Metairie, La. - The Saints' defense again gave up over 400 yards against the Falcons but only allowed three touchdowns on six red zone, a positive note for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo spoke with the media Monday, here is a copy of that conversation, as transcribed by the New Orleans Saints:
Opening Statement: "Like I said last week – praise the Lord and praise the Lord for good red zone defense. I thought our guys did well down there again. In my opinion it wasn't the prettiest defense in the world when you look at the whole volume of it but it was the grittiest. I thought when we had to have it our guys were gritty and like you hear the guys say, they stuck together. That was huge. They found a way to win.
"I am going to tell (the media) one thing that I don't want to go unnoticed – I have a lot of respect for (Thomas Morstead) and our special teams coaches. That punt at the end of our game was huge. In that situation when we are trying to defend the goal line with under a minute (left in the game), he just boomed it. I told him afterwards we greatly appreciated it.
"We need to get better. To me, we can eliminate some of our issues everywhere, except inside the five-yard line, if we could be better on third down. I go to the first third down. It was third and ten and we could have been three-and-out on the first series of the game and with Atlanta that doesn't happen to their offense very often. We get them in the third-and-ten and we are just a little bit off on where we are supposed to be but we could have got off the field there. Then we stop two third-and-ones which was huge. The next third down is a third and six or seven and we don't win it. We need to win more of those third downs. We were eight-of-sixteen and I think about four or five of the eight that we won were the short-yardage type and those are the tougher ones. We need to get better there.
"I want to defend Jabari Greer a little bit. I know on that long pass…we should have been better on the blitz. We blitzed there and there were some things there that didn't go right. The down shouldn't be that long. He battled and was in great position and the receiver went up and got it. We know they have great receivers that can go up and do that.
"I am happy in the fact that there were no explosive runs. I look at that as improvement. This goes unnoticed because we all look at the end of the game, but the second series of the game when we turned the ball over and then held them to just a field goal was huge. It said a lot about our guys on defense. Joe (Vitt) did a great job all week long. The team did a great job all week long. We are certainly really happy we got a win."
What has allowed you guys to play so well in the red zone during this five-game stretch?
"Our assistant coaches do a great job with feeding them with what we do in the red zone. It (credit) goes to the players in my opinion. There are no secrets down there. There are a couple things we mix in and do, but our guys are gritty. On the goal line – Will Smith knocking a couple blockers back on the third-and-one. Malcolm (Jenkins) knocking a ball down and Jabari Greer knocking a ball down (were all very important to success). That's players playing."
How much did the fact that you guys recognized the play from earlier impact that fourth down play?
"It's awareness of plays in the heat of the battle, which is huge. Guys (are) not panicking and there is some experience involved in there. Jabari has played a lot of football games. That's helpful. In this league, when you end up making the key plays, you usually win the games. There are a lot of plays they made as well. That's a tough offense to defend."
What were the guys doing so much better this week than last with the run defense?
"The fits were right. The resolve was there and I just thought our guys swarmed. They had an eagerness about them. I would like to see that more often. There was a real good display of run defense there which was great to see."
How do you explain giving up 150-plus rushing yards in a half last week and then totally shutting down Atlanta this week?
"I am not sure I have an explanation. We are not doing anything different. It's the same guys. It's a fit here or a fit there. I have said this before but people are going to run the ball in this league and get some seven, eight or nine-yard gains but these 20- and 30-yard gains shouldn't happen. It shouldn't happen with the speed and skill of the guys on defense. I am not just talking about our defense, but anyone. It's either someone not doing their job initially or guys not swarming to the football. We banged them hard on that this past week and they responded."
Were there more run blitzes called this week?
"Not really. I will be honest with you – I just went through them. We called 14 or 15 blitzes and there were 16 missed assignments or mental errors on those. We have to get better at that in my opinion. It's not all about the blitz game. We blitzed on the long throw and that didn't work out too good. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. We blitzed on the first play of the game and we happened to hit it right into a run. Sometimes that happens. We got another in there and we did but the run pops out because you weaken yourself in some areas. It's hit or miss."
It seems like Matt Ryan was able to hang in the pocket well in the first hall but you guys chased him out of the pocket quite a bit in the second half – what was the difference?
"I don't know about that. I know we pressured quite a bit in the first half. They max protected a little bit more in the first half. When they got down and they knew they wanted to throw and get more receivers out on the routes, then they don't have seven out there blocking. Now they have six and we find a way to beat one block and he (Ryan) is running around. It probably had more to do with that."
Can you talk about for the second straight game Malcolm Jenkins makes a touchdown saving play near the goal line?
"Yeah we had a couple of those. I was just watching one of them. That last series, they throw the ball on first down and we tackle them. It was Malcolm and somebody else. Denying the ball carrier from getting in the end zone always gives us an opportunity to play another down on defense. We talk about that all the time. The Tampa Bay one gave us a chance to play another down. They get it on first and goal at the 10-yard line and they gain nine yards and we keep them out of the end zone which gave us another chance to play a down. I believe it was three shots from the one. This all runs together on me after a while. My hat goes off to the guys."
After those three shots on the one-yard line, was it surprising to you they didn't go to Tony Gonzalez on fourth down?
"Yes, but they had gone earlier, but Roman (Harper) broke it up. It was Julio Jones on the other one. Pick your poison what that. Put 84 (Roddy White), 11 (Jones) and 88 (Gonzalez) out there – who are you going to cover? We had a guy on every one of them. We were trying to double certain ones at certain points. They have a lot of weapons and they have good quarterback (Matt Ryan) managing the game."
Was there any change in the defense when Julio Jones went out of the game?
"We did some subtle things but we were just being careful because (Harry Douglas) can run pretty well too. All of a sudden Julio Jones came back out there. At that point we weren't sure if he was a bit gimpy or (if) can he still go. Lo and behold they throw one up to him and it's ‘OK, there is nothing wrong with him.'"
Joe Vitt was just saying even though it's Curtis Lofton relaying the defensive plays, sometimes Jonathan Vilma will see something and make a change?
"Yeah, don't be fooled – Jonathan Vilma is very involved in everything going on. Whether he is out there next to Curtis and they are talking it through or he is on the sideline. I love that man. He is a true pro and he has helped this football team tremendously. I know his passion is being in the middle because that is what he is. He is doing for us what we need him to do for the team right now. I have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Vilma. I am glad we have him."
Do you think that is difficult for Vilma to be in a different role like that for this team?
"Yeah, my sense is it would be because he is a prideful guy. If we could have two Mike linebackers in there, and we basically do (we would do so), but we have two pretty good football players that are (playing) well together right now."
You were in the NFC East for a long time. Is the rivalry between the Saints and Falcons similar to what you saw in the NFC East?
"Pretty good point. I am going through the rolodex in my mind of some of those NFC East rivalries. (Yesterday) was exciting. That's the beauty of this game. I think both teams felt it. (They) felt that kind of energy. I know we have to play each other again and I think everybody in this business loves that kind of challenge. I am sure both teams look forward to it."
Do you find yourself digging deeper into your playbook to try and fix some of the things that have gone wrong – more so than you have in the past?
"I almost go the other way. By that I mean I don't think it is about devising or giving our guys anything new. It's more about getting good at what we are doing. I believe that with players – sometimes it takes some time to find out what they are doing well and what's their niche. What do they feel comfortable with? Having said that, I think every team that you play when you see something and have to put a little wrinkle in there then you do it. We are trying to be careful with that because I think our guys really respond well with letting them loose and letting them play."
How nervous were you when that ball went over Isa Abdul-Quddus on that last drive and Roddy White got past him?
"I said a lot of prayers on that last drive I can tell you now, but the guys did a great job. They gained nine yards on the very first play and then it was three plays of second-and-one, third-and-one and fourth-and-one. I can't explain it but at that point we are trying to be smart and not let them in the end zone. We are just trying to win the game. Don't want to bite on any double moves or let anything over the top of our head. Isa got me a little scared there but that's the right thing to do. They have no timeouts and it's 30 something seconds left in the game and we are trying to tackle them inbounds. They got out of bounds that one time but they played it well."
You hear a lot of talk about "playing fast." Are you seeing the guys doing that more consistently?
"I think the guys are getting more comfortable with each other. There has been a lot of lack of continuity with our guys. The linebackers in and out and the injuries. The D-line has stayed fairly consistent but I even go back to the first game and we didn't have Will Smith for all the practices then we had him in the game. Then we thought we were going to lose those guys. We have been navigating through that and hopefully it's smoothing out a little bit. That isn't going to automatically make us successful on defense. We still have a lot of work to do. It certainly helps."
Does that cure a lot of ills?
"No question. I have always believed this – this league is not about coaches. All we can do in my opinion is mess it up. It's about players playing. When the guys play fast and feed off of each other that is when you play well on defense."
Do teams always have to announce when an offensive tackle is eligible to catch a pass?
"Yes, not the tackle ineligible, but if you bring in an ineligible number they have to go right to the official. It has to be announced so the defense is aware of it."
What's your confidence level now in Corey White?
"He had a nice day yesterday. Unfortunately, and I don't know where he is with the injury, but he got dinged a little bit yesterday. Hopefully we don't lose him because when you are rookie in this league you can go through training camp and you have the preseason games but you don't really get your exposure and experience until you get in the regular season games.
"Every week for Corey it has been sort of a building process. We have gone through some growing pains. He has made some mistakes but he is a rookie. Let me tell you something – that was as good of a play that you can make on a deep ball that he made with a big receiver hanging over his back. He made some other plays in the game - the very first third-and-one play. You can see him playing faster because he feels like he knows what he is doing. That just comes with reps."
How difficult was it for you guys to leave him in and let him take his lumps early?
"I will share this with you because we all try to learn from our mistakes. Two years ago during the 2010 season when I was in St. Louis, I was one of those impatient guys. I had a rookie in at the nickel and he made a mistake and I would say ‘get another guy in there.' We learn a little bit and we just had to be patient with a young guy playing in that position knowing that there would be early mistakes. Hopefully, in the long run it pays off for us."
Going back to training camp it was a battle between he and Johnny Patrick – what did you guys see in White then?
"Well you saw Johnny – he did a nice job for us going in there but at some point you just have to make a call on one guy or the other. When you give that particular personnel the reps, it's kind of hard for the other guy to catch up but we have a lot of confidence in Johnny Patrick. Corey has been in there and once the guys get use to the communication with one certain guy you kind of keep it that way for a while. We knew Corey was going to have ups and downs and yesterday was an up for him."
You have most of your linebackers healthy now. How do you handle it with having to put healthy linebackers inactive on gameday?
"That's the unfortunate part – we have a bunch of linebackers and some of them have to be down. Somewhere along the way we are going to need them all. David (Hawthorne) went in and did an admirable job. He had some production. He was a little rusty because it had been a while since had played. We have to get him oiled up and get him going. He is a good football player."
"Everything comes into play. It's the scheme we are going to approach that particular week and special teams. That's where Coach (Greg) McMahon comes into play and who he is going to use. There is a lot wrapped up in it and ultimately it's Coach (Joe) Vitt's decision."
Are the three linebackers you are starting right now what you envisioned it would be at the start of the year?
"Some form of those guys but don't forget the guy we are really missing is Chris Chamberlain. He would have been a key special teams guy. Will Herring has done a good job. Scott Shanle has played a lot of football here and made a lot of plays. When it is all said and done they are all going to help us win."
Have you had a chance to look at Oakland at all?
"I really haven't. I have seen them in crossover film when are watching another opponent. I think they are a pretty aggressive, young and hungry football team. This is a game where we have to be on top of our game or else we will be really disappointed. I am looking forward to digging into them probably right now."
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