When former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams left New Orleans for the same post in St. Louis this offseason, the Saints set out to hit a home run in their search for a new defensive leader. The hiring of Steve Spagnuolo was not just a home run, but more like a bottom of the ninth, walk-off grand slam. While we will not know exactly how Spagnuolo will utilize the current Saints personnel until they take the field this fall, we do know it is likely to be different from Williams’s high-risk, high-reward philosophy.
Although it is thought in many circles that Spagnuolo desires to utilize a customary four-man defensive front to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, that assumption is likely distorted due to the personnel he had at his disposal during the New York Giants legendary upset over New England in Super Bowl XLII. During that 2007 season, the Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks, then added eight more in the playoffs, including five against the Patriots' Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. With pass rushing terrors like Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiroa, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka, Spagnuolo was afforded the rare luxury to turn his front loose and protect his back seven by rarely blitzing.
However, one must remember that Spagnuolo spent eight years as an assistant under late Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Johnson was notorious for his vast array of blitz packages, something Spagnuolo also loves to utilize. Nevertheless, Spagnuolo tends to apply more conservative blitz packages rather than the “send the house” beliefs often employed by both Johnson and Williams. This likely means much more zone blitzing and zone defense in the secondary behind the blitz rather than man coverage. Spagnuolo is also widely renowned for his ability to disguise schemes and confuse opposing offenses, evidenced by his “four aces” package in New York where he lined up four defensive ends together on obvious passing downs throughout the 2007 season.
With the Saints being limited personnel-wise on the defensive side of the ball, they must rely on Spagnuolo’s genius in disguising blitzes, coverages, and run fits to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. To maximize the potential of a Steve Spagnuolo defense, the Saints need a serious talent upgrade at numerous positions defensively, starting on the edge up front. While Will Smith is certainly an accomplished NFL player, he remains inconsistent and lacks a bookend to eliminate double teams. The Saints are still hopeful that Cameron Jordan can be that guy, but the flash they expected from him never surfaced on the field last season. At outside linebacker, Scott Shanle is not getting any younger and the void left by Scott Fujita was never filled. Unfortunately, the Saints do not have a first round draft choice in the 2012 draft to pluck an elite pass rusher. Depending on how the Saints fare in the free agency sweepstakes and how deep they feel this draft class is at the defensive end/outside linebacker position, trading up to the first round is certainly not out of the question. Regardless, look for New Orleans to draft heavily on the defensive side of the football this April.
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