New Orleans is winning with defense and the emerging Ricky Williams
Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover was halfway through dinner last Saturday when he put down his knife and fork and explained why this season is unlike any of the previous three he had experienced in New Orleans. "Now, when we beat a team pretty good," he said, "no one is surprised. We expect to win."
Don't condemn NFL parity because the Saints, of all teams, are playoff contenders. Celebrate it, because no club plays harder than first-year coach Jim Haslett's band of overachieving draft picks and free-agent pickups. The Saints have pronounced weaknesses in the secondary and at linebacker and wide receiver, but thanks to a strong front four, they have the NFL's top-rated defense. And the running game ranks second, producing 147.6 yards a game.
By virtue of its 21-19 win over the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday, New Orleans improved to 4-3, including a 3-1 mark on the road, and surpassed its victory total of last year. With its next three games against the Cardinals, 49ers and Panthers, New Orleans should be in the playoff race for the long haul.
Led by the quirky Ricky Williams, the Saints are an odd group. Williams has finally arrived as one of the most productive runners in the league, averaging 127 yards rushing and 43 receiving over the past five games, yet he still seems burdened by that responsibility. Haslett fined him $3,051 last week for skipping a doctor's appointment to have his bruised right knee examined. When the coach told him in midweek he might ask him to carry the ball 40 times against the Falcons, Williams, who was also nursing a sore foot, replied, "Please don't." Also, one teammate said that Williams asked Haslett not to use the "jumbo" formation—the two-tight-end smash-mouth alignment—as much as the Saints had been.
"I think Coach Haslett caught me in a bad mood that day," Williams said on Sunday, after he'd abused the Falcons with 156 yards and a career-high three touchdowns on 29 carries. He wore down Atlanta with 103 yards in the second half.
The real strength of the team, though, is the defensive front, a terrific blend of run stoppers (310-pound tackle Norman Hand is one of the league's best), outside rushers ( Joe Johnson and rookie Darren Howard provide consistent pressure) and versatile performers. No one fits the latter bill better than the 267-pound Glover, who has 11 sacks. He can bull rush a 310-pound guard or use his quickness to slip between a double team. Glover has keyed the Saints' three-game winning streak with three sacks each against Chicago and Carolina and two on Sunday. "In Chicago," said Haslett, "he bulled [tackle] Big Cat Williams into the quarterback for a sack." The Cat weighs 345 on a light day.
A 1996 fifth-round draft pick by the Raiders out of San Diego State, Glover went to the World League in 1997 to get game experience, but Oakland still waived him that summer. When the Saints claimed him, Glover knew it might be his last chance to stick in the NFL. He began poring over game tape and asked teammates about great defensive linemen with whom they had played. In 1998, his first season as a starter, he led the Saints with 10 sacks.
"If a young player who wants to be good could watch one guy for 24 hours a day to learn how to practice, how to study and how to play the game," said Haslett, "I'd tell him to watch La'Roi."
On Sunday, Glover passed Bucs tackle Warren Sapp on the sack list with his 10th and 11th takedowns of the season. Sapp happens to be one of the guys whom Glover studies regularly. "To think that people might mention me with [ Sapp] is incredible," Glover said. "That's why I will never take a play off." Like his teammates, Glover finds something to fight about every Sunday.