Surprisingly, Saints Defense Leading the Way Against NFL's Offensive Explosion
Offenses are more complex, quicker and explosive. Not everyone's struggling to adapt, though. Here are the top five defensive coordinators who are finding early answers: 1. Gregg Williams (Saints), 2. Mike Nolan (Broncos), 3. Mike Zimmer (Bengals), 4. Larry Coyer (Colts), 5. Bill Sheridan (Giants).
Nolan has overhauled a shoddy Denver bunch, turning it into the league's best in scoring defense (5.3 points allowed per game). Zimmer has excelled at getting the Bengals defense to adjust on the fly. Coyer brings 45 years of coaching experience to a veteran group, and has tweaked it just enough to make the Colts No. 3 in scoring defense (15 points allowed per game). And Sheridan is filling the loss of Steve Spagnuolo (now the St. Louis Rams head coach) by being analytical, detailed, low-profile and flexible.
But I am most impressed with what Williams is doing in New Orleans -- the mandate, the fit, the style and the complement to the Saints' high-tech, league-leading offense.
A year ago, the Saints ranked 26th in scoring defense (24.6 points allowed per game). Now they rank 13th (18.7 points per game). They also currently rank second in the league in lowest third-down conversion percentage allowed (27 percent), and no team has forced more turnovers than the Saints' nine.
This defense gets a first-hand look at what other NFL defenses must confront. Each day in practice, it battles quarterback Drew Brees and his band of offensive weaponry, and tackles coach Sean Payton's penchant for stretching the field and gouging your weaknesses in relentless attack mode.
"And you know what?" Williams said. "We kick the s**t out of our offense. We keep kicking their a** every practice. We chart every single practice. You blow an assignment with Drew Brees and he will kill your defense. He's made us better. We try to make them better.
"Buddy Ryan told me a long time ago to cover the guys they want to throw it to, don't worry about the guys they don't want to throw it to and don't worry about covering anybody so much that you don't hit the quarterback. It can't be that simple, huh? Good defensive coaches, teachers, take things that are complex and make them simple. That improves the decision making and the speed of the players. [Payton] wanted a defense that played with the attitude and swagger that his offense plays with. We're getting there."
At first glance, the Jets (3-0) visit to New Orleans (3-0) on Sunday is all about the Jets' dynamite defense vs. the Saints' carnival-like offense.
Williams knows his defense has a chance to flip that script -- a chance to make the game about his Saints defense.
He has coached for 20 NFL seasons, starting early under Jack Pardee and Ryan, before he rose to head coach of the Buffalo Billis in 2001. After stops in Washington and Jacksonville, Williams was the perfect choice for the Saints. The perfect coach to fix a bland, uncertain, soft defense.
Payton has given him the keys -- you run it, you fix it. This approach often works best for top-flight defensive coordinators, in a setting where they are paired with offensive-minded head coaches. This is also the case in Denver where Nolan is linked with offensive whiz Josh McDaniels.
"Those kind of offensive coaches are looking for the resume and the DNA on the defensive side that they don't have to worry about," Williams said. "That is a situation where the head coach focuses on offense because it is so voluminous and so intricate that he doesn't want to have to worry about his defense. He doesn't want to babysit it. Sean is aggressive in his thinking. He's got great communication skills.
"So we want to play a complementing game. We want to get the ball back to him and Brees and that group and give them a short field. On defense, we had to change some people and improve the guys still here. We needed to limit the explosion plays -- force people to throw underneath and run to the ball and punish the ball. Play hard. Attack. We're in the top four in the league now in fewest explosion plays allowed. I never want to hold players back. Doubt impedes confidence. You cannot play at a high level in this league without confidence. It slows you down. You're going to lose."
Williams has confident players in middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and outside linebacker Scott Fujita. Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant exude it as well.
Newcomer safety Darren Sharper already has three interceptions, while cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter have provided stability. And rookie CB Malcom Jenkins arrived with big-play ability and has exhibited it with a forced fumble in each of the Saints' last two games.
Williams brings a special ability -- he is a factor that makes the Saints' offense, their renewed defense and the entire franchise more relevant.
"I enjoy managing personalities and people and sometimes in that are difficult personalities," Williams said. "I tell the players every day is an interview. You interview well, you play. You don't interview so well, you don't play. There is tough love and reassuring love with players, and there is knowing the difference when needed. You know what you are getting when I walk in the door."