Despite the poor start at 0-2, there is a long way to go for the 2012 New Orleans Saints.
While statistics are stacked in overwhelming fashion against them (only 12% of teams starting 0-2 make the postseason), it is too early to press the panic button, to throw in the towel. There is still time, still a chance to turn things around to post a winning season and a possible playoff spot though it will be tough.
When analyzing the NFL's bottom-ranked defense, is it the players or the scheme?
Without a doubt, players are still trying to grasp the scheme in full fashion. Without a doubt, players have performed in deficient fashion. The numbers do not lie.
Perhaps Steve Spagnuolo is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Perhaps he does not have the personnel necessary to execute and fully utilize his concept. Changing the personality and personnel takes time. As the proverbial saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day."
It is clear that the Saints lack talent, the kind of defensive talent that can make plays. That has been lacking since the departure of Darren Sharper.
When healthy, Sharper had nine interceptions, including three which he returned for touchdowns in the magical season of 2009 which resulted in a Super Bowl victory for the Saints.
Overall, the Saints forced 39 turnovers in 2009, ranking second in the NFL, while recording 35 sacks.
In 2010, the Saints defense actually improved from the 25th-ranked defense to the No. 4 defense in the NFL. The Saints pass defense improved from allowing 235.6 yards in 2009 to 193.6 yards per game in 2010. The team recorded 33 sacks, slightly fewer but comparable to 2009. So what was the difference?
The team went from 26 interceptions in 2009 to just nine in 2010. Battling injuries at the end of his career, Sharper played in just eight games and did not have an interception while coming up with one fumble. No one filled the void and no one has since. Ball hawks in the secondary are an essential element of any successful NFL defense.
In 2011, the Saints ranked 13th in the league in points allowed and 24th in yards allowed. The team forced just 17 turnovers, with only nine interceptions. That included none by starting safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints again recorded 33 sacks.
Thus far in 2012, the Saints are minus four in turnovers, committing five (including four interceptions of Drew Brees) while forcing one, a fumble recovery on a fourth down stop in the red zone against Carolina.
When examining the failings of the New Orleans defense, turnovers are an obvious target. They make a huge difference.
One common misconception is that Sean Payton is an offense-crazed, damn the torpedoes and forget about the defense type of coach who ignores improving his defense while stockpiling offensive toys to play with.
While there is no doubt that Payton is an offensive coach, a brilliant play-caller, a tremendous schemer who is "one" with Brees, he and Mickey Loomis have not ignored defense.
Consider the record.
Since Payton arrived in 2006, the Saints have made seven first-round draft selections. The first two--Reggie Bush (2006) and Robert Meachem (2007) were offensive players. Both are gone now, Bush to Miami and Meachem to San Diego.
From 2008 through 2011, the Saints utilized their top picks to choose defensive players, including Sedrick Ellis, Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson and Cameron Jordan. The team traded up to get Mark Ingram, another offensive player, with a later first-round pick in 2011.
Taking it a step further, examine the second-round and third-round picks during the same period.
Roman Harper (2006) and Tracy Porter (2008) were second-round picks while the only offensive choice in the second-round was tackle Charles Brown (2010).
Usama Young (2007), Martez Wilson (2011), Johnny Patrick (2011) and Akiem Hicks (2012) were all third-round selections while the only offensive player chosen in the third-round was Jimmy Graham (2010). That one worked out pretty well.
Porter (Denver) and Young (Cleveland) are gone. The jury is out on Wilson, Patrick and Hicks. It is way too early to assess their ultimate impact.
With regard to the first-round picks, Bush is gone. So is Jonathan Amaya, who came to New Orleans in the trade for Bush. Like Bush, Meachem was a cap casualty, too expensive to keep, particularly with the pending deal for Brees.
Then, there are the top picks on the defensive side of the football.
In his fourth season, Jenkins has three interceptions, four fumble recoveries and two sacks. In his seventh season, Harper has four interceptions, two fumble recoveries and 17 sacks, including a career high 7.5 in 2011.
In his third season, Robinson has four interceptions (all in 2011) with no fumble recoveries. He has added one sack.
In his fifth season, Ellis has 12.5 sacks and one fumble recovery. He went from 30 solo tackles in 2010 to just 11 in 2011.
Jordan shows the promise of being a good player. He had 24 solo tackles and an assist as a rookie and has eight solos and a sack through two games this year.
In a reserve role, Wilson had one sack a year ago and is a good special teams player in 2012. Patrick saw action in nine games in 2011 and is battling an injury in 2012. Hicks is just getting started.
It is safe to say that Harper, Jenkins, Ellis and Robinson are not busts. They are NFL starters, perhaps competent but certainly not difference-makers.
Harper was very effective in 2011 as used by Gregg Williams. Blitzing frequently, he was a disruptive force. He tackles well against the run when playing near the line-of-scrimmage. Will the scheme of Spags allow Harper to pay in that fashion?
The key to long-term success in the NFL remains "hitting" in the draft. The Saints have enjoyed tremendous success late in their drafts and in free agency.
In 2006, the Saints got Jahri Evans, an elite guard, in the fourth-round. Starting tackle Zach Strief and standout wide receiver Marques Colston came in the seventh round of an outstanding draft.
In 2007, starting tackle Jermon Bushrod was a fourth-round pick.
In 2008, the team got an elite guard in Carl Nicks in the fifth-round. Of course, he is now in Tampa Bay, too expensive to retain.
In 2009, the Saints made a shrewd move by picking Thomas Morstead in the fifth-round. He has turned out to be a brilliant punter and kickoff specialist.
The free agent signings of Pierre Thomas, Brian De La Puente and Chris Ivory were superb. Junior Galette was a nice get as a free agent as well and Travaris Cadet shows promise.
Offensively, Mark Ingram does not have the appearance of a feature back. Thomas and Sproles are the team's two best backs while some would argue that Ivory is a stronger runner than Ingram, though he has ball security issues.
Ingram can play in the NFL in competent fashion, just like Harper, Ellis, Jenkins and Robinson. The issue is that No. 1 picks have to be more than competent. They are significant, long-term investments. The Saints have yet to see the kind of returns on their investments they yearn for and need.
As for Spagnuolo, give him time. He is a proven, successful defensive mind and coordinator. He is certain to get this defense playing in more competent fashion but remember, "Rome wasn't built in a day."
The 2012 New Orleans Saints miss the leadership of Payton and Loomis. They miss Joe Vitt.
Perhaps now we know why Williams blitzed so much.
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