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Barry Hirstius

THE GOLD STANDARD: Improvement of Saints Linebackers is Pre-Season’s #1 Story

The New Orleans Saints defense has now achieved the status of the "gold standard".

Even though it's only just Pre-Season, the much-maligned Saints defense of the past few seasons would be ranked #3 overall in the NFL right now if Pre-Season statistics actually counted. They'd also lead the NFL in sacks, with a total of 12 in two games so far.

Which is why some Saints fans the other night on Social Media gave the defense -- and their 'new' and very obviously improved linebacker corps in particular -- the nickname of the "gold standard"; which was one of the terms being used to describe the unit's dominant Pre-Season victory over the L.A. Chargers.

In the dictionary, the "gold standard" is defined as a monetary system where a country's currency or paper money has a value directly linked to gold. With the gold standard, countries around the entire world agreed to convert paper money into a fixed amount of gold. A country that uses the gold standard sets a fixed price for gold and buys and sells gold at that price.

Now unless you work in finance, you probably could care less what was just described above.

However, the term "gold standard" was and is a very appropriate description in regards to the overall play of the Saints defense, following that impressive performance in front of a national television audience this past Sunday Night.

Although it was only just a Pre-Season game and not yet the NFL regular season, the New Orleans defense throttled Los Angeles while recording 8 sacks, an interception, 12 quarterback hits, 13 tackles for a loss, 6 passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery along the way, during a 13-7 win.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

A total of 9 different Saints defensive players got to Chargers back-up QB's Kellen Clemens and Cardale Jones (Chargers 6-time All Pro starting QB Philip Rivers had the night off); with 6 Saints defensive players credited with full sacks, while 4 Saints players combined for half sacks.

And notably leading the way throughout? The Saints linebacker corps, which as of this very moment would easily take home the imaginary award (if we were to actually give one out) as the 2017 Saints Pre-Season's #1 story.

As NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein noted yesterday, it was the play of the team's new and improved linebacker corps that has set the tone for the defense as a whole throughout Training Camp and now into the Pre-Season so far, and Sunday Night's contest was a testament to that fact.

All of the Saints linebackers --- every single one of them --- had an impact in the victory over Los Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

All of the new additions to the Saints linebacker corps from this past off-season's 2017 Free Agency signing period showed their value to the team against the Chargers, and when put with the returning veterans from last season; has given the linebacker corps a new look, a new attitude, and most importantly: a new mind-set in how to attack offenses, instead of reacting to them.

Katzenstein notes that in just 23 snaps, starting middle / "Mike" linebacker A.J. Klein had five tackles, one for loss and a half sack. He also timed a blitz perfectly to set up a sack for defensive end Alex Okafor.

Starting strong side / "Sam" linebacker Mantai Te'o's 36 snaps were the most of all the linebackers, and he dominated against his former team with eight tackles, three for loss, one sack and a fumble recovery.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Starting weakside / "Will" linebacker Craig Robertson's 33 snaps produced six tackles, one for loss and a sack.

And not to be outdone: back-up "Sam" linebacker (and former Canadian Football League Defensive MVP) Adam Bighill's interception in the final minute sealed the game.

Back-up "Sam" linebacker Nate Stupar nearly had an interception and was in on several tackles that went for a loss behind the line of scrimmage. And impressive rookie Alex Anzalone -- the team's only linebacker that was originally drafted in this year's 2017 NFL Draft and not a veteran free-agent -- sniffed out a run play.

The only linebackers that didn't make an impact were back-ups Michael Mauti (who saw limited action late in the game), and of course Stephone Anthony, the team's 1st Round draft pick in 2015 whom we noted here yesterday hasn't practiced with the team in over a week and sat out the Chargers game for undisclosed reasons; prompting speculation that he might be on the "trading block".

Katzenstein says that the lack of a drop-off from the starters to backups was probably the most encouraging signs for the Saints. Three guys out of Klein, Anzalone, Robertson and Te'o are likely going to start, and Sunday's game showed the team might not have a wrong choice.

As it is, the Saints are only likely to keep a total of 7 linebackers on their Final 53-man roster; meaning that one of the team's current 8 linebackers won't be around after final cuts are announced on September 3rd.

At this point, Klein, Robertson, Te'o, Anzalone, and Stupar are all "locks" to make it; meaning that the battle for the last two spots at the moment is a 3-way battle between Mauti, Anthony (if he isn't traded), and Bighill.

Photo courtesy of Scott Threlkeld, New Orleans Advocate

In the end however, the Saints stand to benefit from the high level of competition shown by all of these players; throughout the off-season work-outs, Training Camp, and now into the Pre-Season --- and hopefully, into the upcoming 2017 regular season as well.

"That's just been building," Robertson told Katzenstein and the rest of the media in the locker room afterwards. "You're playing this game for a long time and as a kid, you start to realize guys start trying to have pressure and trying to force stuff. And you realize you just got to have fun, so that's what we've been trying to do."

"It's just a mentality," Te'o said. "We're trying to develop a culture of excellence, a culture of being perfect. It doesn't hurt to strive to be perfect. We understand that we're never going to be perfect, but why not strive to be?"

Katzenstein adds that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan has been working to improve the culture of the group over the past few months, and it obviously paid off on Sunday Night.

As we here at Saints News Network noted after the first week of Training Camp, Nolan has been in coaching now in one way, shape, or form of another dating all the way back to the 1981 NFL season (36 years worth of NFL experience).

His ample amount of service at the pro level is why he's considered by some to be a defensive "guru" --- because of his vast knowledge as well as his flexibility to implement either of the sport's two basic defensive alignments: the 3-4 or the 4-3.

Nolan replaced Joe Vitt, who was one of five assistant coaches that the Saints dismissed shortly after the end of last season in early January; and his influence over these linebackers so far has his fingerprints all over it. 

For Nolan, evaluating what linebackers can and can't do, is what he does best.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Players LOVE playing for him, because of his unique, "hands-on" approach; where instead of just barking out orders or instructions to them, takes the time to explain in great detail just exactly what it is that they need to do not just physically, but mentally as well.

That approach to coaching the position -- which was notably absent during 'The Joe Vitt Era' --- has become "The Gold Standard" for this Saints defense so far this year.

If that marked improvement in the overall play of the Saints linebackers is able to translate over successfully into the regular season, there's no reason to think anything otherwise that an improved Saints defense combined with their annually ranked Top 5 offense, makes New Orleans a Playoff team.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch, Jr.

Will they be as good as the legendary "Dome Patrol" defense of the late 1980's and early 1990'sas some overly-enthusiastic Saints fans were even (foolishly) suggesting the other night?

Probably not, and let's not get too carried away here.

It's still only the Pre-Season, and NOTHING that the Saints defense and these linebackers have done in the past 2 weeks, actually count for anything.

But it's evident just how improved they are from this time last year and definitely from the past several seasons in which the team has finished 4 out of the last 5 seasons ranked near the bottom of the NFL.

After what we witnessed first-hand on Sunday Night, it's indisputable.

If these Saints linebackers can continue playing at this high of a level heading into September, October, and November, they should easily reach the Playoffs --- and give Saints fans everywhere a reason to embrace the new nickname of "The Gold Standard".........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist 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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