Make no mistake about it: The pressure is on the defense as the New Orleans Saints get ready to open training camp this week.
Two years of disappointing 7-9 finishes have left the Saints hungry for a taste of the playoffs.
The difference has to be made on defense. For the most part, Drew Brees has been the same the past two seasons, as devastating and capable as ever of taking Sean Payton's offense to the top of the NFL.
But the offense can only do so much to offset a defense that has finished at the bottom of the NFL for two straight seasons. Now, with Rob Ryan in Buffalo working with his twin brother, the task of rebuilding the Saints defense back to respectable levels has fallen on the shoulders of Dennis Allen, who will install and run a scheme similar to the Gregg Williams defense that helped get Brees and Payton to the Super Bowl.
"There will be parts of it that will look familiar if you’re looking at terminology," Payton said during minicamp. "There will be parts of it that have been tweaked since then, just with the nature of the way our game’s changed. The key is really your personnel and what suits them best."
New Orleans has tried to overhaul that personnel over the past two seasons, using nine of its 14 draft picks on defensive players and complementing those hauls with a free agent class that included defensive tackle Nick Fairley and a trio of linebackers: James Laurinaitis, Craig Robertson and Nathan Stupar.
All of those changes have left the Saints defenders confident they can finally pull themselves out of the NFL's basement. Despite all of the ugly numbers the Saints defense posted last season — including NFL records for highest passer rating allowed and touchdown passes against — New Orleans saw enough positives from young players like Delvin Breaux, Stephone Anthony and Kasim Edebali to be optimistic about where the defense might be headed.
"I saw a young team, and this is a team that works hard," linebacker Michael Mauti said. "These guys get after it. We had a great offseason program, and I'm excited about it. We're better now than we were in Week 16."
New Orleans is counting on bounce-back seasons from a large group of key defenders who were knocked out of the lineup or hampered by injury last season. Keenan Lewis, who entered last season as the Saints' No. 1 cornerback, was limited to 106 snaps by hip and knee injuries, and free safety Jairus Byrd got off to another slow start with a knee injury that has lingered. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is bent on proving he can shake off injury issues that limited him to just 250 snaps last season.
Beyond the veterans, the Saints also were forced to deal with abbreviated seasons from 2015 draft picks P.J. Williams, Damian Swann and Davis Tull.
Now, even though New Orleans must find pass rushers to help account for the summer loss of edge rusher Hau'oli Kikaha (torn ACL), the Saints believe healthy returns from that large group of defenders can help make a difference, particularly in a secondary that has been much maligned the past two years.
"Both me and Jairus have both been among the elite in the league at some point in our careers," Lewis said. "To have him and me back, with Kenny (Vaccaro) and P.J. and Breaux, all those guys, Swann, a lot of guys I can name, to have that experience means a lot."
Allen's defense looked much better this summer. Day after day, this group tested Brees and the offense in practice, enough that the team's defensive leaders headed into their final offseason break excited about the unit's direction.
"We're light years better as a defense," Vaccaro said.
Now, as training camp nears, this Saints defense has a chance to prove Vaccaro right.