Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, especially in the NFL.
When teams reach the highest levels of success, it seems all of the league’s other squads try to find ways to mimic those winning ways.
The Seattle Seahawks rode their top-ranked pass defense to a 13-3 record, home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and a 43-8 Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos and their record-breaking offense.
The Seahawks’ success showed that, to succeed in the NFL, a strong defense — in particular, a strong pass defense — is key. The Saints, who fell to Seattle 23-15 in the NFC divisional round last year, surely took notice.
“Seattle did a real good job with their defense, and we’re aiming for something like that this year,” Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “If we stay the same as we did last year, then we didn’t make any progress. Nothing is going to come out of that.”
Duplicating last year’s success on defense wouldn’t be so terrible, considering the Saints finished fourth in points allowed, second in passing yards allowed and sixth in passing touchdowns allowed. But the Saints have higher goals than merely having one of the league’s top pass defenses.
“We have much higher aspirations,” second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “When you watch TV, you really don’t see people talking about the Saints defense. So we’re just trying to stay humble, work hard and get to where we’re trying to be.”
The continued development of Vaccaro, who had 67 tackles and an interception in 14 games as a rookie before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, will be pivotal to the Saints’ growth. Vaccaro arguably was having a rookie-of-the-year caliber season before his injury, and his versatility allows defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to get creative.
“(Vaccaro) is good in the run game, and he’s tremendous in the passing game,” Saints secondary coach Wesley McGriff said. “But what we continue to work on with him, and all of our secondary guys, is being able to be lock down man-to-man. The key to being a great safety is moving like a corner but being able to hit like a linebacker. Kenny Vaccaro definitely has that.”
The Saints’ moves this offseason show they have placed a lot of faith in some other secondary players who gained lots of experience last year. This offseason, the Saints have parted ways with veterans Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins, trusting that the young guys would be able to step in and pick up where they left off. Players like Keenan Lewis, Corey White, Rafael Bush and Patrick Robinson will be relied on heavily.
“(Ryan) gives us the leeway to make plays and not be like robots out there, and that is great for us,” Bush said. “Playing in an environment like that can only bring the best out of you.”
Joining them as new additions to the secondary are safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey. Both have Pro Bowl appearances under their belt and bring plenty of playmaking and swagger to a secondary that needed it. There’s also second-round draft pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a cornerback, and fifth-rounder Vinnie Sunseri, a safety.
McGriff said he believes Bailey and Byrd can provide the leadership and production needed to fill the void after so many veterans departed.
“(Bailey) has some invaluable experience,” McGriff said. “We look for him to come in and provide the leadership that’s always needed when you have young guys. Byrd is also a seasoned veteran, and he should be able to step in right away and provide us with some much-needed playmaking.”
Byrd missed this week’s minicamp after back surgery, but his new teammates understand that he’ll be a valuable member of the team when he gets back on the field.
“I’ve been watching Byrd on tape before he even got here,” Vaccaro said. “He’s been a great vet to have around, and I can’t wait to have him out there with us.”