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Spagnuolo and the Saints 

Gus Kattengell on the Black and Gold's beleaguered defense

click to enlarge Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo signals from the sidelines to players on the field during the New Orleans Saints' 41-0 rout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Dec. 16. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL C. HEBERT/NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The New Orleans Saints' regular season ended with a 44-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Dec. 31. It was essentially a snapshot of how the 2012 season played out as a whole. At times the offense looked good, as Saints quarterback Drew Brees and company jumped to a 24-13 lead early in the third quarter — then went dormant. By the time the team started up again, it was too late.

  The Panthers offense accumulated 530 yards, putting an exclamation mark on the Saints' total-yards-allowed-in-a-single-season mark and yoking the Black and Gold with the title "worst defense in NFL history."

  The final tally for the season was 7,042 yards, more than any other defense has given up since the league began. (The Saints surpassed the record 6,793 yards set by the Baltimore Colts in 1981.) That's 4 miles. The question is: What happened? Steve Spagnuolo was brought in as defensive coordinator to improve a Gregg Williams defense that had become predictable to other teams, and to be less risky in key situations late in games. What took place instead was that opposing offensive players had career days against the Saints defense.

  Saints fans and the media have taken turns laying blame on different players. But the New Year started with something that rarely happens at Saints camp — a player took a coach to task. An anonymous player told The Times-Picayune that Spagnuolo is as much to blame as are the players. Since the Sean Payton era began in 2006, there have been very few times that a player has expressed displeasure about a teammate or coach, so the incident raised eyebrows.

  He said things that added to the failure were the complexity of the defensive scheme, Spagnuolo's failure to accept input from players and a personality that made it difficult to communicate with him.

  The Times-Picayune report brought a key question to the forefront, one head coach Sean Payton will have to address as soon as he returns: Was poor play by the defense a product of the scheme or team members?

  It's a combination of both. Spagnuolo's defense is complex and, as linebacker Curtis Lofton said in the T-P article, it's one that requires thinking before and during the play. It was a change from a simpler defense that Williams ran, which can be tough for some players. Spagnuolo should recognize that and adjust. Too many times this season, however, players were in position to make plays and simply didn't. The fundamental level of the team was poor — tackling, angle of attack, losing one-on-one battles. They need to get faster and become more physical.

  Payton must decide the best course for making a quick turnaround: change the philosophy of the defense based on the players now on the roster — or make personnel changes, which could be difficult because of salary cap limits. It's been suggested by fans and some reporters that changing to a 3-4 defense could do the trick. Firing Spagnuolo isn't the answer; it would be the fourth defensive coordinator the Saints have hired since Payton became head coach.

  Let's see what happens in the offseason when Payton returns. If the defense doesn't improve quickly, then we'll know the anonymous Saint was right on the money.

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