You’ll have to excuse Saints first year defensive coordinator Dennis Allen if he has a little “extra bounce” in his step these days, with a strut reminiscent of the John Travolta “Tony Manero” character in the 1977 American classic filmSaturday Night Fever
That’s because in the last month and a half alone, Allen has seen his defense get a major face-lift through free agency and this past weekend’s NFL Draft that has seen him get a virtually new linebacking corps and two key additions on the defensive line in free agent signee Nick Fairley and #1 Draft pick Sheldon Rankins, the consensus top defensive tackle in the 2016 Draft class.
The events of the last month half could prove to be a tremendous upgrade for Allen’s defense by allowing him to incorporate an infusion of new players (some old and some new) who can come in and make an immediate impact on a defense that ranked as one of the worst in the NFL history last year while giving up nearly 60 touchdowns.
Understandably, there are many whom are skeptical about whether Allen is up to the task of helping the Saints reach an acceptable level of respectability — at least good enough to see the team possibly contend for a spot in the NFC Playoffs in 2016.
It’s the whole reason why Allen will be relying on this sudden infusion of “new blood”, to revive the Saints defense and give it a brand new lease on life for 2016 and beyond.
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen against the Houston Texans during the first quarter of a game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Giving Allen the benefit of the doubt, which shouldn’t be all that hard given the previous standard set forth by former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, certainly seems more plausible now with the additions over the past weekend of Rankins and second round pick and All-American safety Vonn Bell of Ohio State.
One of the best aspects of Allen’s coaching style is his ability to get every level of the defensive active, and forcing turnovers in the secondary. Fans need to have confidence that he has a plan set to take the defense from “worst to first”, and that starts with the baby steps of rebuilding the defensive front seven.
While the Saints defense has been maligned for its failures in the secondary with the lone exception of lock-down CB Delvin Breaux, no secondary anywhere in the NFL can withstand the detriment of a front seven with a non-existent pass rush.
With Cameron Jordan at the 5-Technique end and newly acquired Nick Fairley on the inside at the 3-technique tackle, the improvement on the defensive line should be nearly instantaneous.
While it is still a question as to who’s going to be playing on the right side at the “Jack” defensive end spot since the Saints didn’t draft a pass rusher, the thought at the moment is that 2nd year player Hau’oli Kikaha could split time with 3rd year veteran Kasim Edebali; in the hopes that either of the two men could enjoy some success with the benefit of the new players (Fairley and Rankins) in the interior.
Oct 4, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha (44) during the fourth quarter of a game against the Dallas Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Cowboys 26-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Rankins gives the Saints defense some flexibility on the interior, since he can also play the 1-Technique / nose tackle spot, currently held by John Jenkins.
He may very well be an every down defensive tackle in a rotation with Jenkins, Fairley and returning 2nd year DT Tyeler Davison. One thing for certain is that as the 2016 Draft class’ top-ranked DT, Rankins compliments the weakness of Jenkins in the pass rush and Fairley’s wild inconsistency.
One wild card to consider: “Redshirt rookie” Davis Tull, whose lingering shoulder injury from his 2014 senior season at Tennessee-Chattanooga derailed his rookie year for the Saints before it even got started; prompting the Saints to put him on injured reserve for the entire 2015 season.
In the process, the 24-year old Tull — who turns 25 in November — has essentially become the Saints’ “forgotten man”.
But by all accounts so far, Tull’s shoulder has healed, and when the Saints reconvene for OTA’s later this month and early June, the Saints will get their first extensive look at the young man who potentially could make the Saints 2015 rookie class even BETTER one year later, then it’s already been heralded.
As New Orleans Advocate Saints beat writer Nick Underhill noted in his column back in March, the signing by the Saints of former L.A. Rams LB James Laurinaitis gives the Saints plenty of options to move other players around now in the Saints defensive scheme.
Tull, who was originally projected to be a “Jack” linebacker / stand-up end coming off of the outside edge, now could be moved down to the 7-Technique defensive end.
Aug 3, 2015; White Sulphur Springs, WV, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Davis Tull (55) blocks tackle Terron Armstead (72) during training camp at The Greenbrier. Mandatory Credit: Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
Being that Tull is considered “small” as a defensive end, the Saints could look to move him to the 7-technique position that Jordan — who at his core is a 5-Technique end — played last season.
That in turn would then move Jordan over to the other side of the line as the 9-Technique defensive end, where he played before Junior Galette was released before the season last year.
If this change were to happen, Underhill notes that the Saints would need to find another way to deploy their linebackers. It could mean dropping Laurinaitis in the middle, moving Stephone Anthony to the strong side and using Dannell Ellerbe on the weak side.
What it would mean for Tull is that given the untapped potential that led the Saints to draft Tull in the first place, it means that the Saints and the rest of the NFL could be in store for a pretty big surprise in 2016.
Still, there will be some doubt as to whether or not Tull can truly have an impact with an entire year off from playing the sport, especially since Tull hasn’t even played a single NFL snap.
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Whether Tull ends up being an “ace in the hole” for the front seven, the potential he brings in rushing the passer, is why his health becomes a “wild card” factor in the Saints’ defensive success or failure in 2016.
Pass rushing was a big issue for the Saints last year, as evidenced by their grand total of 31 sacks — which ranked 25th overall in the NFL in 2015. Jordan lead the team with 10.5 sacks, so with more additional help on the line, one would suspect that could number change drastically.
There have also been many strong additions to the linebacker position during free agency as well. Players like James Laurinaitis and Craig Robertson, who can assist the defense right away, were great insurance for the Saints linebacking corps going into next season.
It’s the addition of Laurinaitis specifically that Allen figures to rely heavily upon to lead the defensive reversal of fortune. Laurinaitis is a former All-Pro who has NEVER had anything less than 100-plus tackles in his 8-year career, and the thought of pairing him and Anthony could be a huge boost to the Saints LB corps.
And as bad as the Saints LB’s struggled at times last year, that’s a good thing.
The Saints plan on using the 29-year old Laurinaitis at the moment at the middle LB spot and then moving blossoming young superstar LB Stephone Anthony over to the “SAM” / strongside spot, which helps the Saints even more by allowing Hau’oli Kikaha to move over to the “Jack” defensive end / 9-technique.
Whether or not Laurinaitis is or isn’t a “declining player” is still yet to be determined; but his addition appears to already be paying dividends without him even taking a single snap yet.
Anthony had a solid if not spectacular rookie debut in 2015, especially with the NFL’s first-ever blocked extra point return; but now with the added benefit of having Laurinaitis in town to learn from, he needs to continue on the path of progression that could see him go from a nuanced rookie to a sophomore sensation.
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen talks to middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) prior to kickoff of a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
With the play of these linebackers, it’s almost a no-brainer that if they can take the pressure off the defensive line and give it to the guys who can make plays on the outside and in the center of the field, the Saints should see an incremental increase in their overall fortunes.
Having a re-energized and re-organized front seven is what is going to help the secondary more than anything, by pressuring opposing quarterbacks, and in turn hopefully allowing a finally healthy and ball-hawking secondary to cause turn-overs.
What has been the “blueprint” to winning games for the past three years in the NFL? Having a powerful and animated defense to assist the offense by causing turnovers; something the Saints need huge amounts of help with.
The formula for success is there, and it’s been firmly established in particular by last season’s Super Bowl participants, of which one — the Carolina Panthers — remain firmly as a stumbling block in the Saints’ efforts to reclaim control over an NFC South division that they haven’t won since 2011.
The question is: is it just that simple?
Sep 20, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints senior defensive assistant Dennis Allen during the second half of a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Buccaneers defeated the Saints 26-19. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
While duplicating the formula of the defense from the past three Super Bowl winning teams looks like a winning game plan on paper, it needs the right players to make it work; and while the Saints have a lot of work to do to get its players to that level, it all starts and ends — at least for the moment — with Dennis Allen.
The New Orleans Saints have a “blueprint” to get back to becoming a Super Bowl contender, and that plan starts with improving Saints defense.
If the Saints are serious about winning another Super Bowl before Drew Brees retires or perhaps more importantly — after he’s gone — it will be because of the infusion of the “new blood” on defense…..