STATS CAN be deceiving, and the Saints are quick to point out that the numbers misrepresented their defense during last year's Super Bowl run. The unit rated among the NFL's most opportunistic—New Orleans finished second in takeaways (39) and tied for first in points scored off turnovers (141). But overall it was below average (the Saints allowed 357.8 yards per game, eighth-worst in the league) and particularly dreadful against the run, with an average of 122.2 yards allowed per game (21st in the NFL).
What the numbers don't immediately show is just how much the Saints' high-powered offense was responsible for all of this. Last year Drew Brees & Co. often surged to commanding leads before halftime, forcing opponents into furious games of catch-up. While the Saints were effective in keeping teams out of the red zone, they surrendered a lot of yards in between the 20s. Most of those big plays came on the ground. "A lot of times when we would drop into zone-deep coverage to protect leads, teams would run draw plays on us, which would get them 20 yards or more," says Pro Bowl defensive end Will Smith, who anchored a line that gave up 11 such plays in '09. "At the end of the game it would look like they had a lot of running yards when really they only had one or two big plays."
This year the Saints have committed to shutting down the run altogether, a goal they believe can be partly achieved through better execution. "There were a lot of correctable technique things that showed up on film," says middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. "Stuff like maintaining gap assignments and keeping gap integrity is what we're trying to correct."
What's more, the Saints now have the personnel to get the job done. Though they lost a devastating pass rusher in March when they released defensive end Charles Grant, they brought in two veteran free agents, ends Alex Brown (formerly of the Bears) and Jimmy Wilkerson (Buccaneers). The two are disciplined in run coverage and have the tackles to show for it: Brown had 48, Wilkerson 46 last year, which would have trailed only Smith's 49 for most on the Saints' line.
New Orleans also brings back a healthy Sedrick Ellis to reinforce the middle. When the 6'1", 305-pound defensive tackle missed six games last season with a right knee injury, the drop-off in the Saints' run defense was staggering. After holding four of their first 10 opponents below 100 yards rushing, the Saints gave up an average of 133 yards over their last six games. (It's no coincidence that after jumping out to a 10--0 start, New Orleans lost its final three.)
To protect themselves against another Ellis injury (the third-year vet has yet to play a full season), the Saints traded up in the draft to get 6'4", 307-pound LSU tackle Al Woods in the fourth round. But their ace in the hole may be sixth-year lineman Anthony Hargrove. An end by trade, the 6'3" 272-pounder was moved to tackle last season and thrived, with 42 tackles and five sacks while setting a personal best in fumble recoveries (three). Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams thinks Hargrove can have even better numbers now that he better understands his assignments in this defense. "He really didn't know how to play [defensive tackle] last year, but he played hard and tough," Williams says. "Now with a year under his belt and the whole off-season to develop, he's already playing much smarter and with better anticipation."
With a deep collection of big-but-quick bodies, the Saints have a defensive line that can limit gains on the ground and mount an effective pass rush. The revamped line gives Williams the flexibility to disrupt offenses without having to blitz as often as the Saints did last year, when they brought the house an astounding 208 times on first and second downs alone. "Knowing Gregg, we're not gonna do the exact same thing we did last year," says Smith, who promises that their unit's aggressive approach will remain unchanged. "We still want to put that fear of God in an offense and let them know that when they play against us, they're in for a long day."
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH SEAN PAYTON