As a coach, I always loved Spring Practice, whether in high school or at Tulane University. It was a time for individual improvement, repetition and team cohesion.
You had the time to work on skills and techniques that you do not have during the regular season when installation of the game plan is paramount. Without the necessity of game preparation, individual player development becomes the emphasis.
That is actually the objective of NFL Organized Team Activities or OTAs. It was great to be back on the practice field, although only as an observer. The Thursday OTA was held indoors due to threatening weather. While it was great to be back on the field, it was different not to be hot and sweaty at practice.
Much of our attention was on the defense being installed by new Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan. While much has been said about the switch to a 3-4, the biggest change is the energy and aggressiveness of the unit. While that is always the mantra of any new DC (would anyone come in and say they are going to be more passive?), some of the ideas in practice reinforced this attitude.
One point of emphasis that is a hallmark of all great defenses is running to the ball. This habit must be ingrained in OTAs and pre-season practice because you need to cut down on your running in the regular season. Fatigue then is always a concern, so now is the time to make getting to the ball an automatic reaction.
In the defensive team drills, every defensive player had to finish wherever the ball was regardless of where it finished. We use to call it “roll call on the ball.” For the Saints to improve their historically poor defense, they have to play faster and with maximum effort. This is the most basic way of doing that.
Another interesting thing was that anytime the ball was on the ground, the defenders had to recover and return it. This was true regardless of how the ball wound up on the ground. It was an unusual look to see defenders chasing an incomplete pass, but this does create an instinctive reaction to get every loose ball.
Once again, effective defenses create turnovers. The Saints are not only emphasizing and talking about this, but using their time wisely in drilling this.
Thursday was a big “sub package” day for the defense. Lots of different nickel and blitz defenses were installed and practiced, including one look where no one had their hand in the grass. In these packages we got to see where Will Smith is going to get a long look; that is as an edge pass rusher. He may be listed as an outside linebacker, but ultimately his value is going to be where he has always played, on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle coming off the ball.
These looks and tactics also stressed the offense and gave them great work on blitz pickup.
In evaluating the offense, it appears that 10 year veteran Seneca Wallace will be the backup quarterback. While only 5’11” and 205 pounds, he demonstrated why he has been in the league that long. He is an accurate passer that gets the ball off in a similar rhythm to Drew Brees. He also will not need many repetitions in the regular season to be able to step in and run the team in an emergency situation.
Not needing in-season repetitions is critical for the second QB, because in the NFL the starter gets all of the physical repetitions. The backup needs to get his reps mentally, which is why this position is often filled by a veteran.
Ryan Griffin did some impressive things and should make the team as a developmental player. It is great to see him work with a talented cast. Luke McCown is not accurate enough to make this team and should be the odd man out.
That being said, I will state the obvious: if Drew Brees goes down, you can turn out the lights ‘cause the party’s over.
Even without pads, there appears to be continued emphasis on shoulder blocking in the running game. This indicates that the Saints’ running game will be power based in nature. It will be critical for Mark Ingram to finally come to the party as a first round draft choice. There is little question that he has the confidence of Sean Payton.
One area he must be better is in his vision and cuts. There were many examples last year of him making the wrong cut or running into his own blockers. He did show some indication of improvement Thursday with some quick cuts into open seams.
Some of the best instruction was in the kicking game. Virtually the entire team was involved is some phase, especially in the punt block/punt return game. There was individual time spent on punt blocking takeoff and angles, holding up and blocking the gunners and “stunning” or holding up the front in punt return.
It is a judicious use of OTAs to teach individual special teams’ techniques. This is another area that can get shortchanged in the regular season. You spend so much team time then that individual technique can suffer.
Something that did bother me was the number of players that were standing around and not getting the maximum number of repetitions in a 90-minute practice. There was a lot of time where 22 players were playing and the rest of the 86 active roster players were standing around. This should not happen in OTAs.
This is an opportunity for each player to get better. Not just a little better, but incrementally better. The Saints have that opportunity now because the entire team is here. For the first time in years, New Orleans has a “normal” off-season (Remember: Super Bowl, The Contract, The Lockout, The Suspension). They have to take full advantage of that now.
Media Availability Transcript following OTA #6
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Opening Statement: “We have gotten through our second week of our OTAs. Next week our schedule (on) Tuesday, Wednesday (and) Thursday is minicamp. Three guys that we held out of practice today (are) Malcolm Jenkins, Ryan Steed and Benjamin Watson. Those guys (statuses) are just injury-related. We will see where they are at next week. Hopefully they will be able to participate. In regards to Joe Morgan’s situation, I have had a chance to visit with Joe, the club is on top of all the specifics and I am going to leave it at that.”
What is the challenge of a situation like Morgan’s?
“I just think each team is faced with it at some point, hopefully less than more. It is what it is in regards to the lesson you hope the players, including Joe, learn from it. It’s our job to keep reinforcing the importance of being smart and making right decisions and it’s something that we really try to pride ourselves in since we began here in 2006.”
Some teams might let go of a guy when things like this happen. Do you take it case by case?
“Again, we look at each individual case and kind of leave it at that.”
As far as Benjamin Watson, is it serious?
“No, we will have him back. He will be fine.”
You have Cameron Jordan at one defensive end spot, but for the second position, how much is it a battle between several players?
“I think you are seeing a lot of guys competing to play the other end spot and we have some flexibility. I mentioned this last week, we are in a base 3-4 front less than 50 percent of the time, so we get into all the nickel and dime packages. So, guys are competing, obviously in the base when it comes to the end position. As it converts to the sub-packages, they are competing to play inside as a pass rusher or outside.”
What do you expect from Rob Ryan’s unit?
“Just to see improvement each week as we practice and get ready and prepare for the start of the season.”
How do you feel about left tackle having Charles Brown back?
“Charles is getting work now. We have three guys over there competing for that spot, so it’s one of those positions that I think you don’t receive much information on until we get into the pads, start playing the preseason games and getting into the live practice settings. But all three of those guys bring a different skill set and obviously have different experience playing that position.”
Is there something you like about Jason Smith?
“I think oftentimes, you take a peek at a player that was selected as high as he was and graded out as high as he was. He is a tremendous worker and has athletic ability, so it’s another opportunity and it’s oftentimes you are able to get a player maybe his second time around or third time around, that can come in and find a niche.”
What feels different about this offseason for you?
“It’s different for me in that I’m here, but I think I mentioned this last week, that it’s been a while since we have had a normal offseason when you really look at the schedule. Two years ago with the lockout there wasn’t much going on, and a year ago it was certainly different. It’s back to guys lifting weights and running and that’s the most important element we feel like in this time and then us working on offense, defense, along with the kicking game. Guys are handling it really well. Our participation is really good. I think it’s just good to be out here in the spring and get some of the nuances worked out and also developing the competition you want.”
How do you view Travaris Cadet right now?
“It’s interesting with him and I am just getting a little more familiar with the player. Seeing him last year was one thing, but he is someone that catches the ball really well in the backfield. I’m anxious to see how his running skills are, because Darren Sproles is a guy, as good as he is as a receiver, we feel like he has a running skill set that suits what we want to do in our one-back runs. I think in Cadet’s case, it’s year two and he is learning what specifically is the role (for him). Obviously he is a guy that is comfortable in the passing game, and I think it’s going to be important that he can protect. I think he is big enough and smart enough too. It’s just a matter of getting repetitions in learning who he is blocking and the technique on how to block. Those things will allow him then to be a little more versatile, and it’s not as predictable when he is in the backfield as a guy that is just going to go out in the routes.”
The ‘Do Your Job’ poster that Mr. Benson put in the indoor facility, what did you think of that and why did you take it down?
“That was a year ago and I understood the message behind it, but for obvious reasons we took it down as we are starting the upcoming season.”
Can you talk about the competition between the safeties and what you have seen on tape of Isa Abdul-Quddus and Rafael Bush?
“I’ve had Abdul-Quddus. Bush was someone we acquired a year ago. I think for all of those guys it’s critical, and we talked about it yesterday in the meeting, that special teams factors in the equation in regards to earning a spot. Both of those players are guys that have had experience playing in our league. They are different in some regards and I think that kind of depth and competition in that position along with bringing Kenny Vaccaro and Jim Leonhard in and there are a handful of other guys that we feel like have a chance to develop there (and it) will work its way out in training camp. But (these players need to) give us the competition we are needing for not only defense, but competition in covering kicks, playing on punt coverage and as a core special teams player.”
What has stood out to you about Nick Toon?
“I’m just trying to get a handle on what we think he does well. “I know he was injured and I kind of look at him as a young player, as a rookie right now because this is his first season that he is healthy. We have some young guys at the receiver position out of the initial two or three guys that have had a lot of experience. All of those guys are competing for spots and playing time, and I think again, can they factor in the kicking game? That will be important.”
Toon has a bit more size than the others, how much does that help him?
“I think we always would value someone with size at the position, and the key is going to be production consistency. Does he know what to do and is he doing it on a consistent basis?”
How is Jonathan Vilma transitioning to the new system at this stage?
“I think smoothly. We get in the nickel (where) he is very comfortable and then we get in enough under defense at the 3-4 which protects him on the weak side, so he has handled the transition well.”
What has stood out so far about what Rob Ryan is bringing to the table?
“I think any time there is a change made like that, and you come off a season like we had, there is a little more energy as guys are trying to prove themselves. I think we have had good competitive practices and I think that’s been encouraging.”
Last week Rob Ryan talked about Joe Vitt being able to coach the linebackers instead of having to focus on the whole team. What do you think about that?
“I think that’s a big deal because you are getting guys in places where it is their strong suit and where we are familiar in having them. So, a guy like Joe Vitt who has coached as long as he has in our league is invaluable. He does a tremendous job of teaching these guys, he cares about the players, is a huge piece of our staff and a really important piece for me as a head coach. So, I think that is an understatement.”
How do you view Roman Harper’ and Malcolm Jenkins’ obligation in bringing along Kenny Vaccaro. Could that be awkward?
I don’t think so. I think players’ personalities really dictate how they handle young players coming in. Knowing Roman and Malcolm, those guys are team players and so they are looking to (help), and I think an important element when you bring in a rookie, is who is in front of them. So when you have guys like Roman and Malcolm, guys that have experience, but are also solid guys, I think that helps the transition.”
New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan
Media Availability Transcript
Thursday, May 30, 2013
It’s interesting that we are trying to figure out who is playing which position here and it looked like today’s practice illustrated a lot of sub packages. Would you say you saw a lot of guys doing a lot different things?
“Most of it is looking correct (digesting the defense). There were a couple of mistakes out there where we really looked exotic. The thing I have been the most impressed about is our veterans and how quickly they’ve picked things up. Guys have position flexibility all through this roster. There are so many talented guys here but, the veterans in particular (have impressed me). The Will Smith’s, the (Jonathan)Vilmas, Curtis Lofton, and Roman Harper. I’ve been really impressed with how much these guys love football, how much they study, and what quick learners they are. It’s really been impressive.”
Smith and Vilma are two guys in particular that obviously had to make some concessions to stay with this team, but obviously two guys who you came in and said you wanted to keep working with. What have you seen from them so far?
“(It was also) higher up then just me saying (it). Obviously Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton wanted these guys around and this is the first experience that I have had being around Will Smith, (Jonathan) Vilma, Roman Harper and these excellent veterans. Like I said, I’ve been so impressed with their work ethic, their attention to detail, and being students of the game and (the fact that) they love football, so it’s going really well.”
I am sure you don’t want to get into specific details but is there a philosophy behind getting the best pass rushers on the field in this scheme or from defensive concepts overall, even if you’re looking at the tackle or scanning up everybody at once. Is that part of your philosophy?
“Absolutely, I have learned from some really great coaches and their philosophy always was to play the best players (and) put them in a position to succeed, and that’s what I have learned from Buddy Ryan, Bill Belichick, and Rex Ryan. I have been fortunate enough to be around good people and I would say that is our philosophy (here).”
What’s in your approach? Where do you start when you are coming in with a defense that struggled like the Saints did last year? What has been your approach in terms of figuring out where to start?
“I wasn’t there last year. I got fired on my credentials (in Dallas) last season, so I want to make sure I do it right (here). Apparently, I didn't do a good enough job last year. With them (Saints), it really doesn't matter, in my opinion, on exactly what happened. I went back and watched all the tape. There are ways that I know as coaches we can help. Like I say, Joe Vitt never coached defense last year and he has been invaluable here. It’s a work in progress (and) I think we are all in it together. We are working hard, we are trying to get better every day, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Will you take a big step next week in minicamp? Will it just be another big step up for the players?
“You saw a lot of sub (packages) today, which is third down. Yesterday was a big sub day and I think that was outstanding for us overall. We are looking at some new things. I think that the game is changing a little bit with these athletic quarterbacks, so we worked with a lot of the zone read stuff and our coverage today, so we are trying to stay ahead of that curve. I thought it went really well. Next week will have a different emphasis, and again it’s a work in progress. It’s not perfect, but I know one thing; It’s that our guys are working really hard and I’ve been really impressed, especially with our veterans.”
New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees Media Availability
Thursday, May 30, 2013
You had previously said that at the end of the offseason, you will have seen every look from Rob Ryan’s defensive unit. Did you see some of that today with some of those exotic looks?
“We’re only a couple of installs in, it’s been base and a little bit of nickel, so I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we’re going to see. But that’s the fun part, to see our defense every day get more comfortable with the stuff that’s being installed in Rob Ryan’s scheme and system, the way they’re being coached. We have some great leaders on our defense, some really smart guys that are picking it up quickly. It’s a challenge for us offensively because we’re seeing some things that we haven’t seen in a while, or ever. You always have to find ways to combat that.”
Was there an element of surprise? Such as when Curtis Lofton came up the middle (through the line), because he wasn’t used that way very much last year?
“I think we’re experimenting with a lot of stuff right now. Seeing how everyone is going to fit into the new scheme, how we can put every guy in a position to succeed according to their strengths and certainly you have to keep people off-balance and change things up quite often. But, yes, it’s interesting to see how it all plays out here.”
How important is it just being here? Coach Payton said it was the first time the team has had 100% attendance for these OTAs since he has been here. Is it making a big difference, even now?
“I’d say this, most of the time, maybe, in the past, you’d say there is a pressure on you to be here, to have 100% attendance just for the sake of saying that we had 100% attendance. But guys want to be here. Guys want to be working, whether it’s in the weight room or on the practice field. Guys want to be putting in extra time, whatever they can, to find a role on this team. I think we all realized that we have something really good going here. It’s going to take a lot of work. But everybody wants to be a part of it, everybody wants to be present. It’s part of what helps your team come together, struggling through some of the tough parts of conditioning and that kind of thing through the offseason and as we get into these kinds of practices, learning the new wrinkles on both sides of the ball.”
What is it like to have it all be just about football this year?
“It’s great. I said this last week, but this is the first normal offseason we’ve had since the 2009 offseason. We won the Super Bowl in 2009, so the 2010 offseason was crazy. We started later than normal because we played so late and we were coming off the Super Bowl championship. The next year was the lockout and the next year was all of the bounty stuff and contract stuff. Here we are, really for the first time in four years, where you feel like this is a normal offseason, where you come to work every day with no distractions other than just focusing on football and getting better.”
When somebody young that you work with goes through something like Joe (Morgan) has and is going through, how do you handle that?
“It’s tough. Unfortunately, when things like this do happen, as a team all we can do is support a guy like that. He’s got a great room that he is in, with guys like Lance Moore and Marques Colston, guys that have been around a long time. They’ve really done things the right way, they’re true pros. What you find is that leaders kind of pull him under their wing and give him the best advice they can. But, in the end, there are consequences to actions and you pay your debt and move on and hopefully you’re better for it.”
How is Ryan Griffin doing?
“He’s doing well. We call him RG4. Not RG3, RG4. I’m always impressed with a young quarterback who comes into this system and everything that the system requires. Certainly it’s a lot thrown at you in a short amount of time and he seems to be able to absorb that well. He’s really done a good job, especially I can think of an instance today where it’s a complicated play, he gets the protections all lined up and he makes a great throw to a guy on what would have been a touchdown on the seam. When all those pieces start to come together for a guy, you see the confidence build. He’s really working hard and doing a great job. He’s got other responsibilities too, not just learning the system and taking advantage of the reps that he gets, but he’s responsible for making our protein shakes after workouts. It’s very specific ingredients and there are high expectations there, there is a lot of pressure when he steps into the building to do those things correctly and he’s done a pretty good job thus far but we don’t want him to get too cocky. There is still a lot of work ahead of him in regards to being a good rookie.”
Did you get sad at all when they took down the large poster of Sean Payton in the indoor practice facility?
“I have to be honest, I didn’t even notice it was taken down. I guess when you are locked in on other things, you’re not so much worried about the surroundings. That look that was given in that poster, that piercing look, we’ve all had that look come our way a few times. It’s good to see the man in person, to have him out there. I know he is excited to be back. You can feel it, you can feel the energy. We are just getting started here.”
Rookie Terron Armstead got the first team reps at left tackle today. Talk about how he and the other rookies are developing right now.
“He looked good. There are some guys offensively, o-line, up front, especially Armstead, who has had a chance here the last couple of days to get a lot of reps with the ones. A lot of things are happening fast out there but I think he has handled himself well. He has a lot of potential. (He) has to focus on getting a little better each day. He is going to have a chance to compete here. Defensively, we have (Kenny) Vaccaro. You see him out there a lot, he is active, extremely active. You can see how he can fit in that defense in a lot of different ways. There are many others too. I’m excited to see these guys fit into the system, kind of get their feet underneath them and we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
How would you feel about a rookie protecting your blindside?
“It wouldn’t be the first time. If he earns the job, he earns the right to be there and I’ll have all the confidence in the world in him. We’re only two weeks in, but he’s been impressive thus far. Like I said, it’s not only you’re learning the scheme, but you’re learning new technique and you have a new coach. It’s the speed of the game and the speed at which we operate offensively. There is a lot to take on in a short amount of time. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed which is a good thing.”
What is different about Sean Payton this year? What have you noticed about him and his approach?
“The main difference is the guy looks like he is in pretty good shape. I don’t know if I’d want to take him on in one of his crossfit competitions right now, he might have the upper hand. You can just tell he’s gained a lot of perspective by being away. He had a lot of great ideas coming back. The man loves football, the man loves to coach, loves to teach. He is a great communicator. Everyone respects him. That goes beyond the game of football. His job, yes it’s about winning, yes it’s about helping us all become better football players and building this team, but I think he looks at it as more than that. To shape all of us as people, and he takes that job very seriously, you can tell. The fact that I’ve been around him going on our eighth season together, I feel like I know him pretty well and I’ve never seen him as excited, as ready for a season as he is right now, for obvious reasons. That’s the way he is too. He loves the game, he is passionate about it, there is an intensity level there and a focus.”
How do you feel about the idea of an 18-game regular season?
“I think there is a great contradiction in talking about player health and safety and talking about extending the season and increasing the chance for injury, especially the toll that the game takes on your body over the course of a 16-game season. I think that that’s plenty and that the system has worked very, very well with that 16-game season.”
It would be tough for anyone to get through an 18-game season without an injury…
“It would greatly increase the chances, that’s for sure, of an injury.”
For young receivers, what are the challenges of learning the things not in the playbook?
“It just takes time. It takes time. What’s good is there is definitely a textbook, blackboard way to teach something and then there is the way that happens in the game. Or the adjustment that happens in a game that you don’t even want to go there when you first install the play, but it just happens. They see it just happen when the guy is like Jimmy (Graham), Marques (Colston), Lance (Moore), (Darren) Sproles, Pierre (Thomas). That’s when it happens. We call it feel. It’s a feel thing in a lot of cases when it comes to certain plays. It just takes time.”
Is it easy to be one of the guys that knows what you want?
“It’s a challenge. But I think it excites guys because they see the repore that we all have together, the guys that have been here for a long time, and they are like ‘man, these guys are on the same page, it’s like ESP, they see it happening at the same time and they know the adjustment at the same time and I want to be a part of that.’ It’s probably frustrating in the beginning because you’re like ‘I didn’t do that, why did he do that?’ but I just tell those guys that it will come. It’s just time and repetition.”
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