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Spagnuolo was a great hire but do Saints the have enough pieces on defense?

Steve Spagnuolo proved in St. Louis that he was overmatched as a head coach but there’s no denying that he’s one hell of a defensive coordinator. That’s why the New Orleans Saints did well to replace Gregg Williams with Spagnuolo when their coordinator position became open last January.

But do the Saints have enough pieces on defense to make Spagnuolo’s scheme work?

Make no mistake, Spagnuolo’s defense has more depth, is more creative, and is more versatile than the one Williams developed over his three-plus decades of coaching. Spags is a disciple of the late Jim Johnson, who was a blitz-happy playcaller but he also played with discipline on the backend.

That’s why New Orleans fans should take comfort in the fact that Spagnuolo will keep the Saints aggressive while also implementing more zone coverage in the secondary. Instead of almost irresponsibly blitzing defenders like Williams, Spags will bring a more calculated approach to his play designs.

That said, you have to wonder whether or not Spagunolo has enough to work with. Leading pass rusher Will Smith has been suspended four games for his role in the team’s bounty scandal and Curtis Lofton, one of the Saints’ free agent signings this offseason, doesn’t have the same coverage skills as Jonathan Vilma (suspended for an entire year).

Can the Saints generate enough pressure with their front four in order for Spags’ defense to be effective? Safety Roman Harper recorded nine sacks last season but if Spagnuolo plans to run a lot of zone, Harper will likely remain in coverage. Junior Galette finished with four sacks last season but he’s only a situational pass rusher and Sedrick Ellis has been a major disappointment since the team selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2008 draft.

The Rams weren’t very good under Spagnuolo the past three years but one thing they could do was get after the quarterback. Chris Long finished with 13 sacks last season while James Hall and Robert Quinn each had six apiece.

But all three of those players were able to rush the quarterback starting with their hand in the dirt, just like Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck were able to do while Spags was the defensive coordinator in New York. His schemes work best when the front four is able to generate pressure on its own, which is why he potentially has a problem in New Orleans.

While Williams was able to generate pressure from the secondary, that’s not the way Spagnuolo runs his defense. The Saints simply lack that premier pass rusher and unless 2011 first-round pick Cam Jordan is ready to take the next step in his development, New Orleans could struggle in Spags’ first season as DC.

That’s not to say that Spagnuolo isn’t creative enough to find other avenues to get after the quarterback but Saint fans may have to exercise patience when it comes to their new defensive coordinator. He was an excellent hire but every coach needs the pieces in order for their scheme to work.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Saints claim they’re not getting rid of Vilma but their actions say otherwise

New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward during action at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans on October 31, 2010. UPI/A.J. Sisco

Mickey Loomis says that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is “still
a big part of our team,”
but the Saints’ latest signing would suggest that the GM is blowing smoke.

The Saints signed free agent middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to a five-year deal on Saturday night and while the financial terms have yet to be released, chances are the former Falcon is being paid like a starter. (After all, he was the defensive captain for the past four years in Atlanta.)

My point is that the Saints didn’t sign him as an insurance policy for Vilma, or for emergency starts. Some have suggested that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could use Lofton on the outside, but that’s a dangerous proposition for the Saints. L0fton is a solid two-down “thumper” in the middle of a 4-3 and that’s where he needs to play in order to be successful. Granted, he has improved his coverage skills since his rookie year in ‘08, but pass defense will never be one of his strengths. Thus, to expect him to hang with tight ends and running backs as a strong-side ‘backer isn’t a realistic option. (To strengthen my point, let me point out that the Falcons have been re-signing their own players left and right this offseason and yet decided to let Lofton walk. That’s because they plan to play more nickel under new DC Mike Nolan and thus, Lofton wasn’t worth the money to essentially be a two-down run-stuffer.)

Which leads me back to Vilma. Despite what Loomis says, there’s still a very good chance that Vilma has played his final down in New Orleans. The Saints will probably wait until they know the severity of his punishment for his involvement in the team’s “bounty program” before they do anything. But I doubt we’ll see Vilma and Lofton lining up in the same linebacker corps next season.

If Vilma is suspended for half the season, the Saints could try to trade him for a late round pick. I doubt another team would bite with Lofton already on the roster, but it’s worth it for the Saints to try and see. And if he’s only suspended four games, Vilma’s trade value obviously goes up, so there’s no reason to release him now.

But either way, Lofton is the team’s long-term answer at middle linebacker. Don’t let the Saints fool you into thinking otherwise.

Report: Drew Brees “livid” about franchise tag

A New Orleans Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees reacts after walking off the field after a three-and-out against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Banks Stadium in Baltimore on December 19, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

WIST-AM New Orleans is reporting that Drew Brees is “livid” about being franchised tagged and will not sign his tender.

Drew Brees is “livid” about being franchise tagged and not receiving a long-term contract, according to WIST-AM in New Orleans. The radio station cites sources in the Brees camp that he will not sign the franchise tag deal. Brees and the Saints have until July 15 to hammer out a long-term deal. If a deal isn’t struck, Brees must sign the franchise tag deal or hold out.

Brees doesn’t seem like the type to be “livid” about anything, so there’s a chance that this report isn’t accurate. But if it is, how bad could things continue to get in New Orleans?

I don’t think there’s a chance in Hades that the Saints don’t figure out a way to lock up Brees long term, but they’re facing some major issues right now. They’re currently awaiting punishment from the league for their “bounty program” fiasco, their best offensive lineman (Carl Nicks) and No. 1 receiver (Marques Colston) are about to hit the open market, and Brees’ contract situation is a mess. They’re even scheduled to work out Randy Moss on Tuesday for cribs’ sake.

The Saints have been a NFL powerhouse for the last three years but their roster could look very different come next fall. Don’t forget that along with Nicks and Colston, Robert Meachem is also a free agent and there’s talk that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will be released. The team did well to hire Steve Spagnuolo to replace Gregg Williams as their next defensive coordinator but their linebacker corps remains weak and outside of Will Smith, the cupboard isn’t exactly stacked with quality pass rushers.

Things will eventually start to stabilize again in New Orleans. But by that point, will they have forked over a couple of draft picks and watched some of their top players depart in free agency?

2011 NFL Week 13 Primer

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees take the ball up the middle for 8 yards and a touchdown during second half action against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome November 28, 2011. UPI/A.J. Sisco

Eagles @ Seahawks, 8:20PM ET, Thursday
Philadelphia is just the latest example of what usually happens to everyone’s preseason chic pick. Granted, there’s still time for the Eagles to turn things around and if they win out, there’s a chance they could sneak in the back door of the postseason. But I’m not so sure they’ll even win tonight against the Seahawks. Although they lost to Washington last Sunday, Seattle is usually tough to beat at home and the Eagles have been sleepwalking all year. That’s a very undisciplined, unfocused team that Andy Reid is running these days.

Raiders @ Dolphins, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Just when positive things start to happen in Miami, Brandon Marshall finds himself in handcuffs. Apparently police in Broward County, Florida briefly detained the receiver after he was accused of fleeing a $142 cab fee around 5:00AM on November 14. The rest of the details are fantastic. The cab driver said that Marshall “didn’t know where he wanted to go” and “When I woke him up and told him he had to pay, he said he wasn’t and started arguing for me to take him home.” Get this, Marshall blamed the “misunderstanding” on the cab driver’s “accent,” although it sounds as if he wouldn’t have understood anyone given the condition he was in. How good of shape are you when you’re falling asleep in the back of cabs at 5:00AM?

Broncos @ Vikings, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Von Miller underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair torn ligaments in his thumb and may not play on Sunday for the Broncos. That’s bad news for a Denver team that has had to rely on its defense and the one-quarter of magic from Tim Tebow every week. Miller is a runaway candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and if he can’t go, the Broncos defense will be down one of its biggest playmakers (if not the biggest playmaker). Of course, if Adrian Peterson doesn’t suit up for Minnesota then Denver only really has to worry about Percy Harvin.

Falcons @ Texans, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Don’t be surprised if T.J. Yates surprises this Sunday. First and foremost, he played in a pro-style offense under John Shoop and Butch Davis at North Carolina and Atlanta will be down two of its top three corners (Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden). Christopher Owens, who will start for Grimes (knee), was the poor lad that was repeatedly torched by Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Divisional Round last January and Dominique Franks (who will start at nickel in place of Hayden), has received very little PT the past two years.

Titans @ Bills, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While I think the Texans can survive thanks to their running game and defense, this is the time for the Titans to take the governor off and amp things up. Tennessee has a legitimate shot of catching Houston in the AFC South because of T.J. Yates’ inexperience. But the Titans need to win, including this weekend against a struggling Buffalo team. The Bills are without Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick is reeling right now. Tennessee has to take advantage.

Bengals @ Steelers, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
It’s put up or shut up time for the Bengals this weekend in Pittsburgh. If they can’t prove that they can beat the Steelers, then nobody is going to consider them legit contenders. On the flip side, if Andy Dalton and Co. pull off the upset then Cincinnati will very much remain in the thick of things in the AFC North. This game could provide a very clear picture of how the rest of the season will play out for the Bengals.

Panthers @ Bucs, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
What a complete role reversal for Tampa Bay. While the Saints and on a smaller scale, the Falcons, improved their rosters this offseason, the Bucs rested on their laurels outside of signing a punter (Michael Koenen). The Tampa front office, which has always been cheap anyway, figured it didn’t need to make any upgrades after the team won 10 games last year and now the Bucs are paying for it. They’re clearly overmatched and lack playmakers to compete with New Orleans and Atlanta in the division. If they lose at home to the upstart Panthers this Sunday, it’ll officially be the lowest point of the season for the Bucs.

Colts @ Patriots, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
There’s really not any point in breaking this game down, right? I mean, not even a little bit. The Colts haven’t played well all season and while a quarterback change may bring a little optimism to Indy’s locker room, the switch is Curtis Painter for Dan Orlovsky. That’s only about a droplet of optimism right there.

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NFL Week 17 COY power rankings

It’s best to do this now, because surely our opinions will be skewed watching the playoffs.

1. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots—The Pats just kept getting better as the season wore on, save for that hiccup against Cleveland. This is actually one of Bill’s best coaching jobs.

2. Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay Bucs—From 3-13 to 10-6. But what might be most impressive is that Morris told everyone this team would win 10 games when he may have been the only one who believed it.

3. Todd Haley, Kansas City Chiefs—The AFC West winner has a home game Sunday. Did anyone pick KC to finish above third?

4. Lovie Smith, Chicago Bears—Kudos to Lovie for sending his A-team out there last Sunday, and either way it’s surely been quite a year for his Bears, especially with that defense.

5. Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles—He hasn’t hung around the city of Philadelphia for 11 years for no reason. The man just knows how to win with the talent he’s given.

6. Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams—So close to grabbing that last playoff spot, but regardless, this is a team that will be reckoned with, maybe as soon as next year.

7. Mike Smith, Atlanta Falcons—The 13-3 Falcons are sharp heading into the big dance.

8. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers/John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens—Without Big Ben for four games, and still grabbed the 2-seed in the tough AFC. The Ravens, meanwhile, snuck up on everyone by winning 12 games too.

9. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers—His team was in every single game and could just as easily be 16-0 than 10-6. Keep an eye on these guys, they could win it all as a 6-seed.

10. Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints—You just can’t forget about the defending champs and that win in Atlanta a few weeks ago proved it.

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