Lamenting his unit's uncharacteristic lack of takeaways during the regular season, New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a man known throughout his career for his pressure schemes and blitzes and for an ability to wrest the ball from the opposing offense wryly noted: "I have guys (who) couldn't catch a cold butt naked in a rain storm."
True enough, Williams' defense had just 16 takeaways in the '11 regular season and, as a result, the Saints were a minus-3 in turnover/takeaway differential. The 16 takeaways are the second lowest recorded by a Williams defense playing with him as its coordinator.
In his previous 11 years as a coordinator, Williams' teams averaged 26.0 takeaways. Only the '06 Washington Redskins (12 takeaways) finished with fewer interceptions and fumble recoveries than this year's Saints. This season was only the fourth time in a dozen years that a Williams-coordinated defense had less than 20 takeaways.
In the past, no matter where a Williams defense ranked statistically -- and he had just five top 10 units in his first 11 seasons -- it always seemed able to take the ball away. But not this season.
"It's not us," Williams recently said.
The New Orleans defense scored three touchdowns via takeaways, actually one more than a year ago, but didn't impact games quite as much. In 2008, led by free safety Darren Sharper, who had three interception returns for touchdowns, the New Orleans defense scored eight times. That defense ranked just 25th in the league.
Part of the problem in 2011 was that the Saints' secondary dropped at least eight would-be interceptions by unofficial count. But that wasn't the only shortcoming.
"The thing just didn't bounce our way this year, and that's rare, especially with what Gregg has done in the past," free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had zero interceptions and one fumble recovery, told The Sports Xchange. "We talk all the time about making your own chances, but we didn't."
Despite missing only one start, Jenkins played hurt for much of the season. But another New Orleans defender allowed that the Saints, no matter who was on the field, lacked the "(turnover) mentality as a group" that the defense had possessed in the past. The team's corners were also injured during the season, but no one seems to be using that as an excuse. The Saints simply didn't take the ball away.
Said one player: "We probably blitzed just as much, and had the same number of sacks, but we weren't 'takeaway hungry' enough, I guess."
Indeed, the Saints' defense had the same number of sacks (33) as in 2010, but nine fewer takeaways. Even in 2009, when the unit registered 39 takeaways and were a plus-11, New Orleans had only two more sacks than in 2010 and 2011. So sacks weren't the lone catalyst for the ability to create turnovers. In fact, New Orleans had only two fewer takeaways in 2009 than in '10 and '11 combined.
"You have to create chances, then take advantage of them and get the ball, and we just weren't very good at the second half (of the equation)," middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had three fumble recoveries, told The Sports Xchange.
The Saints' 16 takeaways are the fewest by any of the eight teams still playing. The seven other defenses in the final eight averaged 30.3 takeaways, nearly double the New Orleans' output, during the season. Four of the seven teams, led by San Francisco and Green Bay, with 38 apiece, notched 30-plus takeaways. Of the original 12 clubs in the playoff pool this year, only Pittsburgh (15) had fewer takeaways than the Saints did.
"Normally, that would be us," said nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson, who led the Saints with four interceptions, referring to the teams with 30 or more steals. "We're used to being among the leaders. Maybe we'll get it going (in the playoffs)."
The Saints forced two Matthew Stafford interceptions in last week's wild card win over Detroit, but could face a more difficult time taking the ball off San Francisco in Saturday's division round matchup. The 49ers had a mere 10 turnovers in '11 (five interceptions and lost fumbles each), the lowest in the NFL, and are very careful with the ball.
"We've got to get the (takeaway) feeling back," Vilma said. "Usually one (takeaway) leads to a kind of feeding frenzy. That hasn't been the case so far this year. We have to get it going again."
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Holy (high) rollers
Although his name has not been publicly mentioned as a candidate for any of the remaining head coach vacancies -- and a New Orleans source told The Sports Xchange that no team has yet requested permission to speak to him -- there remain some whispers that Gregg Williams could be a guy in whom some teams are interested.
Of course, since Williams is in the final season of his contract and can essentially become a free agent, teams that are willing to wait, and it does not appear there are any, would not have to formally seek the Saints' permission.
In such a case, the Saints would have no choice but to allow Williams, who notched a 17-31 record in three seasons as the Buffalo Bills' head coach (2001-2003) to interview for the position. The louder rumblings, though, are that Williams could rejoin old buddy Jeff Fisher, once the former Tennessee coach settles on where he will land for 2012.
If that's the situation, and Williams, indeed, is wooed by Fisher, New Orleans officials suggested to The Sports Xchange they would likely be ready to up the ante to retain him.
Williams already is one of the highest paid assistants in the NFL, if not the highest, at what is believed $2 million per year.
But owner Tom Benson, who must also deal with head coach Sean Payton's contract, seems willing to go higher, if need be. Arguably the only assistant on staff who might be able to replace Williams is linebackers coach Joe Vitt. The presumptive heir to Williams' spot used to be Dennis Allen, but he departed last offseason to become coordinator for John Fox's defense in Denver.
One other New Orleans coaching item: Some people who have gotten to know Pete Carmichael are a little surprised that the Saints' offensive coordinator hasn't drawn any interest from teams looking for a new head coach. One reason, of course, is the perception that Carmichael is only the titular coordinator, and that Payton calls all the plays. The other is that Carmichael might lack the charisma some feel is necessary to be a head coach. But people close to Carmichael contend he possesses the right demeanor, is very smart, and is well organized. And quarterback Drew Brees has tacitly endorsed Carmichael as well.
Eye of the beholder
Before hiring Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as head coach, Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan and general manager Gene Smith met with Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, thought to be one of the rising commodities among this year's candidates.
But the feeling of the Jags' brass was that Chudzinski, who did masterful work with Cam Newton this year, was not yet ready to be a head coach.
On the flip side, Chudzinski, 43, was impressive in his interview session with St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke. It's not yet known if Chudzinski is a viable alternative to Jeff Fisher if the Rams don't land him -- Jeff Fisher had yet to decide between St. Louis and Miami on Friday morning -- but people around the league feel it's only a matter of time until he's a head coach. He'll get another interview, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, either way. The Buccaneers present the opportunity to work with a young franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman and Chudzinski's accomplishments in 2011 as Newton's tutor work to his advantage.
Second time around
Speaking of Mularkey, there are some who feel that the veteran coach will be much better as a sideline boss the second time around.
But there are also skeptics about Mularkey (this columnist included), who was just 14-18 in two seasons in Buffalo (2004-2005), resigned his position there, was demoted in Miami under Nick Saban, and came under some fire in Atlanta during his four years as offensive coordinator. They don't see the same markers of second-time improvement.
Even if Mularkey suggested during his introductory press conference in Jacksonville that he was unaware of criticism in Atlanta, and contended the Falcons had a "good" year (the team did finish 10th in offense but lack definition and rhythm), there is a feeling that the unit underachieved. And there are rumblings that owner Arthur Blank would have suggested to coach Mike Smith, who is fiercely loyal and doesn't fire people, that he make a change.
For whatever reason, Mularkey is regarded as a great developer of quarterbacks.
But there are some who feel that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had hit a plateau under Mularkey the last few years and had not stepped up to the next level.
Mularkey faces a challenge in lifting the play of Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the club's No. 1 pick this year.
Gabbert struggled badly in 2011, had a tough transition from the "spread" offense he played in college, and lacked accuracy. Maybe most important, there are coaches from the departing Jack Del Rio staff, some of whom worked very closely with Gabbert, who harbor doubts about the quarterback's mettle and his ability to deal with the pass rush.
Upgrading the arsenal
Given the Cincinnati Bengals' perceived needs in the secondary, it might be unusual for the team to take another wide receiver in the first round to pair with 2011 standout rookie A.J. Green.
Two-year veteran Jordan Shipley is expected to return from an ACL injury, but the Bengals regard him primarily as a slot receiver. One of the points of emphasis for the Bengals in the offseason will be to improve the players around rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, whom the club feels requires a viable complement to Green.
In a discussion this week, a Cincinnati staffer spoke at length about the wide receiver position and also reminded that the Bengals, in addition to their own first-rounder, own Oakland's top pick because of the Carson Palmer trade, and might be in position to address a need that might not necessarily rate at what some see as the club's priorities.
The team's No. 1 ranking versus the pass aside, the Pittsburgh Steelers still feel as an organization that they need to improve their cornerback play, and they hope to do so in 2012 by becoming significantly younger at the position.
Nine-year veteran Ike Taylor, who signed a four-year, $28 million extension last summer as an unrestricted free agent, will be back. His poor performance in last week's wild card loss at Denver notwithstanding, Taylor is the best cornerback on the roster, played at a Pro Bowl-caliber level in 2011 some feel, and is clearly admired by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who feels he is a "shutdown" corner, even if his hands are suspect.
The last two were rookies this season, but both demonstrated the kind of physical presence that the Steelers, who still rely on their cornerbacks to support the run, demand at the position. Lewis is a three-year pro who blossomed as the nickel corner in '11, and who might be targeted for a contract extension.
In the presumed shuffle, the Steelers probably will release Bryant McFadden, who not only lost his starting job, but was arguably no better than fifth on the depth chart. It's assumed that William Gay, who supplanted McFadden and started 15 games, will depart in unrestricted free agency.
If he somehow stays, he might be moved inside, to safety. The Pittsburgh cornerbacks haven't totaled more than five interceptions since 2008, and have just a dozen pickoffs in the past three years, and increasing that number will be a priority.
After the Giants stuffed the Falcons on a pair of fourth-and-inches quarterback sneaks by Ryan last week, New York defensive end Justin Tuck claimed he and his teammates had seen the play and the formation on tape during the week, in the same situation, and prepared for it. Maybe so.
But there is a pretty good suspicion, some of it emanating from Atlanta players in the wake of the 24-2 defeat, that the Giants had a pre-snap idea on the Falcons' plays on more than just the two failed quarterback sneaks.
One Atlanta player suggested that Giants' free safety Antrel Rolle and strong safety partner Kenny Phillips often adjusted their depth and spacing, and screamed out potential plays to each other, based on the Falcons' formations and personnel groupings.
Sure enough, reviewing video of the game suggests that might have been the case in some instances.
The prime culprit in the gambit, of course, was New York weak-side linebacker Michael Boley, who played four seasons with the Falcons (2005-2008) before signing with the Giants as an unrestricted free agent in 2009.
But a Giants' coach said that, while Boley offered some insight into the Atlanta offense during the week of preparation, the Falcons were just as much to blame.
"We had great (breakdowns) about what they do out of what (formations), and it helped a lot," the coach told The Sports Xchange. "They're pretty predictable with some of the stuff, and we were ready for it."
Last week, we noted in this space that the "dream" general manager for Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay was Tony Dungy, but weren't certain the Colts' boss had even reached out to his former coach.
Club sources now tell The Sports Xchange that Irsay never broached the subject, even unofficially, to Dungy.
Before hiring Philadelphia director of player personnel Ryan Grigson to run the Colts' football operation, Irsay reportedly interviewed six other candidates.
One team executive in whom Irsay was interested but did not interview was San Diego senior executive Randy Mueller, who three times previously had been an NFL general manager.
No word as to why Irsay, who made some inquiries about Mueller, The Sports Xchange was told, didn't follow through with a meeting. One Colts' staffer suggested that Irsay, pretty much a one-man search committee, preferred a "fresh" face, who had not previously been a GM.
--The league established a new record in 2011 for most passes in a season, at 17,410, breaking the old mark of 17,292 passes in 2002. But there were only 506 interceptions, down from 511 in 2010, and the fewest since 2008 (465). Three players tied for the NFL lead in interceptions -- cornerbacks Kyle Arrington (New England) and Charles Woodson (Green Bay) and safety Eric Weddle (San Diego) -- with seven pickoffs. It's the lowest number of interceptions for a league leader(s) since 1999, when five players tied with seven.
--Kudos to the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates the inclusion of minority candidates in the head coach interview process, for establishing an award that will honor former commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his work in promoting diversity. One suggestion for the inaugural award, which will be announced during Super Bowl week: Steelers' owner Dan Rooney, for whom the so-called "Rooney Rule" obviously was named.
--A lot can happen in the next month or two, but people close to Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn don't think the Packers will slap the franchise tag on the Aaron Rodgers backup, just to be able to then trade him. New England used the maneuver, of course, with Matt Cassel in 2009 before dealing him to the Chiefs.
--Williams has changed some of his coverage packages for the matchup with the 49ers because of an ankle injury that will keep strong safety Roman Harper from playing at less than 100 percent. Harper is often a liability against the pass anyway, had one of his worst games trying to cover the Seattle tight ends in last year's wild card upset loss, and faced a tough draw in San Francisco's Vernon Davis.
--Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel, who this week had the "interim" prefix removed from his title, may be the lone minority to land a head coaching job for 2012. But keep an eye in the future on guys like Ray Horton, Todd Bowles, Winston Moss, and Mel Tucker. The Jaguars, by the way, were very fortunate to retain Tucker, who served as interim coach after Del Rio's dismissal, as defensive coordinator. At least two other teams were interested in Tucker as a coordinator. The Jacksonville defense played well in 2011, and Tucker's retention means Mularkey won't have to start over on that side of the ball.
--As reported in other venues, former St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo is the top target of the Falcons to replace the departed Brian Van Gorder as defensive coordinator. But Mike Smith, who has lost both coordinators, faces plenty of competition for Spagnuolo's services. If he doesn't land him, Smith may look to former Miami coordinator Mike Nolan. The two were good friends when both served on the Baltimore staff previously. Two things about a potential Nolan hire: It might signal that Smith plans to take a more hands-on approach to the Atlanta defense, which is his area of expertise. Also, while Nolan has been a strong proponent of the 3-4 since about 2000, he does have experience in the 4-3 from his stints as coordinator with the Giants and Redskins. Smith is a solid 4-3 guy, and the Falcons lack the personnel for a 3-4 front.
--While there could still be some changes to the Dallas staff in the wake of the team's failure to reach the playoffs, team insiders don't believe they would be on the scale of the dismissal of secondary coach Dave Campo (replaced by Jerome Henderson) or the retirement of offensive line coach Hudson Houck (Bill Callahan replacing).
--Even though Eric Decker may not be available Saturday because of a knee injury, New England defensive backs are wary of the downfield blocking of Broncos' wide receivers, a key to the running game, and the group spent much of this week reviewing it. "They come at you good and lock on, and they're very aggressive," New England cornerback Devin McCourty said.
--McCourty, by the way, continues to log meaningful minutes at safety. The Broncos have already discussed moving cornerback Champ Bailey, a potential Hall of Fame enshrinee after he retires, inside to safety.
--Baltimore tailback Ray Rice was one of only two players (Matt Forte of Chicago was the other) to lead his team in both rushing yards and receptions in 2011. Rice had 367 "touches" for the Ravens during the season. He had 20 or more carries in only two of his first eight games, then was under 20 rushes in just two of the final eight. Look for Rice to be a target of Joe Flacco up the field, on "wheel" routes on Sunday. The Ravens' coaches feel that the Houston linebackers have problems in coverage.
--Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler is thought to have some input into who the Bears hire to run the passing game after offensive line coach Mike Tice was promoted to coordinator.
--Scouts are anxious to see what Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill does about the foot injury he recently suffered. With the decisions by Matt Barkley of USC and Landry Jones of Oklahoma to remain in school for another season, few players have seen their draft stock rise like Tannehill, who could now sneak into the first round. People close to Tannehill contend no decision has been made yet about his foot, but acknowledge surgery is a strong possibility.
The last word: "I do think he needs to pick it up. I think he needs to pick up his play. I wouldn't call him lazy, but I do think (there are) certain things about Mark and the organization (that) I think needs to change. I think the organization does baby him, and I think they definitely need to bring in a viable backup. A viable backup to really provide that competition, because with the competition, you're either going to rise or you're just going to crumble. So I think you bring in a viable backup and let it play out. And we'll see which Mark Sanchez shows up after that." --Former NFL offensive lineman Damien Woody, who played three seasons with the Jets (2008-2010), on New York quarterback Mark Sanchez.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.