Saints Defense Needs to Play “The Best 11” At All Times


After a disappointing start to the year, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the Saints made some key personnel changes against the Chargers. Look for them to continue experimenting against the Panthers.

Saints Head Coach Sean Payton was pretty straightforward that one of the major tasks for the coaching staff during the bye week was self–evaluation.

“I think the key for us really is more about ourselves, evaluating, hey, what are we doing well and then who are we asking to do it,” said Payton in an interview earlier this week.

This statement isn’t that surprising considering the fact that Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen finally “rolled the dice” with some defensive moves in the win over the Chargers.

For starters, Craig Robertson got the start at middle linebacker in for James Laurinaitis, who was out with a quad injury.

Oct 2, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Craig Robertson (52) looks across the line before San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) gets the snap during the second quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Some fans suspect that this was actually a demotion and that Laurinaitis was unceremoniously benched, and the “injury” was a way for him to save face.

Personally, I don’t think that’s the case.

If Payton and Allen wanted to motivate a player by benching him, part of the motivation comes from the humiliation of being benched publicly (unless they were somehow trying to “save face” by saying he was injured).

They implemented this tactic with perhaps the biggest shakeup to their lineup, starting rookie second round draft pick Vonn Bell in place of the much maligned Jarius Byrd.

Byrd was coming off one of his worst performances wearing the black and gold, including being called out by ESPN announcer Jon Gruden on national television as a “liability” to the middle of the New Orleans defense.

Sep 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman (26) breaks a tackle attempt by New Orleans Saints free safety Jairus Byrd (31) during the third quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This motivational message nearly worked as Byrd was utilized later in the game in one of the Saints’ three-safety packages.

He actually came down with an interception, what would have been the Saints first of the year, but it was nullified by an offsides call on defensive lineman Nick Fairley.

Unfortunately, Byrd was injured on the play and was escorted to the Saints locker room.

While Vonn Bell had some issues in coverage early on, he teamed up with Kenny Vaccaro to put a big hit on Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, forcing a crucial fumble that changed the momentum of the game in the fourth quarter.

It was exactly the type of play that has been missing from the defense.

Oct 2, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (28) fumbles during the fourth quarter as New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) and free safety Vonn Bell (48) defend at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Craig Robertson wasn’t the only change at linebacker.

Special teams captain Michael Mauti and newly acquired Nate Stupar also received starts at outside linebacker.

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This move would also pay dividends as Stupar would come up with the fumble recovery that allowed the Saints to get the go-ahead score.

It is a little astounding that the Saints managed to escape with a win, especially given the offensive struggles.

Drew Brees threw two interceptions, and had his lowest passer rating in a win during his illustrious career as a Saint.

Given the improved effort defensively, it seems logical Coach Payton addressed the issue of personnel:

“When we got to this bye week, we met a few different times just about, and it was less about scheme and it was more about, hey, the best 11 sometimes is tough to find because as coaches you can get ingrained into position groups all of us can.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say while that quote might technically be applicable to the offensive side of the ball, Coach Payton meant it more in reference to his defense.

New Orleans has a long history on the offensive side of the ball of utilizing unique formations, and utilizing personnel groupings to put their offense in the best position to succeed.

It makes all the sense in the world to try and extend this to the defensive side of the ball.

Oct 2, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive back B.W. Webb (28) intercepts a pass intended for San Diego Chargers wide receiver Tyrell Williams (16) during the fourth quarter at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Panthers, look for the Saints to once again rely heavily on their new three-safety look.

Next: Saints Players That Could Be Moved Before the NFL Trade Deadline

Fans should also look for personnel groupings we haven’t seen together on the field at the same time.

Whatever the results, don’t expect the same soft zone vanilla coverage implemented in the first half of the Chargers game.

The Saints defense needs to play “The Best 11” at all times — and tomorrow afternoon is as good a time as any……