Ralph Malbrough / Contributing WWLTV.com Writer
The longest off-season in Saints history is officially behind us. Let’s be honest and admit since the Saints lost to San Francisco in January we have been mostly miserable. I won’t rehash the details but if you need them just Google, “Saints fans hate Goodell.”
For me 2012 was the least enjoyable Saints season since Mike Ditka was trying to convince us of the virtues of whatever Billy Joe he had playing quarterback. Training camp couldn’t arrive fast enough in 2013.
Every year websites do previews asking the most important questions. WWLTV.com has a fantastic list, but if you want to know how the 2013 Saints will do, all you have to is answer the following question correctly, "How much of the 2012 Saints defensive awfulness was Steve Spagnuolo’s fault?"
The 2012 Saints defense being so awful makes it a really difficult question to answer. It’s like answering the question, "What made Sharknado so horrible to watch?" Was it the horrible script, Tara Reid or the $15 they spent on special effects? It can be hard to sort through such a mess. In Sharknado’s case it was Tara Reid’s fault.
You should want the answer to be 100 percent Spagnuolo’s fault when it comes to the Saints. The reason is while the Saints have changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4, they haven’t done huge wholesale changes to their personnel.
They still have the same core of guys back from a defense that set the NFL record for most yards allowed, and, by the way, that core is getting pretty old. In case you spent the off-season trying to convince yourself the defense wasn’t as bad as you watched in 2012, stop such nonsense right now.
The 2012 Saints defense was a rotten onion where as you peeled each layer off the smell got worse. Here’s a fun fact from Football Outsiders explaining just one aspect of the 2012 Saints defensive fail - their inability to defend the play-action pass. “A large factor in the Saints league-worst DVOA (Football Outsiders Defensive ranking score) was the 10.0 yards per play the Saints allowed on play-action, worst in the league by 12 percent. A closer look into the Saints failures against fake hand-offs shows they allowed a league-high 40 plays of 15 or more yards on play action, averaging an astounding 28.9 yards.”
That stat should have blown my mind. Instead I thought, “Yeah seems about right.” Patrick Robinson just gave up a 40-yard completion and nodded.
Don’t forget the Saints had the worst rushing defense last year, so basically when teams weren’t completing bombs off play-action they were running the ball down the Saints throat. Analyzing the 2012 Saints defense had all the appeal of a field trip to the morgue. You see what I do so you don’t have to? The most memorable play by the defense was Malcolm Jenkins chasing down Vincent Jackson, and that should tell you something.
It’s no fun to be so negative in July, so back to my original question of how much of the 2013 Saints defense awfulness was Steve Spagnuolo’s fault?
It’s an argument I had all off-season on my podcast, and since saying it was 50 percent Spags and 50 percent the players is a cop out, milquetoast, boring answer, put me down on record for 25 percent Spags and 75 percent players, which leaves Rob Ryan with a chance to improve the defense a good bit I’d say.
This defense has been really bad for two years. In 2011 they had a historically good offense to help distract us from realizing how terrible they were, at least until Alex Smith tore them to pieces.
You’ll read and hear a lot of experts saying, “If the Saints can just get back to how they were in 2009, then they’ll be a serious contender.” They created a ton of turnovers and got great years from Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer and a really good year from Will Smith, but other then that they were struggling to be average.
I won’t tell you rankings and stats don’t matter, because the Saints in 2012 gave up the most yards in league history and it clearly mattered. What I will tell you is rankings don’t matter as much to the Saints if they can do something well on defense.
The 2009 Saints created turnovers from the first game to the last. The 2013 Saints need to be equally good at something.
Listening to Rob Ryan at mini-camps, he mentioned he thought he could fix the run defense specifically because the scheme and run fits were terrible. Or maybe after three years of not catching interceptions, the secondary won’t drop more balls then a juggler with no arms.
I saw new cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted Drew Brees the first day of practice, so maybe the Saints will intercept more than 15 passes. For the record the 15 interceptions in 2012 was bad, but if you take out the four the Saints had against Tampa Bay in week 15, the number looks even worse.
It doesn’t matter what it is the defense does well. It just has to be in the top 10 at one important defensive statistic, and the Saints will be a double digit win team.
Can Rob Ryan coax it out of this combination of aging players and a couple of new additions? The answer will tell us everything about 2013.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook, follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at iTunes.