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Barry Hirstius

THE BEST 11: Saints Defensive Philosophy Critical to 2017 Success

While the New Orleans Saints still have a long, long way to go before the arrival of the 2017 NFL season, both the media and perhaps even Saints fans themselves were given at least a small glimpse into what the team's thought process is with regard to improving the team's defense throughout the next few months --- and hopefully just in time for the opening kickoff September 11th at Minnesota on ESPN Monday Night Football.

As the media was allowed to attend and observe the final practice of the opening round of OTA's, the Saints "base" defense at times would line up in either variation of the 4-3 defensive alignment or the 3-4, but primarily were in their "nickel" defense throughout the practice.

As The New Orleans Times-Picayune / NFL columnist Larry Holder would go on to note later in the day in his article featuring several of his observations about the final practice, it looked like the familiar 4-2-5 defensive alignment that we watched most of last season.

At defensive end, All-Pro Cam Jordan lined up at his familiar left defensive end spot, with brand new free-agent signee Alex Okafor lined up on the opposite side (right defensive end) as the designated edge rusher.

2nd year star Sheldon Rankins lined up at one defensive tackle slot, while 2nd year player David Onyemata was at the other DT slot, although they both appeared to be in the line-up in place of fellow DT's Nick Fairley and Tyeler Davison --- neither of whom were practicing.

At linebacker, brand new free-agent signee A.J. Klein lined up at the "Mike" / middle linebacker spot, with returning 9-year veteran Dannell Ellerbe lined up at the "Will" / weakside position.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

At cornerback, both of the two starters were the same players whom were notably hurt most or all of last year --- and a big part of the reason why the team's defense struggled at times during the 2016 season.

3rd year veteran (and brand new father) star CB Delvin Breaux lined up at one outside boundary cornerback position, while 3rd year corner P.J. Williams was on the other side; and as Holder noted: both players were participating at "full speed" and without any noticeable limitations.

And then finally, there was the "3-safety look" that the team has been utilizing for the past few seasons:

Kenny Vaccaro was lined up as the "slot" safety, Vonn Bell was at the "box" safety spot, and 2nd Round pick and rookie Marcus Williams was at the "free" safety position.

Now what's significant about all of this isn't necessarily the "who" was in the line-up at the time, as much as the "why" they were in the line-up.

After all, we're only in the month of May and these are only OTA's; and neither final roster spots or the team's depth chart have even been determined or assigned yet.

But what we saw yesterday was that the team's defensive philosophy for 2017 --- and possibly the critical key to their ultimate success or failure in the upcoming season ahead --- is already starting to become just a little bit clearer.

Later after practice was over during the post-practice press conference with the media, when asked if the Saints considered themselves a 4-3 defense or a 3-4 defense; a seemingly upbeat (and smiling) Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen dropped this little nugget of wisdom to reporters:

"We're a 'Best 11' defense". 

Allen's comment is indicative of a man who has grown tired of constantly being asked over and over again about the semantics of schematics, and both the media's and fan-base's seeming obsession over them.

Photo courtesy of WWL-TV New Orleans

To be certain, the Saints at times utilize a mixture of them all (the 4-3, the 3-4. and the"nickel" / 4-2-5) but it would seem that Allen's focus this year isn't based solely on trying to play a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, but rather simply just putting the best 11 guys --- regardless of who they are --- out on the field at one time.

If we are to take Allen at his word, and all while keeping in mind that we're still only in May and not even anywhere close to September yet; then this is how "The Best 11" would look for the Saints, had Nick Fairley been practicing.

          THE BEST ELEVEN (As of May 26, 2017)

  • Defensive end: Cameron Jordan
  • Defensive tackle: Nick Fairley
  • Defensive tackle: Sheldon Rankins
  • Defensive end: Alex Okafor
  • Middle Linebacker: A.J. Klein
  • Weakside Linebacker: Dannell Ellerbe
  • Slot safety: Kenny Vaccaro
  • Box safety: Vonn Bell
  • Free safety: Marcus Williams
  • Cornerback: P.J. Williams
  • Cornerback: Delvin Breaux

Again, it's only the month of May, and the team hasn't even been to Training Camp or played in the Pre-Season yet: where any variety (and all types) of injuries can occur, as they seem to do every year.

Besides that, there's the likelihood that a few of the rookies drafted this year -- particularly #1 pick cornerback Marshon Lattimore and inside linebacker Alex Anzalone -- could potentially crack the starting line-up by September.

If I were going to project "The Best 11" for the Saints based solely on the players whom I believe are either the best from a pure talent standpoint, or also taking into account the players most susceptible to potential injuries (Ellerbe) happening before the season opener at Minneapolis; I believe this would be your Saints defensive line-up on September 11th:

          THE BEST ELEVEN (Projected Season Opener at Minnesota September 11th)

  • Defensive end: Cameron Jordan
  • Defensive tackle: Sheldon Rankins
  • Defensive tackle: Nick Fairley
  • Defensive end: Alex Okafor
  • Middle Linebacker: A.J. Klein
  • Weakside Linebacker: Dannell Ellerbe (or Alex Anzalone, IF Ellerbe can't stay healthy)
  • Slot safety: Kenny Vaccaro
  • Box safety: Vonn Bell
  • Free safety: Marcus Williams
  • Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore
  • Cornerback: Delvin Breaux

Keep in mind that this is all speculative at this point, and there are a handful of different ways that this could evolve and take shape over the next several weeks and months leading up to the start of the season.

The bigger point is that the Saints are intent on putting the best possible defensive line-up out on the field at any given time, an obvious commitment to improving the defense that's held them back from contending for a spot in the NFL Playoffs the past few seasons.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Long story short: "The Best 11" defensive philosophy could be critical to the Saints ultimate success or failure in 2017.

The only thing that will be left to determine is whether or not that philosophy will eventually be a WINNING one, after the season finally reaches its conclusion.....


Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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