The New Orleans Saints' off-season of 2013 is now in the books. The coaches, players and many staffers now can enjoy a short break before the start of Training Camp at the end of July. We are salivating and anxious for the upcoming season to start while you cannot blame the players for experiencing some trepidation.
The best an NFL player feels the entire season is the first day of training camp. It goes varying degrees of downhill from there.
Here are some coaching points I picked up by observing the Saints in their Organized Team Activities and Minicamp:
1. The off-season program is necessary
Forget any nonsense that an NFL off-season is unnecessary. OTAs and Minicamp serve a valuable purpose making players and teams better. If players were not participating in these programs, what would they be doing?
These workouts give the players a chance to compete in training camp. They should know what to do and how to do it when camp starts. Players can be fairly evaluated when they compete on equal footing.
Sean Payton said so when he stated "we are working to make the improvements and we are working to get ready for the opportunities when we are in full pads."
"I think, most importantly though, time spent in the weight room and the conditioning I think have been one of the better off-seasons in regards to players lifting and training. Our attendance has been outstanding."
Victor Butler's injury aside, the team benefits immeasurably from the off-season program.
2. They do better when they are together
There is no question that an athlete trains and gains more when working with their teammates. That is more than just in quantifiable, physical measures.
It is true that the greatest motivation in combat is that of being dependent on and depending on your buddy. This is greater than "bonding" or "having one's back." This is being responsible, or answerable, to your buddy; that you cannot let him down because his very existence depends on you. Under no circumstance can you let him down.
The Saints had 100 percent participation in the off-season program. The players made both physical and psychological progress. That will pay dividends in the future.
3. Players have to learn how to practice in an NFL way without pads
There is an art to improving in a collision sport while not wearing pads. This is not only true in the off-season, but in-season as well. Players can only work in pads one day during the season, and improvement needs to be constant. The best teams take advantage of every opportunity to get better.
Teams have the time to teach and learn practice skill in the off-season. You do not have the time to learn this once training camp starts, and you certainly do not have time when you get into the regular season.
4. Rob Ryan's defensive installation
It should not come as a surprise to anyone that the Saints will be a multiple defense. No one should be amazed at the number of defenses employed in the off-season sessions. That is called installation where every part of the system is introduced allowing the players to become familiar with the communication.
This is not exactly a bold prediction: At one time or another throughout the season, we will see every defense imaginable, and some we have not thought of.
The challenge is being multiple while minimizing mistakes.
5. Do not overestimate the change to a 3-4 defense
Here is a fact: the Saints will be in their base personnel less than half the time this upcoming season. The rest of the time they will be in "sub packages:" Nickel, Dime, Goal Line, etc.
The big difference this year will not be in defensive structure, but how the players play within the system.
6. At least half of the defensive personnel will be new
There was plenty of blame to go around for the historic defensive debacle last year. The system did not fit the players, the players did not fit the system and the two sides could not get together to solve the problem.
The major change in defensive concept has been well documented. Before the season starts there will be major defensive personnel changes as well. This is most obvious on the back end of the defense in the secondary. Keenan Lewis at corner back and Kenny Vaccaro at safety means that at least half of the defensive backfield will be new. This ties into:
7. The Saints have to be more athletic – and not just on defense
There was a reason that the Saints defenders were often a step behind last season as a group: they lost a step. This actually began in 2011 where, if you think back to the San Francisco playoff game, they were often a half step behind. The regression continued last year.
Surprisingly, the New Orleans offense could benefit with more explosive players. If there is a weakness it is down the field, outside the numbers. Safeties can hang inside constricting the seam areas that the Saints attack so skillfully.
Nothing happens in a vacuum; one thing affects the other. Without a home run hitter on the perimeter, and in the offensive backfield, opposing defenses can make it difficult for the Black and Gold offense to be consistent.
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