|Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire|
|Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in the Saints' bounty program.|
The fallout from the New Orleans Saints' participation in the bounty program threatens to wreck their 2012 season. The team has already lost Sean Payton to a season-long suspension and will be without interim head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games of the season.
While the absence of their coaches will certainly affect the Saints' preparation, Wednesday's suspensions of linebacker Jonathan Vilma (for the entire 2012 season) and defensive end Will Smith (four games) will have a significant impact on the Saints' performance this season. The duo's collective skills were the foundation of the Saints' defensive game plans, and each was expected to occupy a major role under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
That being said, this team can overcome this latest wave of penalties. How? Here are three key adjustments we can expect from the Saints' defense without two of their top defenders on the field:
Spagnuolo will build around the Saints' defensive line
Spagnuolo is a Jim Johnson disciple and a fan of attacking defensive football, but he typically builds his schemes around the talent of his defensive line. He primarily wants to create pressure with four defenders, but augment conventional rushes with a variety of five- and six-man overload pressures designed to attack the weak areas of pass protection. The scheme is designed to create multiple isolated matchups at the point of attack, which should result in consistent pressure if one or two defenders win at the line of scrimmage.
However, the absence of Smith at defensive end will alter the way Spagnuolo opts to attack the quarterbacks with blitz pressure in New Orleans' first four games. Rather than utilize "Gut" pressures with multiple defenders running through the "A" gaps to force opponents to tighten down with protections, creating short corners for outside rushers, the Saints will likely bring more linebackers and defensive backs off the edges to keep quarterbacks confined to the pocket.
Smith, who finished 2011 with 6.5 sacks, excelled at winning one-on-one matchups off the edge with his quickness and power, so the Saints will want to replicate his consistent presence from the outside to disrupt the quarterback's timing in the pocket. In looking at the Saints' roster, Junior Galette could be a potential fill-in for Smith. He amassed 4.5 sacks a season ago in a part-time role, and his sack production should increase with more opportunities.
Sedrick Ellis is another player who could provide some production as an interior rusher. He has tallied 12.5 sacks in his four-year career, including six in 2010, and possesses the strength and quickness to win one-on-one battles inside. With Spagnuolo willing to utilize a combination of conventional rushes and exotic pressures to create confusion along the line, the Saints' sack production shouldn't dip dramatically with Smith on the sideline.
Vilma has been the centerpiece for the Saints' defense with his remarkable instincts, toughness and production, and obviously his season-long suspension is much harsher than Smith's four-game ban. Fortunately for New Orleans, new free-agent signees Lofton and Hawthorne possesses the ideal combination of skills to replace him in the middle.
Lofton, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, has been one of the most productive tacklers in the NFL over the past four years and is a dominant force within the box. He has been credited with 118-plus tackles in each of the past three seasons, and his knack for getting to the ball has made him one of the league's most feared defenders in the middle. In Spagnuolo's scheme, Lofton will have the freedom to run from sideline to sideline unimpeded due to the shaded alignment of defensive tackles, which occupies multiple blockers at the point of attack. If the previous production of Antonio Pierce and James Laurinaitis serves as an indicator of Lofton's potential impact within Spagnuolo's scheme, the Saints should expect big results from their new man in the middle.
Hawthorne, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, should offset the loss of Vilma's playmaking ability with his versatile skills. He is adept at coming off the edge on blitzes and also displays the athleticism and instincts to drop in coverage. Hawthorne has six sacks, seven interceptions and five forced fumbles in his four-year career and is coming off a highly productive season in Seattle. Spagnuolo will use Hawthorne at weak-side linebacker to take advantage of his speed and quickness and likely incorporate him into the rush as a blitzer from various alignments. In addition, Hawthorne should play a big role in the Saints' sub packages to maximize his skills in coverage. He has a great feel for reading and anticipating routes, which routinely results in big plays.
With Vilma out for the season, the Saints will lean on this hard-hitting tandem to steer the ship in his absence.
Expect Roman Harper to play a hybrid role in the back end
The loss of several key front seven defenders, particularly Will Smith, could force the Saints to incorporate Harper extensively into the pass rush. He has been one of the most active box defenders in the league, with 12 sacks over the past three seasons, including 7.5 in 2011.
At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Harper overwhelms tackles with his quickness and burst, but also displays enough strength and power to fight through contact on the way to the quarterback. His knack for creating pressure off the edge is exceptional for a second-level defender, particularly a defensive back.
Spagnuolo certainly wasn't afraid to utilize a safety on pressures during his time in Philadelphia with Brian Dawkins, so it very likely Harper will be featured prominently in the Saints' blitz packages as an extra rusher. From crash blitzes off the edges to "A"-gap pressures off an outside-the-box alignment, Harper will routinely attack the quarterback from the second level. If he is able to get home consistently, the Saints' pass rush will not skip a beat with a couple of their best defenders on the sidelines.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks