ON THE FIRST PLAY OF OFF-SEASON TRAINING ACTIVITIES last year, Gregg Williams, the Saints' newly installed defensive coordinator, called an all-out blitz. As in 11 players after the quarterback, no one in coverage.
Drew Brees, who is as cool as they come in the pocket, was so flummoxed by the tactic that he hurriedly threw the ball away to avoid the "sack." Deep behind the defensive huddle, Williams smiled to himself. Mission accomplished.
With that one play, in an otherwise meaningless practice, he had sent the message that the Saints would no longer allow offenses to dictate strategy. They would attack, regardless of down, distance or opponent.
"We were establishing a mentality," says Williams, who did the same thing as a coordinator with Washington and Jacksonville and as head coach at Buffalo. "You can bring more than they can block, and you can make the quarterback say, 'Oh, shoot,'—and I'm not thinking of the word shoot."
The comment elicited a chuckle from a listener, but there is nothing funny about what Williams did with the New Orleans defense. He took a unit known for doing more reading than harrying and transformed it into one of the best in the league.
When he met with rookie defenders in the spring for their first on-field session, his message was pointed and succinct: "Knock 'em the f--- out." He repeated himself when the veterans arrived and continued to repeat himself during the season.
In a radio interview 12 days before the Super Bowl, Williams made clear how important it would be for the Saints to go after quarterback Peyton Manning and to get to him as early in the play as possible. "When we do get to him," he added, "we're going to have to make sure he gets a couple 'remember me' shots.... When you put too much of that type of worry on a warrior's mind, he doesn't play all out."
The comment was widely viewed as being reckless and blasphemous. How dare anyone talk about pummeling Manning, the golden boy, the four-time league MVP who comes from the First Family of NFL Quarterbacks. And what kind of sense did it make to provide motivational material for Manning's mental bulletin board, or to draw the attention of league officials who are maniacal about protecting The Chosen Ones, otherwise known as quarterbacks?
"I don't know what I should've said," says Williams. "Maybe I should have blown him kisses or sent him a Hallmark Valentine's Day card, but that would not have sent the right message to our defense."
The message that he sends to his defense includes such things as wanting to see opponents "bounce twice" when being tackled. And going after the ball when making that tackle. In 2008 the Saints ranked near the bottom of the league, with 22 takeaways, but this year they finished just behind the league-leading Packers, intercepting 26 passes and recovering 13 fumbles. They returned eight of those 39 takeaways for scores.