LAST SEASON the Saints' offense ravaged defenses, set ridiculous team marks and threatened to break some of the most glorious records in the NFL. But an 8--8 finish—with five losses by a field goal or less—undercut the value of those gaudy numbers. "No one has been talking about how [Drew Brees] almost broke Dan Marino's record [for passing yards in a season]," says right tackle Jon Stinchcomb. "And no one has been talking about how we gave up only 13 sacks."
That's because the New Orleans defense didn't help the offense much, surrendering 393 points (26th in the league) and 339.5 yards per game (23rd). Says a philosophical Brees, "A lot of times disappointment allows you to achieve great things because of what you've learned from that disappointment."
Coach Sean Payton learned that he needed a different defensive approach, so he fired coordinator Gary Gibbs and hired Gregg Williams, who last season was Jacksonville's coordinator--assistant head coach. Williams, 51, has spent his career as a defensive fix-it man, both as a coordinator and head coach. From 2000 to '07 his units in Tennessee, Buffalo and Washington finished in the top 10 five times, using flexibility and aggressiveness to bring pressure and create turnovers. (Last season his Jaguars defense ranked 17th.) While the Saints will operate out of a 4--3, Williams has been known to deploy multiple fronts, which is why he values smart, versatile players. Stinchcomb, for one, says he's never faced a New Orleans defense that presents so many varied schemes in practice.
The centerpiece of the D will remain middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who ranked ninth in the league with 132 tackles last season, his first with the Saints after four years as a Jet. In Williams's 4--3, the 6'1", 230-pound Vilma will be asked not only to set the tone with his attacking play but also to pick up opponents' tendencies and communicate those insights to his cohorts.
"I wanted to draft [Vilma] when I was at Buffalo, almost traded for him when we were in Washington—I thought he'd be very similar to London Fletcher," Williams says of the longtime middle linebacker who played under him for the Bills and the Redskins. "He just hasn't played quite as long in this system of defense, but he has picked it up very well."
The 27-year-old Vilma says Williams has done more than shake up the playbook. "What Gregg has brought to the table is not just X's and O's, but a mentality," he says. "Even if we don't execute 100 percent of the time, we're going to play hard. We're competing."
Vilma demands accountability of himself and others, a trait he shares with free-agent acquisitions safety Darren Sharper and fullback Heath Evans. "Our management has done a great job bringing in character guys, but also wise, veteran players," Brees says. "We're as veteran a team as we have ever been. We have a lot of guys that have played in big games and know what it's like to be a professional, to prepare, to take care of themselves, to do all those things that you need to do to be successful."
If Brees and his weapons on offense stay healthy—notably receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey and running back Reggie Bush—New Orleans will threaten the record books again. But what actually might put the offense over the top is a new-look defense that forces turnovers and gives Brees more short fields.
As the Saints pounded each other in practice and prepared for a new campaign, they seemed to relish an absence of preseason hype. "We like to stay under the radar," Vilma says.
If the defense can reach the high level of the offense, they won't remain there.