2010 NFL Question Marks: New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Sedrick Ellis #98 of the New Orleans Saints looks on against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisiana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints won 31-28 in overtime. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the defending champs’ weakness up the middle on defense.

You’re not going to find too many Saints fans that will complain about last year’s Super Bowl. It was an impressive, well-deserved win for Sean Payton’s team, which could easily find itself back in the big dance again this year.

That said, there was one element of the Super Bowl that Payton and his coaching staff can’t be pleased with. And it’s something that could wind up costing the Saints this season, especially considering the run-first teams that they face in the NFC South.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams took the Saints’ defense last year to new heights. His aggressive, attacking style of play was a perfect fit for New Orleans’ high-powered offensive attack because it kept the pressure on the Saints’ opponent all four quarters.

But Williams’ use of a three-man front early in the Super Bowl nearly put the Saints in a bigger hole then the 10-0 deficit that they found themselves in at the end of the first quarter.

Williams used a four down linemen set only once on the team’s first two defensive drives, which resulted in the Colts putting 10 points on the scoreboard quickly. Credit Williams for making a fast adjustment, but just because the Saints wound up winning doesn’t mean that their problems at the defensive tackle position have been fixed.

After being selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Sedrick Ellis has failed to live up to expectations thus far in New Orleans. He struggled mightily when Williams used him as the only tackle in the three-man defensive line in the Super Bowl, largely because he isn’t a consistent run-defender. His best position is under-tackle, but even then he has struggled with his consistency week to week.

Although he could be challenged by 2010 fourth-pick Al Woods, Remi Ayodele has been tabbed as the starting nose tackle. He replaced Kendrick Clancy as the starter last year and even though the Saints’ run defense struggled, the team didn’t upgrade the position in the offseason. At 6’2 and 300 pounds, Ayodele has the size to plug running lanes, but he offers nothing as a pass-rusher.

Woods has the physical skill set that makes scout’s drool, but he was an underachiever at LSU. He’s a huge developmental project at this point and considering most defensive tackles need a few years to make an impact (see Ellis), it’s doubtful that Woods will see the field much this year.

The other backup is Anthony Hargrove, who is a steady veteran and offers more as a pass-rusher than Ayodele does. But he provides the Saints with depth and versatility more than anything.

While it’s surprising that the Saints didn’t do more to address their weakness at the tackle position in the offseason, if Ellis can start to make big strides as an every down force then New Orleans will be fine. But if he continues to walk this inconsistent path, then the Saints could have a lot of issues against teams that can run the ball.

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