Will the defensive transition kill the Saints’ Super Bowl hopes?

Saints shields

Maybe the answer to a good defense is putting these two in the game?

Much has been said about the Saints’ new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and how his philosophy is substantially different from Gregg Williams. How is that actually quantified, however? The basic tenets of a “Spags” defense, or at least the ways he made a name for himself, are in my humble opinion as follows:

1.) Generate a strong and consistent pass rush while remaining sound in the back end.
2.) Have interchangeable pieces along the defensive line and mix and match them.

The first one sounds familiar to anyone who’s watched a Gregg Williams defense … except for that whole remaining sound in the back end part, of course. Therein lies the first rub in this equation.

The second rub comes in the form of those interchangeable pieces along the defensive line (by this, I specifically mean players who can rush the passer, hold up against the run, play multiple positions, drop into coverage, and have tremendous singing voices). Sure, some of the guys the Saints have there now are certainly suited to be moved around (I am highly optimistic about Cam Jordan, for instance). But some of them (Sed Ellis?) probably aren’t. Watch the Giants do their moving around thing below and decide for yourself if you think Ellis can be an effective pass rusher stunting from the end position (as Justin Tuck does here), for instance.

Now, I’m not so dire about this potential problem as I was initially, mostly thanks to some fine research done by one Grandmaster Wang over at Moosedenied (if you are a Saints fan and don’t read his work, you should). He shows us the overall athleticism of some guys on Spags’ famed Giants defenses and compares them to some players on the current Saints roster. The comparison is not a disaster.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is the philosophical switch from “bring pressure at any cost!” to a more disciplined concept. Can the current players make that kind of transition in a single season? Or is the scheme even really all that different?

This Giantsfans post from 2007 gives us a better idea, since it shows us that Spags is a decendent of the Jim Johnson school of zone blitzing (Gregg’s ears just perked up), which gave rise to what might be my favorite specific defensive innovation in football: The Double A Gap Blitz.

This play is a monster for an offense to deal with, because it takes an aggressive posture at the point of attack and keeps six men in coverage. A lot of your standard zone blitzes do this to some degree, but often they focus their attack on one side of an offensive line, attempting to overwhelm that particular area of the field. It essentially bunches your pass rushers together, making a spread out offensive line hustle to cover its gaps. This is sound strategy.

Where the Double A Gap Blitz differs is in where it chooses to apply this pressure: Directly up the middle. This scheme blitzes (or threatens to blitz) two linebackers on either side of the center, forcing a quick reaction by the line to cover up a direct attack on the shortest distance to the quarterback. If the blitz is not properly picked up, the effect is devastating. This is not just sound strategy, this is winning strategy, making a typical zone blitz even more lethal.

I love, love, love this play. And the good news is that the Saints are used to running it, as Gregg never met a blitz he didn’t like (and every team in the league runs some version of this blitz anyway). But it’s still representative of a philosophical switch, being hyper aggressive still, but keeping it measured with a safe zone coverage behind it. This kind of mindset change will particularly rear its head when defaulting to a comfort zone in pressure situations. In other words, using what you like best during crunch time. Williams preferred a man coverage behind his blitzes, and this was something that often burned him in big moments. The players will have to get comfortable and used to running zone behind their blitzes going forward, to the point that they become much more proficient with it … proficient enough for Spags to default to it as he’d like.

Which leads us to the real question that matters most in all of this: Can the Saints defensive backs play a zone defense well for long stretches?

Probably, but with a caveat. Because the truth is the Saints have played a great deal of zone recently, but they have had a tendency to do it in two ways: Out of a 3-3-5 look, employing the occasional outside blitzing technique (which rarely worked), OR in a standard Tampa 2 look, sans blitzing of any kind. I’d love to see some raw data on this, but those were the two looks that stuck out at me the most. So if you’re counting along at home, that means four rushers on the majority of Saints zone plays (if my memory isn’t hazy, which is a decidly shaky principle in the first place). This is a good news/bad news kind of deal, because from a math perspective, you’d think with extra rushers the pass rush will become more effective and the coverage itself will improve. But we can also expect alignment- and position-based problems from a team accustomed to having seven defenders in the back end, but will now be leaning much more heavily on schemes that require only six.

This is all a long-winded way of saying Saints fans can expect to see more of the good AND more of the bad next year on defense. I anticipate a defense that rushes the passer effectively at times, yet at other times gets blown up due to huge gaps in the zone that shouldn’t be there. Old habits die hard, after all.

I choose to be somewhat optimistic about this, in that I understand the transition will be bumpy, but I remain hopeful that by December, everything will begin to click. This is the formula the Giants have ridden to two Super Bowl championships, after all, so it can work.

Let’s just not watch the Saints play themselves out of the playoff picture in the meantime, yes?

* Smart Football has its usual assortment of good content, from Notre Dame’s embracing the concept of plays that allow for both a running and passing option (called “packaged concepts”) to Greg Schiano instituting a “two-drink” rule. The latter is probably more significant than you think: Losing players during practice to hydration problems is a constant concern, and for an NFL team, it really shouldn’t be.

* Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has hired his son, Steve, as a coaching assistant (an entry-level position). This follows a move earlier this spring, in which Kirk Ferentz hired his son, Brian. Somebody needs to do a study on how often nepotism in hiring coaches works out, because I suspect it isn’t very often.

* Yet more evidence that Bill Snyder is, in fact, a sorcerer: his freshman standouts almost universally improve as sophomores. As Bring on the Cats points out, this is very good news so far as Tyler Lockett and B.J. Finney are concerned.

* Finally, with the Saints STILL having trouble getting Drew Brees signed to a contract extension, below is a reminder of what they’re really missing out on during offseason workouts.

About Dave Gladow

Dave Gladow is the author of "Eyeblack Odyssey," a sports enthusiast, a New Orleans resident, and he enjoys eating pig nachos.
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