LAST SEASON theSaints' offense ravaged defenses, set ridiculous team marks and threatened tobreak some of the most glorious records in the NFL. But an 8--8 finish—withfive losses by a field goal or less—undercut the value of those gaudy numbers."No one has been talking about how [Drew Brees] almost broke Dan Marino'srecord [for passing yards in a season]," says right tackle Jon Stinchcomb."And no one has been talking about how we gave up only 13 sacks."
That's becausethe New Orleans defense didn't help the offense much, surrendering 393 points(26th in the league) and 339.5 yards per game (23rd). Says a philosophicalBrees, "A lot of times disappointment allows you to achieve great thingsbecause of what you've learned from that disappointment."
Coach Sean Paytonlearned that he needed a different defensive approach, so he fired coordinatorGary Gibbs and hired Gregg Williams, who last season was Jacksonville'scoordinator--assistant head coach. Williams, 51, has spent his career as adefensive fix-it man, both as a coordinator and head coach. From 2000 to '07his units in Tennessee, Buffalo and Washington finished in the top 10 fivetimes, using flexibility and aggressiveness to bring pressure and createturnovers. (Last season his Jaguars defense ranked 17th.) While the Saints willoperate out of a 4--3, Williams has been known to deploy multiple fronts, whichis why he values smart, versatile players. Stinchcomb, for one, says he's neverfaced a New Orleans defense that presents so many varied schemes inpractice.
The centerpieceof the D will remain middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who ranked ninth in theleague with 132 tackles last season, his first with the Saints after four yearsas a Jet. In Williams's 4--3, the 6'1", 230-pound Vilma will be asked notonly to set the tone with his attacking play but also to pick up opponents'tendencies and communicate those insights to his cohorts.
"I wanted todraft [Vilma] when I was at Buffalo, almost traded for him when we were inWashington—I thought he'd be very similar to London Fletcher," Williamssays of the longtime middle linebacker who played under him for the Bills andthe Redskins. "He just hasn't played quite as long in this system ofdefense, but he has picked it up very well."
The 27-year-oldVilma says Williams has done more than shake up the playbook. "What Gregghas brought to the table is not just X's and O's, but a mentality," hesays. "Even if we don't execute 100 percent of the time, we're going toplay hard. We're competing."
Vilma demandsaccountability of himself and others, a trait he shares with free-agentacquisitions safety Darren Sharper and fullback Heath Evans. "Ourmanagement has done a great job bringing in character guys, but also wise,veteran players," Brees says. "We're as veteran a team as we have everbeen. We have a lot of guys that have played in big games and know what it'slike to be a professional, to prepare, to take care of themselves, to do allthose things that you need to do to be successful."
If Brees and hisweapons on offense stay healthy—notably receiver Marques Colston, tight endJeremy Shockey and running back Reggie Bush—New Orleans will threaten therecord books again. But what actually might put the offense over the top is anew-look defense that forces turnovers and gives Brees more short fields.
As the Saintspounded each other in practice and prepared for a new campaign, they seemed torelish an absence of preseason hype. "We like to stay under the radar,"Vilma says.
If the defensecan reach the high level of the offense, they won't remain there.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
25--23 in NFL, fourth season with Saints
With Colstonslowed by thumb injury, third WR Lance Moore led the team with 79 rec.; Carneyfills in for K Garrett Hartley, who's serving a four-game suspension.
Backup DE BobbyMcCray led the team with 6 sacks (out of 29 tackles).
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
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2008 RECORD 8--8
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 28 > 1 > 1
DEFENSE 17 > 23 > 23
20 at Philadelphia
27 at Buffalo
4 N.Y. JETS
18 N.Y. GIANTS
25 at Miami
2 ATLANTA (M)
15 at St. Louis
22 at Tampa Bay
30 NEW ENGLAND (M)
6 at Washington
13 at Atlanta
19 DALLAS (S)
27 Tampa Bay
3 at Carolina
NFL Rank: 8 Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .557 Games against playoffteams: 7
While this schedule is among the hardest, the Saints' last-place divisionfinish in '08 gives them an advantage in the NFC South: They're the only one ofthe four teams to face either the Rams or the Lions, which might be the edgeNew Orleans needs in a division that reshuffles every year. The Saints mustalso be grateful that their trips to Philly and Buffalo come early in theseason.
Pierre Thomas, Running back
After the Saints released Deuce McAllister, the team'sbeloved and battered workhorse running back, Thomas began openly bidding to behis replacement. The 2007 undrafted free agent out of Illinois bulked up from215 pounds to 223 to better handle the punishment of running between thetackles. And he said publicly that no matter whom New Orleans brought in at hisposition, he planned on winning the starter's job full time. While Thomaslikely won't get that—he'll share carries with Reggie Bush—he has reason tofeel confident. A year ago Thomas led the Saints with 625 yards rushing whilefilling in for the ailing Bush and the fading McAllister. And even if Bushstays healthy for 16 games (something he hasn't done in either of the last twoseasons), Thomas will see plenty of action in the red zone and in the secondhalf of games in which the high-flying New Orleans offense needs to burn theclock to protect a lead.
Drew Brees has long been a fan of Thomas, andpredicted before the 2008 season that he'd be a big part of the offense. Thatturned out to be true, but what remains unclear is how well Thomas and Bushwill complement each other—and whether Thomas can be as productive carrying theextra weight. "We expect him to get a lot of carries," says coach SeanPayton. He's in a good spot right now."
GONNA FLY NOW The dedicated Vilma is an ideal middle man for the new coordinator's schemes.