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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
But the Bengals' brass is a bit skeptical of No.
2-type receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, and both are
eligible for unrestricted free agency.
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
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.
At the opposite corner, though, there figures to
be a new starter, and it likely will come from a group that includes
Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, and Curtis Brown.
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
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
... 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
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
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.
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