,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ''The good thing is we're putting in a lot of the hard stuff early. There will be a little confusion. But it will get easier.''

NOTES: The Saints took Monday off from practice, but plan to practice on Tuesday through Friday evenings before leaving Saturday for Canton, Ohio, and their preseason opener in the Hall of Fame game against Arizona on Sunday.

Tagged: Saints, Roman Harper

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