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If Saints Expect to Bounce Back vs. Cleveland, They Need to Start “The Best 11” on Defense

One issue that might have been overlooked in yesterday's upset loss by the New Orleans Saints to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the fact that the team still isn't done with experimenting which of their versatile defensive players "fit" the best at certain positions.

For example, the Saints throughout their recently-completed Training Camp continually "tinkered" with their linebacker corps; and kept "mixing and matching" different players in the starting line-up in an effort to see who played the individual positions the most effectively.

In other words, Demario Davis can play all 3 linebacker positions ("Mike" / middle LB, "Sam" / strong side LB, and "Will" / weak side LB), but his best performances seemingly come when he's lined up at the "Mike" spot.

Alex Anzalone can play all 3 spots as well. but seems to excel at the "Will" LB spot, and so on.

Then there's the "3-safety look" that the team has been utilizing for the past few seasons; and yesterday that appeared to be Kurt Coleman lined up as the "slot" safety, Vonn Bell at the "box" safety spot, and 2nd year star Marcus Williams was at the "free" safety position.

So you get the point.

Many of the players on the team's current 53-man roster on both sides of the ball, can "multi-task" or play more than just one particular spot at their chosen position.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

While having so many players that are capable of filling multiple roles, it's easy to understand how the organization can actually become enamored with the idea of putting the best players at each position.

However, based on yesterday's embarrassing performance by the defense against the Buccaneers, it appeared that the team's defensive coaching staff and specifically defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, still might not know just who their "Best 11" players actually are.

That certainly appears to be the case with the linebckers and safeties in particular, which is why it's fair to wonder if the Saints have abandoned that particular coaching philosophy.

It was last May of 2017 when we published an article here at Saints News Network that detailed Allen's "Best 11" philosophy; in which he told the local media after an OTA practice session when asked if the Saints considered themselves a 4-3 defense or a 3-4 defense; he replied:

"We're a 'Best 11' defense". 

Allen's comment was 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 base defensive alignments (the 4-3, the 3-4. and the"nickel" / 4-2-5) but it would seem that Allen's focus last year wasn'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 were  — out on the field at one time.

But have they deviated from that philosophy since that time?

Here was the Saints' starting base 4-3 defense yesterday:

  • Defensive end: Cameron Jordan
  • Defensive tackle: Sheldon Rankins
  • Defensive tackle: Tyeler Davison
  • Defensive end: Alex Okafor
  • Middle Linebacker: Manti Te'o
  • Strong side Linebacker: AJ Klein
  • Weakside Linebacker: Demario Davis
  • Box safety: Kurt Coleman
  • Free safety: Marcus Williams
  • Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore
  • Cornerback: Ken Crawley

However — if I were going to project "The Best 11" for the Saints based solely on the players whom I believe are the best suited at each spot; then I believe this would be your Saints base 4-3 defensive line-up next week vs. Cleveland:

          THE BEST ELEVEN (Projected Week #2 vs. Cleveland September 16th)

  • Defensive end: Cameron Jordan
  • Defensive tackle: Sheldon Rankins
  • Defensive tackle: David Onyemata
  • Defensive end: Alex Okafor
  • Middle Linebacker: Demario Davis
  • Strong side Linebacker: Craig Robertson
  • Weakside Linebacker: Alex Anzalone
  • Box safety: Kurt Coleman
  • Free safety: Marcus Williams
  • Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore
  • Cornerback: Patrick Robinson

Keep in mind that 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 end of the season, given that it's only the beginning of NFL Week #2.

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

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

So why did that not appear to be the case yesterday?

At this point, all we have is more questions than answers.

In fairness to Allen, there were some things that were beyond his control, such as the brilliant game-plan comprised by Buccaneers head coach Dick Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who as of yesterday has taken over the Tampa offensive play-calling.

Photo courtesy of Butch Dill, The Associated Press

And as New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill noted yesterday night: everything was an issue yesterday for the Saints defense, which tends to be the case when a defense allows 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards.

That goes without saying.

In any event, the Saints have A LOT of things to correct defensively as they prepare to host the Cleveland Browns in 6 more days from now.

And hopefully they'll be ready to play much better this time — by putting the "Best 11" on the field, to make the difference.......


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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