Burning question: how will Steve Spagnuolo fix the Saints defense?

The Saint Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints went in two different directions last season – one to the gutter, the other a few seconds (and a Vernon Davis catch) away from the NFC Championship game. In response, the Rams poached Gregg Williams from the Saints to improve their defense … to which the Saints said “thank you very much,” and plucked Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo to rebuild theirs. 

The ugly truth in New Orleans is that if Williams hadn’t been hired away, he may have been run out of town. Such was the state of discontent with his high-risk, low-reward approach to defense this season. What kind of identity will the more conservative Spagnuolo impose on the Saints, and what kind of talent does he need to make it work? 

Spagnuolo will bring a 4-3 defense to New Orleans, which is what the Saints already have. However, he will also bring a new system that involves a lot of coverage and less blitzing. Spagnuolo expects his four down linemen to get pressure and that frees up the secondary to just play in coverage.

Spagnuolo is known for his days as an assistant with the Eagles and for being a great defensive coordinator with the Giants.

The Saints’ new defensive coordinator is known for getting the most out of his defensive line and that is exactly what the Saints need. If Spagnuolo can make the Saints’ line play great football, then the other units will benefit directly from that.

Spagnuolo should be able to affect change without too much turnover. Here we take a look at what Spagnulo can do with what ingredients he already has in his kitchen.

DE Will Smith

Will Smith is the Saints’ best overall defensive end.  Smith is fantastic against the run game, and he is probably the Saints’ best pass rusher as well. Smith may be starting to show signs of his age and he is one of the highest paid defensive players for the Saints.

In 2012, the Saints could very well decide to move on without Smith and get a little younger on the defensive front. However, if they keep Smith then we may see his best year ever as a pro.

Spagnuolo’s forte is making defensive linemen better, and Smith can definitely improve, despite the fact that he will turn 31 this summer. For comparison, Spags got a 10.5-sack season from James Hall at age 34. If Smith is still a Saint, which I expect him to be, then we may see him put up double-digit sacks in 2012. 

DE Cameron Jordan

Cameron Jordan’s rookie year was a pretty good one overall. Granted he only had one sack in 2011, but as the season went on Jordan established that he can stop the run very well. I believe that the Saints knew that they were getting a premium run stopper when they drafted Jordan last year, and he will develop into just that.

The addition of Spagnuolo will not only perfect Jordan’s ability to stop the run, but also increase his skills as a pass rusher.

At 6’4″ and 287 pounds, Jordan definitely has the size to become an elite defensive end in the NFL, and his new defensive coordinator can show him how to do just that.

Spagnuolo was able to help the development of ends like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Spagnuolo also worked with one of the NFL’s best defensive ends to ever play the game in Michael Strahan.

DT Sedrick Ellis

Sedrick Ellis is the player that could see the most improvement because of Spagnuolo taking over the Saints defense. Ellis has been on the verge of a breakout season for the past few years, but has not been able to get over the hump. He has the talent to be a great tackle in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme, and this may be the year where we finally see the former top ten pick play to his potential.

The Saints have depended on Ellis in the run game since they drafted him, but he has not created consistent pressure up the middle since he came to the Saints. Ellis definitely has this ability, and maybe Sapgnuolo can bring it out of him.

No matter what happens with the rest of the defensive line, expect to see a lot of improvement from this tackle.

DT Shaun Rogers

Shaun Rogers still has the ability to be a dominant defensive lineman, and he proved that at the end of the 2011 season. Rogers wants a championship, and for that reason I believe he will re-sign with the Saints in the offseason. If he does, then Spagnuolo may be able to give the Saints the best interior defensive line they have ever seen.

Sedrick Ellis and Tom Johnson are both going to turn into amazing defensive tackles, but next year may be the year of Rogers in the middle of the Saints’ line.

Rogers may only have one more year left, and Spagnuolo should be able to get every once of effort and drive left in this amazing defensive tackle. We will more than likely not see great numbers from Rogers, but that is not his job. He will take up blockers and drive the offensive lineman back in the passing game.

If Spagnuolo can inspire Rogers to play like he did in his prime, then the Saints may have one of the best defensive lines in the league.

SS Roman Harper

Harper’s utility in the Spagnuolo defense is a potentially large question mark, as he will be called upon to play in run support more often than he was under the previous regime. In Gregg Williams’ blitz-happy scheme, Harper was the defense’s secret weapon, and was the team’s leading source of pass pressure in several games. Spagnuolo will send his safeties crashing in toward the pocket, but not nearly as often as Harper is used to.

Spags relies on his safeties to fill the gaps against the run that tend to open when the D-line sells out against the pass. However, Spagnuolo does not play traditional “free” vs “strong” safeties – he treats the two interchangeably. This has the potential of exposing the biggest weakness in Harper’s game – pass coverage.

Harper is a very strong run defender, but he could be put on an island against 3- and 4-WR sets, and against “joker” TEs like Jermichael Finley. With Harper signed for the next three seasons, this will bear watching. 

CB Patrick Robinson

He will grow even more next year under Steve Spagnuolo. Robinson has a ton of potential and could possibly be the No. 2 corner for the Saints when the season starts.

Out of all of the defensive backs, I believe that Robinson will benefit the most from a strong pass rush by the Saints’ defensive line. Robinson’s main problem in 2011 was that he would get caught looking the backfield or running up on a double move just to get blown by.

Next year, Robinson will be able to focus more on coverage and let the defensive line and linebackers get everything out of the backfield. Spagnuolo does not blitz much so Robinson will have support over the top and some underneath as well.

We may see Robinson develop into a Pro-Bowl caliber player by the time the 2012 regular season is over. 

Spagnuolo’s biggest need? Linebacker

Outside linebackers never play a heavy role in Spagnuolo’s defense, which might be a blessing in disguise, because the Saints don’t have much to speak of at the position. Scott Shanle and Jolonn Dunbar ranked among the worst OLBs in 2011 by ProFootballFocus. More troubling, the once-mighty Jonathan Vilma has age 30 creeping up on him in a bad way. 

As the Saints approach the draft, it would be wise to remember Spagnuolo’s first draft in St Louis, which brought in a signature player on defense in James Laurinaitis. He may follow that blueprint again and look for an intelligent young quarterback of the defense to lead his new team forward. 

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