This past offseason the New Orleans Saints hired former St. Louis Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo as their Defensive Coordinator. Prior to his job with the Rams, Spagnuolo was one of the premier DC's in the NFL with the New York Giants. During his time in New York Spagnuolo forged one of the more aggressive defenses in the NFL, translating into playoff births and a Superbowl victory against the New England Patriots.
Now, after a brief stint as the Head Coach of the Rams, 'Spags' has accepted a job with the Saints. And as Panther Fans, we'll be seeing Steve Spagnuolo and his defense biannually. While the Saints Defense has traditionally been underwhelming and nondescript, Spagnuolo's defensive scheme may permute the defensive ailments we've seen of the Saints recently.
Spagnuolo, like our own Sean McDermott and Ron Rivera, cut his teeth at the NFL level under the tutelage of Jim Johnson, having spent 7 seasons as a defensive coach for the Eagles. However, Spags' Defense diverts from the traditional Jim Johnson 43 Defense.
Much like the JJ43, Spagnuolo's Defense relies on applying heavy pressure to the QB, yet rather than dispatching a bevy of zone blitzes from the LB Corps, Spagnuolo largely utilizes his front four defensive linemen to pressure the QB, mixing up alignments and stunting rushes with precise coordination and communication between the pass rushers. This is visible with the Giants' use of 4 DE's in passing situations, a trend that has continued under current DC Perry Fewell. In the process, the Linebacking Corps is free to patrol the middle of the field or cover checkdown options whilst the linemen rush the QB.
As such, you see less overt blitzes, enabling the defense to catch the offense unawares with extra pass rushers, or dial up the pressure on passing downs.
Coverage wise, Spags' Defense employs Zone Coverage to maximize the area covered by the defense. Linebackers will drop into coverage, while CB's will see a lot of help from Safeties over top and LB's undercutting routes. One caveat, Spagnuolo typically places his safeties inside the box, depending on their read-reaction skills to diagnose a play and react correctly. By aligning his safeties closer to the LOS, Spagnuolo places two more defenders in the box to obstruct the opposing run game. At the same time it leaves the safeties in a better position to recognize play action, and alert the rest of the defense. However, this places a lot of responsibility on the safeties: If they read a play inaccurately, it could result in a big play for the offense, yet if they read the play correctly, it could produce a turnover.
Current Saints Personnel:
As of right now, the Saints' Defensive Line is not the pass rushing force that we've seen out of the Giants teams or even the Rams. Will Smith is an accomplished pass rusher, and the Saints did spend a recent first round pick on Cam Jordan, who only accrued one sack in 2011. After those two, the cupboard is pretty bare, however, DT Sedrick Ellis is an effective pass rusher at DT, and he provides some pressure up the middle. Also of note, the Saints did sign DT Broderick Bunkley this offseason; Bunkley is mainly a run stopper.
At Linebacker, the Saints do have solid depth and some good players. Free agent signees Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne should make a difference, while Chris Chamberlain should see solid playing time at OLB, along with Scott Shanle and Martez Wilson. The LB's should be a strength this season for the Saints, especially when/if Jonathan Vilma returns to the lineup.
In the Secondary the Saints have an underrated Jabari Greer and former first round pick Patrick Robinson holding the starting CB spots, while Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins are charged with holding down the fort as the safeties. Overall, the Saints' Secondary is solid, yet not very deep.
The Saints Defense will probably go through some growing pains initially, however, as soon as Spagnuolo acquires the personnel necessary to run his system, and his current players master their roles, the Saints should have one of the fiercest defenses in the Conference. All in all, Steve Spagnuolo was a good hire for the Saints, and will present challenges for Coach Chudzinski and the Panthers Offense in the near future.