Things finally seem to be gelling under Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen. With a healthier lineup and players finally getting the “system”, how close is the Saints defense to being a top 10 unit and what pieces are missing?
From being historically bad the past two years and into the beginning of the 2016 Season, the Saints defense is making strides toward relevance just past the midway point of the season. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen isn’t far off from making the unit an asset.
The Greg Williams blueprint
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During the Saints 2009 Super Bowl run, the Greg Williams led defense was ranked 20th in the NFL. That’s not far off from where the Saints defense is currently. But there were elements of the defense under Williams that made the Saints more competitive as a team and ultimately helped lead the team to their first and only championship.
Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
The first and maybe the most important was middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Not only was Vilma a solid tackler and a definite “headhunter” style player, he was a very effective leader on the field and in the locker room. There isn’t a Vilma on the field for the Saints at present and that needs to be addressed, preferably in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Stephone Anthony was projected to be this player but he hasn’t panned out. The transition to the NFL proved to be an issue for the 2nd year player to date. James Laurinaitis proved to be a bust as a free agent and was recently released. The name you’re hearing with increasing frequency to be the answer here for the Black and Gold is University of Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster.
The 2017 NFL Draft
Foster is widely seen to be the most complete linebacker available in next year’s draft and the eye test on him would certainly seem to verify this. The Alabama senior is a heat seeking missile and unquestioned leader of one of the most effective college defenses in memory. He’s a day one NFL starter and should be available to the Saints when they pick in the first round in 2017.
Sep 10, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reuben Foster (10) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide defeated the Hilltoppers 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
The other element currently missing in the Saints defense is a ball hawking safety in the style of former Saint Darren Sharper. Of course Shaper’s career will be defined by his recent conviction for rape. During the Saints Super Bowl run, however, he was, with Vilma, the heart of the unit. In that year Sharper had NINE interceptions, 3 TDs, 15 passes defended and 71 tackles from the free safety position.
The ball hawk
There is nobody remotely in that neighborhood playing in Black and Gold currently. Jairus Byrd was projected to fill the need here but he’s turned out to be a different kind of player. Much maligned, Byrd is actually a decent safety playing sideline to sideline in a hybrid linebacker style role. But that’s not what you need from a free safety in today’s NFL.
Hopefully rookie Vonn Bell will develop into the ball hawk the Saints need at free safety. But he hasn’t shown those skills on the field yet. There have been flashes in practice and training camp. But the picks have eluded the Ohio State product this season when it’s mattered.
So where does that put the Saints D going forward?
They’re close. One solid draft and a couple of smart free agent acquisitions would make Dennis Allen’s unit a force to be reckoned with. The core is there with Jordan, Fairley, Rankins, Vaccaro, Ellerbe (when healthy), Breaux and P.J. Williams.
NEW ORLEANS, LA – NOVEMBER 13: Vonn Bell
Bypassing the edge rusher
The 2017 NFL draft is deep in edge rushers. If Reuben Foster goes to the Saints in the 1st there will be ample opportunity to address the pass rush in the 2nd and in free agency. Hau’oli Kikaha will hopefully return to playing form for 2017 and could additionally add strength in the pass rush. All the eggs can’t be put in the basket of Vonn Bell developing and depth needs to be added at free safety; Byrd should be cut loose to make room there.
There is plenty of depth and young talent at cornerback (Harris, Crawley, Webb, Moore behind Williams and Breaux). And same at linebacker with Craig Robertson, Michael Mauti and Nate Stupar.
The 2009 Saints defensive line, aside from DE Will Smith, wasn’t a standout unit. Then coordinator Greg Williams was a master of disguising pressures and bringing blitzes from the linebacker, safety and cornerback positions. You’re starting to see this type of play from Dennis Allen’s unit as well. So though it would seem defensive end would be a primary focus in addressing needs for 2017, that’s not necessarily the case.
The right moves at middle linebacker and free safety could solidify the Black and Gold defense for years to come. They’re already getting closer to being a solid asset to compliment a potent Saints offense.