The New Orleans Saints' season finale could not have been a more perfect snapshot of their season. They allowed the Carolina Panthers to rack up 478 yards of total offense, with DeAngelo Williams rushing for 178 yards and Steve Smith hauling in five passes for 134 yards. And yet, New Orleans came within a field goal of winning the game before falling 33-31.
The loss dropped New Orleans to an NFC South-worst 8-8, a record that reflected the wonderment and efficiency of the offense -- at least the passing game -- and the struggles of a defense that was injured up front, broken on the back end and unable to provide a speed bump's worth of resistance.
"Coming into the offseason, clearly the focus was to try and upgrade our defense," general manager Mickey Loomis said.
Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was let go and replaced by Gregg Williams, whose aggressive style of piecing together and scheming defenses was considered a must in order to counter opponents -- particularly those in the NFC South, whose ability to run between the tackles and throw the ball over the top posed problems for the Saints.
Add to that the fact that Atlanta (Tony Gonzalez) and Tampa Bay (Kellen Winslow) acquired two of the best receiving tight ends in the sport and improving a defense that allowed 24.6 points and 339.5 yards per game became even more of a priority. The Saints, like the rest of the NFC South, also face the stout NFC East and AFC East in non-divisional play. In order to compete, toughening up the defense was paramount.
"We felt like we needed to make some kind of change with the things that we were doing," Loomis said. "You can't change all the players and we had an opportunity to get Gregg, who has (an outstanding) résumé. So we made that decision and feel good about it."
The Saints didn't actually want to change most of the players, Loomis said. There was and is talent at most spots, especially among the front seven. Re-signing free-agent middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was the most important personnel move of their offseason, Loomis said. Vilma, acquired in a trade from the Jets, had a strong season anchoring a unit that actually played decent at times against the run and was respectable in the red zone.
Having defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant healthy after both were injured last season -- Grant finished the season on injured reserve (triceps) -- should help out too, Loomis said. Both could be facing a four-game suspension for testing positive for a banned diuretic in 2008, but there has been no decision regarding potential punishment.
"(Coach) Sean Payton and I realize that a lot of the problems last season were related to injures," Loomis said. "We felt (Grant and Smith) are going to get healthy and we'll get the kind of performance from them that we expect. They have had a good offseason, in terms of conditioning and being in our offseason program and doing those sorts of things."
Loomis said there are also high expectations for defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, who had several bright flashes during his rookie season.
The position where the Saints hope they made a huge upgrade is at cornerback, with the selection of Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins at No. 14 overall. The offensive-minded Payton and even Loomis were tempted to select an offensive player in the first round, presumably Jenkins' college teammate, running back Chris "Beanie" Wells, but instead drafted Jenkins, a physical corner who can help against the division's bevy of bruising runners and help out in pass protection.
New Orleans, which only had four draft picks in '09 because of trades in previous years, did not select an offensive player in the draft. With their picks, the Saints chose Wake Forest safety Chip Vaughn and Wake Forest linebacker Stanley Arnoux, as well as punter Thomas Morstead out of SMU. Arnoux's season ended before it began as he ruptured his Achilles' tendon at rookie minicamp over the weekend.
|Bill Haber / Associated Press|
|The Saints used a first-round selection on Malcolm Jenkins in hopes the former Ohio State star can shore up the secondary.|
Since Jenkins is not the fleetest of runners, there was some speculation that he could be moved to safety, but that speculation is being made outside of the franchise. Jenkins will be a cornerback for the Saints -- for now.
"We're going to look at him as a corner first," Loomis said. "We would hate to miss out on an opportunity to get an elite cornerback without giving him a shot. He's got the characteristics that would allow him to play safety, but we are going to give him a long, hard look at cornerback."
At the least, Jenkins can help immediately in nickel packages and, because of his size (6-foot, 204) and physicality, he can match up against the likes of Gonzalez, Winslow or Carolina's Muhsin Muhammad within the division. His success -- and the success of the secondary -- will come in part due to the pressure the players up front can provide. That's where Williams' scheming and ability to set favorable personnel matchups come into play.
"The most important thing for us is try to eliminate big plays and create a few more big plays on defense," said Loomis, reflecting on the Saints allowing 53 passes of 20-plus yards and forcing just 10 fumbles in 2008.
"Gregg Williams has a history of being an aggressive play-caller on defense. I don't want to speak to the specifics of what he might do. He's also in the process of getting to know our team. One of the great things about Gregg, or any good coach, is the ability to adapt to the personnel that we have."
While sharpening up the defense was the primary focus of the offseason, Loomis said tightening up the offense is a must. So is winning away from the Superdome, where New Orleans went 2-6 in 2008.
"There were games where if we could have gotten a first down or made a play on offense, we would have won," Loomis said.
The Saints hope to add a tailback to rotate with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, who Loomis singled out for his commitment in the offseason workout program. Tight end Jeremy Shockey has also been a full participant in offseason drills, which hasn't just helped Shockey but has also set a tone among other players: Everyone is on board with turning things around.