METAIRIE — In two seasons as the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams has changed the culture of a unit that was known — before his arrival — for giving up big runs and long passes, and not coming up with enough takeaways.
He hopes to change it even more for the 2011 season.
Through the draft and a series of free agent signings, the Saints have added several defensive players that Williams himself has to look to with the idea of stopping the run more effectively and affecting the quarterback’s ability to throw the ball.
“We’re going to look different getting off the bus,” Williams said. “You’ve got to get bigger people. We have to get those bigger people to play with the same tenacity that our smaller people have played with in the past. But we sure look different.”
In other words, you have to be tall or wide — or both.
New defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds, which dwarfs fellow tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who’s 6-1 and probably a shade more than his roster weight of 317.
Rookie defensive end Cameron Jordan, the team’s top selection in the draft, is 6-4, 287. Strongside linebacker Martez Wilson, a third-round draft pick, steps into the huddle at 6-4 and 252 pounds.
As a result, the Saints’ front four has undergone a major makeover with the addition of Rogers, Jordan, Franklin and defensive end Turk McBride, who join three holdovers — Will Smith, Sedrick Ellis and Alex Brown.
“I’m a better coach when the guys are big, fast and tough,” Williams said, “but I’ve made a career on guys that are two inches too short, 10 pounds too light, and a tenth of a second too slow. We’ve made a career on making sure those guys understand how to play, too.”
Williams said the changes don’t answer any questions at this point. Even though the preseason will be important, the real answers likely won’t come until the regular-season opener on Sept. 8 at Green Bay.
“We’ve made tremendous strides in two years on how we’re building the defense around here,” he said of a defense that ranked 25th in fewest yards allowed in 2009, but moved up 21 spots to fourth a year ago. “These new, bigger, faster players have to play our way. They’re going to have to buy into what we’re doing, and I have no question they will.”
Part of the reason for wanting to get bigger was the Saints were 16th in rushing defense in allowing 112.3 yards per game.
That doesn’t include the lingering nightmare of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch shoving would-be tacklers aside on his way to a 67-yard touchdown run that clinched a stunning upset of the Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
Another underlying reason for wanting to bulk up might have been the fact that the Saints only had 33 sacks a year ago, with 20? of them coming from the defensive line.
That’s significant because the Saints will play two games each year, for the foreseeable future, against taller quarterbacks in Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman (6-6), Carolina’s Cam Newton (6-5) and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (6-4).
Despite the transformation going on along the front four, the Saints will look a lot like they did in 2010 at linebacker and in the secondary.
Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who’s been selected to the past two Pro Bowls, anchors that group with Scott Shanle on the strong side. Promising second-year pro Jonathan Casillas, who missed the entire season after he earned a starting job in training camp, will try to reclaim his spot on the weak side.
In the secondary, cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter return although Porter has yet to practice in the first week of training camp after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round draft pick, will likely be the nickel corner.
They, along with the linebackers and returning safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, helped the Saints rank fourth in pass defense as they gave up just 193.9 yards per game.
Jenkins was solid after making the switch from cornerback to free safety and Williams is expecting Robinson to make a similar jump now that he has more than a full year in the system.
“I can’t wait to see Patrick make that big jump just like we asked (of) Malcolm Jenkins last year,” said Williams. “Patrick will make a big jump this year here, too.”
Williams said the re-signing of Harper, a five-year starter and two-time Pro Bowl pick, to a four-year, $28.5 million contract was key for the defense.
“It was very key. He’s come light-years,” Williams said. “You’ve got a two-time Pro Bowl football player that’s back, that’s young, and is continuing to improve. He’s continuing to get better.”