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Barry Hirstius

Is Saints Defense REALLY Improved – Or Just Teasing Us?

As the 2nd day of 2017 New Orleans Saints Mini-Camp was coming to a close yesterday, one thing had become evident to the observers and the assembled media that had watched the team practice during the "live" portion of 11-on-11 team drills; as well as to the overflow throng of fans watching from the bleachers of the franchise's Training Facility.

What that one thing turned out to be was the fact that the Saints defensive unit had "won the day"; and they had managed to do so in a rather decisive and nearly indisputable fashion against the vaunted Saints offense led by (on a handful of plays) starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees.

The defensive line generated consistent pressure, appearing to notch would would have been at least 4 sacks from the team's Front 7 that was still missing the presence of starting defensive tackle Nick Fairley; who remained absent from the premises as he awaits a 3rd opinion from a doctor in determining his playing status for the upcoming 2017 season.

The Saints linebacker corps used a variety of different combinations within the team's defensive alignment; with 3rd year veteran Stephone Anthony getting a lot of reps back at his previous position of "Mike" / middle linebacker from his rookie year of 2015; while rookie Alex Anzalone manned the "Will" / weakside spot and impressed on-lookers with his performance for a 2nd straight day.

Not to be outdone, it was last year's top linebacker Craig Robertson who made the "highlight play" of practice; when he was able to grab a deflected pass from Brees which had actually ricocheted off the heel of tight end Colby Fleener and into the waiting hands of Robertson --- who then took the ball in the end zone for what would have been a "Pick 6" touchdown. 

But by far and away, the unit's best performance of the practice session came from the team's much-maligned and often scrutinized defensive secondary, specifically at the embattled CB position.

Starting #1 / outside boundary CB Delvin Breaux returned to his old form of his "breakout" 2015 season, as he made a handful of plays in pass coverage which included his interception of a Brees pass as he defended #1 WR Michael Thomas in 'press' coverage.

But the "star" of practice --- without hesitation and it could be said in an unequivocal fashion -- was rookie and likely eventual starting #2 / outside boundary CB Marshon Lattimore.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

It was Lattimore who stole the proverbial show while displaying a plethora of his ball-hawking skills that made him an All-American defender in his final season at Ohio State and ultimately led to his selection by New Orleans with the #11 overall pick in the recent NFL Draft.

As New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill observed in his review later in the day of the completed practice session, it was Lattimore who in a stretch of 3 plays, had 2 of the "stand-out" plays during the team drills.

First was a PBU (a pass breakup) that was intended for Thomas, his former Ohio State teammate, on a "go route". Then, a couple plays later: Underhill noted that it was Lattimore who once again made his presence felt; as he manged to get a hand in and knock away a pass intended for 6-foot-6 and starting #4 WR Brandon Coleman --- who had caught the ball over the middle on a crossing pattern.

It was the performance that Saints fans had been waiting to see from the talented rookie; after a few of the whispers by some that the team may have made a "reach" in the Draft for a player who despite his obvious talent, yet still developed a reputation for being somewhat 'injury-prone' during his time with the Buckeyes.

All in all, it was a VERY ENCOURAGING sign from a defense that finished ranked #26 out of 32 NFL teams in 2016; and has finished either 31st or dead last in 3 of the 4 seasons (2012, 2014, and 2015) prior to that.

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

However, that's where a word of caution has to be given, since for those of us who follow (or cover in my case) the team daily will recall that it was just last year at this very same time, that the defense was then also assumed to be a unit that was "much improved".

Grant it, losing a total of 8 -- yes, EIGHT -- defensive backs to injury at one point or another had a detrimental effect upon the unit's lack of overall success in 2016.

Being forced to literally sign players "right off the street" clearly can negatively impact any NFL team's chances at achieving ultimate success.

But the defense was clearly deficient in other areas, specifically a pass rush off of the 'outside edge'; and in pass coverage at the linebacker position.

If those two areas, put alongside with what will finally be a healthy defensive secondary, are indeed improved considerably over last year?

Then there could be exciting things in store in the future for Saints fans as the team heads forward into the 2017 regular season.

Photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

It should be important to note that the defense this year so far appears to be playing much "faster", and they seem to be able to read and react at a much brisker pace.

Some of that can be attributed to the returning veteran players becoming better acclimated to defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme, which will now allow them to use their natural instincts without having to "overthink it" too often.

Also, a ton of credit has to be given to new linebackers coach and longtime NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan; who as Allen told reporters after Tuesday's opening practice, deserves acknowledgement for implementing some 'tweaks' to the system in place that's being viewed as fresh ideas to both the staff and to the players themselves.

Particularly, how he TALKS to his players in more simpler terms, instead of trying to overwhelm them with "X's and O's".

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

"There's some terminology things, things that he does in teaching the linebackers that, you know, when I hear it I'm like, 'I haven't heard it that way,' but it makes sense," Allen said.

"You can get into situations when you've been doing it for a while you kind of get stuck in that routine and you're kind of doing the same thing," Allen added.

"When you bring some new blood into the organization, it kind of opens your eyes maybe to some different things."

All of these factors --- improvement at the linebacker position, a better pass rush from both the interior of the D-Line and coming off the outside 'edge', and a healthy and much deeper secondary --- could lead to a markedly improved defense for New Orleans than the one that we've seen in 4 of the past 5 seasons.

A team that by the way: has finished 7-9 for 3 straight seasons, and has missed the NFL Playoffs in all 3 of those years as well.

Nevertheless, Saints fans should temper their expectations, given that the team is participating in nothing more than glorified calisthenics at the moment (jerseys and shorts), and not in full pads until the 1st week of August at the beginning of Training Camp.

As mentioned, we've been here once before; and it wasn't all that long ago.

Is the Saints defense REALLY improved --- or are they simply just teasing us?

The answer to that question will no doubt be given, in the upcoming months ahead.......

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; 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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