In many respects, 2013 is going to be a “do-over” for the New Orleans Saints after last year’s season was turned into an utter debacle by the Bountygate suspensions and numerous off field distractions. But the one thing the Saints don’t want to do over is their defensive performance from the prior year.
Finishing the year ranked 31st in the league in passing defense, and 32nd in rushing defense cost defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo his job after only one season in New Orleans, so now Rob Ryan‘s job as his replacement is fairly simple. Take the worst defense in the NFL and make them at least look good enough to stop a better than average JUCO team.
The biggest problem the Saints are going to encounter in trying to upgrade on defense is making the switch to a 3-4 set. One of the keys to that defense is having a space-eater in the center at nose tackle, and the Saints just don’t have that guy right now. Head coach Sean Payton and Ryan will probably look at Brodrick Bunkley first, but assuming he isn’t the answer (which it’s doubtful he is) they will have to look for someone in the draft or the open market.
Creating an effective pass rush is a must in a 3-4 defense, and that means needing tremendous depth at linebacker, which is again something the Saints are sorely lacking. Both Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle are entering free agency, and defensive leader Jonathan Vilma looked ineffective in 2012–although a lot of that could be contributed to his suspension, reinstatement and ongoing legal battles with the league. New Orleans will need Vilma to return to his prior form in order for the rest of the linebackers to fall into place.
Ryan may have the guys he needs at defensive end, with Cameron Jordan solidly in place on one side, and last year’s third round pick, Akeem Hicks, possibly moving outside to the other end. The young tackle is versatile and quick enough and could potentially fit perfectly at end in the new scheme. But just as with the linebackers, depth is going to be the concern at end.
The Saints are going to have to make the most of their draft picks on defense this year to fill all the holes, and Rob Ryan will probably have to do some position shifting of their current personnel. Truthfully, with a new coordinator and a new defensive set, even improved players may have a tough time getting this crew back to a respectable level, so the Saints may be in for another long year on defense.
Note to Drew Brees – you might need to set a few more of those passing records this year to keep the Saints from falling back too far.