Football Nation Previews: The 2013 New Orleans Saints

By Justin Henry
June 21, 2013 7:21 am
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2012 Record: 7-9

2012 Downfall

The Worst Defense Ever
Think of everyone that passed away before December 30, 2012. Could be a loved one, could be a historical figure like George Washington or Gandhi. In any event, you got to see something none of those people ever saw: an NFL defense give up 7000 yards in a season.

The 1981 Baltimore Colts had the market cornered on spectacularly awful defenses, giving up 6793 yards, a record that stood 31 years. The Saints went ahead and obliterated that by nearly 250 yards, giving up 7042 in 2012, a record that might possibly never be broken. At least in our lifetimes.

In 12 games, the Saints gave up over 400 yards, and over 500 in four of those. The league average is 347.2 YPG, and only once did the Saints hold an opponent below that: a 23-13 loss to Atlanta on November 29. That result was made possible by five Drew Brees interceptions.

The Worst Defense Ever, Part II
The Saints defense was so awful, it requires two mini essays to convey its historical incompetence. In a muddled, confusing year without Sean Payton to preside over the team, Drew Brees and his Swiss Army-offense could only do so much to stay in games.

Breaking those 7042 yards down, 2361 yards of it came on runs, the most in the league. The Saints were also dead last in yards allowed per run; a whopping 5.17 YPA. Only Buffalo and Jacksonville gave up more rushing touchdowns than the Saints' 18.

The other 4681 yards, obviously, came in the passing game. That number is the second worst in the league, behind only Tampa Bay's 4758. New Orleans was also in a three-way tie for second most TD passes given up (31) and tied for the sixth lowest total of sacks (30).

2013 Projected Wins: 9.5

Top 3 Rookies
-Kenny Vaccaro, S (1/15): Helps keep corners from getting overmatched by smoothly covering slot receivers, and identifying how the route progression will unfold.

-Terron Armstead, T (3/75): Jaw-droppingly athletic for a 300+ pounder, raw talent with lots of room to improve could push Charles Brown for left tackle job.

-John Jenkins, DT (3/82): Tipping the scales at nearly 360 lbs, he struggles in pass rushing, but is hard for centers and guards to freely open lanes on.

Other Moves
It's not as if the Saints completely overhauled the defense after the catastrophic season, but a coordinator switch was in order. Steve Spagnuolo was out after one year, and the bombastic Rob Ryan takes over, bringing his brand of 3-4 defense with him.

But that's not all that's joining Ryan from Dallas. Situational linebacker Victor Butler joins the Saints, but will likely miss the year with a torn ACL. The secondary adds a couple of prominent faces in cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety/return specialist Jim Leonhard.

On the offensive side of the ball, Brees gets a new weapon in veteran tight end Benjamin Watson. With double TE sets becoming en vogue, and the Saints possessing a flexible offense, Watson, who had 500 yards last season for the Browns, spells Jimmy Graham well.

Potential Starting Lineup
QB - Drew Brees
RB - Pierre Thomas
FB - Jed Collins
WR - Marques Colston
WR - Lance Moore
LT - Charles Brown
LG - Ben Grubbs
C - Brian De La Puente
RG - Jahri Evans
RT - Zach Strief

DE - Akiem Hicks
NT - John Jenkins
DE - Cameron Jordan
OLB - Martez Wilson
ILB - David Hawthorne
ILB - Curtis Lofton
OLB - Will Smith
CB - Jabari Greer
CB - Keenan Lewis
FS - Malcolm Jenkins
SS - Kenny Vaccaro

K - Garrett Hartley
P - Thomas Morstead
LS - Justin Drescher

2013 at a Glance
Bon voyage, Steve Spagnuolo. An anonymous Saints player ripped the one-year defensive coordinator, claiming Spagnuolo would never make adjustments, never took input from players, and forced his system upon a team not used to his style.

You'd think the quiet Spagnuolo would be more revered than the mouthy Ryan, but that's not the case so far. Spagnuolo was razzed for being void of emotion and short on patience, whereas Ryan is thus far rebuilding the defense to fit the players.

Early indications are that the Saints defense is experimenting with odd formations. Among the unique setups are three rushing outside linebackers, with even DE Will Smith working as both an inside and outside back.

The Saints' bane in sacks and general pass rush put much pressure on their secondary. Ryan hopes to remedy this by throwing as many pass rushers as possible onto the field, coming from every direction.

While Ryan doesn't have a DeMarcus Ware that he can position anywhere, he does have Vaccaro.

Vaccaro possesses a great herding instinct, funneling receivers away from the sideline and off their natural routes, which the Saints desperately needed. While his run coverage skills are questionable, he's had flashes of brilliance, and is capable of being developed.

On offense, there isn't much to add to an already stellar squad. Brees threw a career-high 670 times last season (his fifth time over 600), and much of those throws came as he tried to undo the damage his defense had done.

Sean Payton returns from his "BountyGate" suspension, and was given a contract that makes him the highest paid coach in league history.

After watching his usually superb team crumble under the weight of a rough calendar 2012, Payton's taking out that frustration with what tackle Zach Strief's calling "too much energy."

But that's not a complaint; the team is apparently feeding off both Payton's manic vibe, as well as the comfort of simply having their leader back. The workouts and OTAs were said to have been brisk, and every single contracted Saint attended, a first for the team.

It remains to be seen if the Saints will accentuate the running game more. 65 percent of the team's offensive plays were design-pass last season, but Brees seems to handle the load fine.

Regardless, New Orleans was ranked 25th in rushing offense in 2012. The competition at left tackle between Charles Brown, Terron Armstead, and Jason Smith could determine if Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas get more carries. After all, Jermon Bushrod no longer has Brees' blindside.

Verdict
Atlanta's iron-clad grip on the NFC South loosens like a rusty railing if the Saints improve their defense. With Ryan working to design schemes that fit the players (the opposite of what Spagnuolo was accused of doing), there's a good chance that they will.

The offense is largely the same, sans the losses of Bushrod and Chris Ivory. With Payton as Brees' master and commander once more, there's little chance it regresses. Of all twenty teams that missed the playoffs last year, it's the Saints who take the biggest leap forward.

Prediction: 12-4

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