After 17 seasons in the NFL, Saints head coach Sean Payton is experiencing a first. He opens up about that and more, including the plan for the Black and Gold's new 3-4 defense and how it could help improve Drew Brees' game.
Never before in his professional coaching career has Sean Payton experienced 100 percent participation for optional, off-season OTA's. But this week every Saints player on the black and gold's roster is here in town, voluntarily at Saints headquarters, preparing for next season.
Payton is not only marveling at the Saints perfect attendance record, but also reflecting on how long it's been since the team's leadership, including Drew Brees, had a full dose of spring football.
"A year ago, he was absent, I was absent too," says Payton. "Two years ago, we had the lockout, so for a lot of us it's been three years."
The Saints need every moment to tackle the task at hand. The black and gold are re-adjusting to Payton's presence after his suspension. They are installing their third defense in three years and offensively trying to address the ball security issues that uncharacteristically haunted Brees at times last season.
"When you're struggling like we were defensively and struggling to run the football, those are signs to point to more difficulty for the quarterback," says Payton. "So, hopefully we've got that added dimension in the running game and more balanced, hopefully we are playing better defense. If you look back at 06, 09, 10 and 11, we were opportunistic on defense and we had some balance to what we did. I think that's been a good formula for us. When those get out of whack, there's more pressure on the quarterback and you're asking him to do more than you want."
The Saints new 3-4 defense will play a major role in determining whether the black and gold can make another championship run. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does have a depth chart built about who will play where in his system. Some players' roles are solidified. Expect to see Martez Wilson, Will Smith and Junior Galette at outside linebacker. But other players will train at two positions, and slide between roles. "Akheim Hicks for example is a guy we think could play nose, but could also play an end position," says Payton.
The nose tackle will be a critical puzzle piece in this new defense. Payton says he believes the Saints 3rd round pick from last year is up to the challenge. "He looks to have the size certainly to play it; he's going into his second year," Payton adds. "He's worked extremely hard and there are a lot of people who think he's coming into his own."
Free agent signee Victor Butler is another dual position player. "He's another person we think could help us in our pass rush," says Payton. "He's an outside linebacker in the base defense and he can get out there in the end in the nickel downs."
Butler is a former Cowboy who didn't get much attention in Dallas playing behind power-houses like Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. But Payton sees a star-in-waiting, a player with a powerful pass rush who's familiar with Ryan's defense and can seamlessly slide from role-to-role. That's more crucial than ever against the pass-happy offenses that dominate today's NFL.
"We play so many snaps where we're seeing three and four receiver sets," says Payton. "It gets you out of your base defense and into your sub-packages so a lot of these outside linebackers become defensive ends in nickel situations. Victor has experience doing both of those things, and his time on task with the system will help him with the learning curve."
The Saints were the worst defense in league history in terms of yards allowed last season. A big reason why: a pathetic pass rush. This season, it's a priority. A prize Payton believes can be captured one of two ways. "The one-on-one battles whether it's Junior Galette... Will Smith. It can also come from pressure packages and sending more than four people," says Payton.
Payton was relegated to watching most of last season on television. But Cam Jordan left a big impression on Payton, who now projects the first-round pick from 2011 will help the Saints use both schemes to step up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. "Cam Jordan had a great year last year and rushed the passer as good as anyone did for us, so I'd like to think both things will happen for us," says Payton. "I think there are some young players who are developing into potentially good pass rushers and in this scheme, we're going to have opportunities to put these guys in different positions than they were a year ago."