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Can the Saints Defense Do It Again?

Last year, the New Orleans Saints Defense shocked the football world. Not since the reign of the infamous Dome Patrol has there been anything close to resembling a valid defensive unit as a whole in New Orleans.

Teams literally dominated the black and gold’s D, torching the corners and bulldozing the defensive front at will. Needless to say, no offense in the NFL was concerned about the Saints even slowing them down let alone stopping them.

But all of that changed in 2009. For the first time in a very long time the Saints defense struck fear in the minds of opposing offenses, even when they weren’t competing against them on the field.

The pass rushers were getting adequate pressure on opposing QBs forcing them to make costly mistakes, ball hawking corners and safeties lined up in exotic blitzes that often disrupted and confused opposing offenses, and speedy linebackers capable of flying to the ball consistently laid the wood down–literally.

All of a sudden the finesse team was hitting hard, flattening quarterbacks where they stood and stopping running backs dead in their tracks. Though ranked 25th overall in 2009, the Saints’ aggressive methods under the coaching of defensive master, Gregg Williams paid off in the end.

Ranked number three in the league in interceptions with 26 (5 of which were returned for TDs) and tied for thirteenth in forced fumbles with 15, their opportunistic style set the standard for what a defense is supposed to accomplish if it is run correctly, proving once again that stats are often misleading. With all that in mind, the question is, can we expect the same outcome in 2010?

In order to answer this question, we must dissect the unit and analyze the key players in order to see what’s left underneath. Fortunately, the defense pretty much remained intact, losing most notably LB Scott Fujita and DE Charles Grant. But even more important is the retention of the entire coaching staff and the majority of the defensive leaders and all the extras they bring to the table.

Leading the pack is LB Jonathan Vilma, who I like to refer to as a one man wrecking crew. This guy does it all. He’s very smart, always staying alert to where other players are on the field as well as sniffing out trickery from the opposition.

Like a general, he makes sure that other players get into position so they won’t be caught sleeping. Couple his on-the-field intelligence with his speed and agility and you’ve got a complete player who can not only scan the field, but man it in a way that is unlike that exhibited at the skill level of the average linebacker.

Don’t be surprised to see him in the backfield defending a wide receiver, batting down passes like a corner or disrupting interceptions like a safety. He’s a proven talent whose versatility is quite an asset on the defense.

Then there is the return of Darren Sharper. A valuable addition last year, he made a career-high 9 interceptions, returning three of them for TDs.

The great thing about D Sharper is his ability to get to and make a play on the ball, making him one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. Plus, he has the experience necessary to school the novices in the art of being a safety, which he has mastered so well.

His presence on the field automatically elevates those around him. With Roman Harper on the other side, I expect the dynamic duo to pick up where they left off. Better still, we also get back a healthy Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter which is an automatic shot in the arm to what has at times been a struggling secondary when those players were injured.

Look for Malcolm Jenkins to make some noise too at the safety position. From what I’ve heard, he’s making the transition from corner nicely and is developing into quite a force.

Finally, we have another ace in the hole in DE Will Smith. In my opinion, he’s one of the most underrated DEs in the league. He finished off 2009 with 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 1 interception, and 49 tackles. Need I say more?

This guy is tough and fast enough to wreak havoc in any opposing team’s backfield. If Sedrick Ellis can stay healthy to help bulk up the middle against the run, I expect to see the defense perform even better than it did this past season–that is provided the key players can stay healthy.

Judging from the preseason game last week against New England, it’s evident that there are some kinks that need to be worked out. But the Saints’ unchanged coaching staff is more than capable of making the proper adjustments to ensure the team’s success.

At the same time, there are enough veterans left in place to make sure the team has adequate depth and experience at key positions. Remember that at this point last year, nobody but us fans even pondered the idea of the Saints going to and winning the Superbowl.

They were counted out before they started. But with excellent coaching, staunch on-the-field leadership, and some very hard work, they did the unthinkable. They did what we knew they could all along–took their place in history as champions. And the new improved defense was paramount to that success. Because enough of the key elements are still in place, I believe they can do it again.

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