New Orleans Saints  

 

Jonathan Vilma tries to spark New Orleans Saints with pep talk

TAMPA -- On the eve of Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in a conference room at the Grand Hyatt hotel where the New Orleans Saints held their team meeting, linebacker Jonathan Vilma didn't know he would be giving a speech. He wasn't prepared, but he didn't need to be.

Vilma stood up in front of his teammates -- just as he had done so many times in his four previous seasons with the Saints -- and began to deliver words that were described by those who heard them as "beautiful" and "inspirational."

So what did he say? What was his message?

"He told us to hit -- and continue to hit," Saints offensive guard Jahri Evans told NFL.com after a 35-28 win against the Bucs. "It showed a guy that was hungry, ready to put the pads on and hit somebody. He hadn't hit anybody in a long time. I think it got a lot of people in the mood to just go out there and hit."

If you're wincing at the thought of this, at the image of Vilma projecting a tone of violence as he returns to action while still very much in the middle of a bounty scandal that has rocked the Saints organization, you can open your eyes now. It's OK.

In fact, not only is it OK, it's actually better than that. It's exactly what this Saints defense -- which is getting worked on a near-weekly basis -- needed to hear: A good, old-fashioned pep talk, with nothing more than pride provided as an incentive.

"It was definitely a good moment," said Vilma, who suggested during a private interview that NFL.com ask his teammates to detail his message. "It was definitely straight from the heart. I guess you can ask some of the guys. They liked it. They enjoyed it."

Now they need to act on it.

Given the way this defense has played recently, it's as if the Saints need to be reminded they weren't punished simply for making hard hits. They were punished in part for the way in which some in the organization inspired those hits.

While quarterback Drew Brees continues to play special football, throwing eight touchdown passes to help get the Saints' season back on track with two consecutive wins, he is still getting very little help from his defense.

He put up 313 passing yards in the first two quarters on Sunday, yet his team was up by a score of just 28-21 at halftime. Even with this solid showing, the Bucs still finished the game with more passing yards, more rushing yards and more first downs than the Saints, and held an advantage in time of possession -- statistical disparities that served as a major condemnation of the Saints defense.

What does that matter, you ask, if the Saints were still victorious on Sunday? It matters a lot. There's simply no way New Orleans can win enough games this season with a defense that doesn't blitz sufficiently, that doesn't get enough pressure on the quarterback, that's struggling to learn a new system of zone coverage.

Vilma's impact on Sunday's game was minimal -- but in delivering his message on Saturday night, he was most definitely onto something.

"No team can beat us if we fight and come out with the right attitude," said safety Roman Harper when asked by NFL.com to explain the tone of Vilma's speech. "Have a sense of urgency. Keep swinging, no matter what happens."


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Maybe it's a good thing Vilma will be around for at least another week before the appeal of his suspension from the NFL is heard on Oct. 30. Clearly, he still needs more time to get this message through to his teammates. The Saints defense certainly looked better in a Week 5 win against the San Diego Chargers (seemingly thanks to more blitzing), but on Sunday against the Bucs, the unit once again lacked the right bite.

As well as anyone, Vilma knows the Saints defense needs to start producing in a way that resembles the far more aggressive play of past seasons. When the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, it wasn't because they had more exceptional defensive playmakers. It was because they were playing with a much more physical style.

It's the reason, Vilma says, that for the first time in months, he's spent very little mental energy on his ongoing appeal.

"I honestly won't think about that for a while," Vilma said. "We've got work to do. We're worried about trying to find a way to get into these playoffs. If Atlanta slips up along the way, (and we get) even a chance to win the (NFC South), that's what we're trying to do."

Vilma said he's been so focused on football, he didn't even find out that Commissioner Roger Goodell had recused himself from the appeals process last week until hours after the news broke. He's too busy trying to help get the Saints defense get on a better path.

"It's easy to get lost in football," Vilma said.

Getting lost in football is exactly what this entire defense must do if the Saints are going to turn their 2-4 start into anything more. They need to listen to their leader, no matter how long he's around, and they need to act on his words.

There is plenty of reason to suggest, particularly if you believe Goodell's case against him, that Vilma's leadership had been irresponsible and lacking in tact over the past several years. Vilma is not, however, a bad leader. He just took a bad approach.

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So as he stood before the Saints, telling them to hit harder and play with more emotion, he was inspiring his team exactly as he was supposed to: With nothing more than words. With a message they needed to hear.

The sooner his teammates listen to him, the sooner this team will get back on track. And the sooner the Saints can put the bounty scandal behind them, just as Vilma seemed to do, at least for a few moments, on Saturday night.

"It was beautiful," Harper said. "(Vilma) is an emotional guy. And who can blame him? He's been through a lot. He's the definition of a fighter. After all these things that have been going on, he's been battling through it.

"Now the rest of us need to do the same."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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