Going from the #32 defense in the NFL to #4 is one hell of a jump. In less than a year's time, the New Orleans Saints went from being on the bad end of history to making great history. The 28-position jump in total defense from the 2012 season to the 2013 season was one of the most significant improvements in league history.
The Saints have added Jairus Byrd and future Hall of Fame CB Champ Bailey to a unit that once again looks to be among the league's elite. After each season, every phase of the game is evaluated. Although the Saints defense was one of the league's best overall, the improvement that most needs to be made is on takeaways.
When you look at the Seahawks, the 49ers and the Panthers defense, the only thing that separated the Black and Gold defense from those three units was takeaways. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan says that taking the ball away is a goal this season.
“That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense. I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding. We did pretty decent as a unit, but we want to be great, and to be great, you have to take the ball away. We identified that. Every coach on our staff individually has a responsibility for turnovers. We present it to the defense. It’s every one of us at different times, we present different aspects of getting turnovers. We talk about it, we show clips of it. We show some (Charles) Peanut Tillman punch-outs, we saw a few of those today. Great players can be imitated, and we’re trying to do that here. He was a Ragin’ Cajun wasn’t he? I like that there. He’s great to watch, so we’ve been trying to imitate him. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery. So we enjoy doing that; we’re working hard on that. We know we have to improve on that. Seattle won the Super Bowl; they took the ball away more than anybody. They raised the bar, so we have to match it.”
After having been under Coach Rob Ryan a full season, the Saints look to be deeper at all positions, with Byrd, Bailey, the return of Vaccaro, Keenan Lewis and a healthy Victor Butler. Ryan was asked about his depth on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think I can only answer that from last year. I think we’ve got a ton of depth. I think we’ve got competition at every spot. It’s going to be great. We want to be a great defense, and I really think we’ve got the parts to really do something special. We’ve got a lot of great young players. They all work hard, they take coaching. I told you before, we have the best coaches I think. Our position coaches are outstanding. They’re all getting better, all working hard, all buying in, and things are going well.”
The addition of a guy like Champ Bailey is huge for the Saints. Sure, all the so-called analysts will quickly point to his age. And many will use the same line "how much left in the tank does he have" but I'm here to tell you, anytime you can add a player that is a sure thing for the Hall of Fame, it's a good thing. A damn good thing.
“There are so many things you could say about him. His athleticism obviously. The way he has been able to cover people over the years and still make plays on the football, that’s unique. That’s why he is what he is. He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and we’re fortunate to have him. I’m telling you, he looks great out here. He’s got a lot of life, he’s got young legs, and he’s fun to watch," Coach Ryan said about Champ Bailey last week.
Bobby Hebert says that the competition at practice will only make the team better overall. "Facing guys like Champ Baily, Jarius Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro will make our passing game even better. Our secondary can be one of the best in the league this season."
Bobby also said that the Saints wide receivers will get a different feel of things facing a guy like Bailey, and seeing the effect Bailey will have on the other players on the Saints defense. Hebert thinks the value that a player like Champ Bailey brings to the Saints far exceeds what takes place on the field.
"He (Bailey) has been in this game for a long time. And he has become one of the best ever. Champ knows what it takes to be prepared each week, and his leadership will be something that rubs off on the younger players," Hebert said.
Saints Quarterback Drew Brees talked about the Saints improved defensive secondary last week.
“You know, I see a lot confidence in that secondary. Keenan Lewis had a big year last year for us. I love his mindset, I love his approach each and every day. He’s very much about technique and doing things the right way. You can tell he loves game because he studies it, he knows receivers, he knows certain tendencies. I just watch the way he works and it’s great to have guys like that on the other side not just from the standpoint that your one of the starters but the influence that you will have on younger guys, just like a guy like Champ (Bailey). Champ’s career speaks for itself and certainly he’s going to help us a ton. Jairus Byrd you can’t say enough about. His ball production, his productivity. When he’s out there, he is a ball hawk and you have to know where he is so he can do some things. That combined with just the youth that we have and some of these guys that are still up and coming. Patrick Robinson coming back from his injury last year. We’ve got some guys around here that can play. The second round pick (Stanley) Jean-Baptiste, I’m excited about continuing to see him develop. He is a big, physical guy out there so I think we have a lot of diversity in terms of the type of players that we have back there because they all have ball skills. They are all in and around the ball, they’re getting their hands on it and typically when they do that, one of them is coming up with it which makes it tough for us to go up against that in practice and that’s a good thing for once we get to game time because hopefully that means we get a lot a short fields”.
So now for the first time in the Sean Payton era, the New Orleans Saints step on the field with legit defense to go along with one of the game most potent offenses. Over the course of Coach Payton's run in the Big Easy, he has had five playoff appearances, and a Super Bowl title to his credit.
In 2013 there were only two team's in the NFL that boasted a Top 10 Offense and a top 10 defense. The Bengals and the Saints. New Orleans has one of the most complete teams in the NFL. And being more complete could be the difference between losing on the road in the divisional round of the playoffs and winning it all!
Once you win the Lombardi, anything less than accomplishing that feat again is just not the same. How good will the 2014 Saints will be? Obviously, time will tell. But I'll ask anyone, going into an off season of work, has there ever been a Saints team that looks as good as this one can potentially be?