Saints’ defense hopes to rebound vs. Arizona
METAIRIE, La. — From Gregg Williams’ perspective as the Saints’ defensive coordinator, last weekend’s high-scoring thriller between Green Bay and Arizona was as ugly as it gets.
“I thought defense was set back 100 years in the National Football League,” Williams said.
Williams meant no offense to Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers or his Arizona counterpart, Billy Davis. Rather, he empathized.
“Dom Capers is a really, really, really good coach and a friend of mine and Billy Davis has been doing a good job, too, all year long,” Williams said. “You’ve got to feel for them when they go through something like that.”
Williams will try to avoid a similar fate on Saturday against Kurt Warner and the high-powered Cardinals, whose 51-45 overtime victory sent them through to play in New Orleans in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
If the Saints are going to slow down Warner, receiver Larry Fitzgerald, running back Chris “Beanie” Wells and Arizona’s other playmakers, they’ll have to do it with a defense that has struggled for weeks.
The Saints finished the regular season 25th in the NFL in yards allowed (357.8) and 20th in points allowed (21.3).
Warner, who torched Green Bay for 379 yards and five TDs on Sunday, could very will light up a Saints defense that last month allowed Washington’s Jason Campbell to throw for a career-high 367 yards or Atlanta backup Chris Redman to throw for 303 yards.
Yet Warner said his film study of the Saints’ defense reminded him of the various ways Williams can confuse an offense at critical times.
“I see a Gregg Williams defense, a defense that gives you a lot of different looks, that tries to keep you off balance, that you don’t just line up and get what you get,” Warner said. “I see a smart group of guys, playmakers that fly around that are able to change things up, to game plan differently and execute those game plans really, really well.”
Warner has played against Williams-coached defenses before, including in the Super Bowl at the end of the 1999 season. Warner triumphed that time, leading the St. Louis Rams over Tennessee 23-16 in a game that came down to the final play.
Now they meet in the postseason again, and this time Williams has the NFL’s top-rated offense on his side.
Williams said as many as nine teams inquired about his services after the end of last season. He chose New Orleans in large part because of Drew Brees.
“One of the top criteria was finding a quarterback that can win it all,” said Williams, who was Joe Gibbs’ defensive coordinator in Washington earlier this decade. “It’s much easier in my job when there’s a guy that can bail me out, too, and Drew Brees can bail me out if something’s gone wrong.”
The Saints’ offense averaged 403.8 yards and 31.9 points this season. Their defense didn’t have to be superb for New Orleans to win 13 games and finish as the top seed in the NFC. All they had to do is make big plays in close games, which they often did.
With safety Darren Sharper’s nine interceptions leading the way, the Saints were second in the NFL in takeaways with 39. The Saints also improved their sack total this season to 35 from 28 a year earlier, thanks in part to the resurgence of defensive end Will Smith, who had 13.
Meanwhile, when the Saints were giving up a lot of yards in the second half of the season, they were dealing with injuries. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (sports hernia) and Tracy Porter (sprained right knee) both missed more than a month. New Orleans’ top run-stuffer, tackle Sedrick Ellis, also missed time with a sprained knee, while concussions sidelined linebacker Scott Shanle and nickel back Randall Gay late in the year. Linebacker Scott Fujita also missed a few games with an infection in his knee.
After last week’s first-round bye, the Saints defense is as healthy as it has been in months, with the exception being defensive end Charles Grant, who is out for the playoffs with a torn triceps. Bobby McCray, a regular in the rotation among the defensive ends, will likely start in Grant’s spot.
“I’m a better coach when some of those top guys are playing,” Williams said.
The Saints haven’t experienced victory for a month now, having lost their last three regular season games.
To change that, Ellis said the Saints needn’t dwell on unflattering defensive numbers.
“It’s an attitude,” Ellis said. “We got some well needed rest and our batteries so to speak are recharged. We just have to go out there and be tenacious and get that swagger going. … I’m not really worried about individual stats or things like that. I just want to go out and play good team football and work with our offense and get this game won.”