WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- “Ball, ball, ball!”
This cry can be heard echoing between the Allegheny Mountains whenever the ball hits The Greenbrier grass during practice at the New Orleans Saints’ training camp. It doesn’t matter if it has been fumbled or if it is an incomplete pass. Secondary coach Wesley McGriff never wants his men to leave things to chance — even when the outcome is obvious.
There’s a reason for this.
“At the end of every play, the ball is the issue,” McGriff said. “So if we can get a lot of guys around the football, we have a high probability of taking the ball away. Be ball conscious.”
That has been the biggest theme of training camp thus far. The Saints created a paltry 18 turnovers last season, and are aware that doubling that number, while not a neccessity, would help them make a deep march into the playoffs.
It remains to be seen if the increased emphasis on creating turnovers in practices will translate into success on Sundays. Despite efforts to create them, the opportunities can be difficult to come by. Despite ranking fifth in yards allowed last season, the Saints finished in the bottom of the league in turnovers. In 2012, when it allowed 7,042 yards, New Orleans created 26 takeaways.
Granted, the 2012 team was on the field more often, and the porous play of the unit might have led to offenses taking more risks, but that group still averaged a turnover every 41 plays. Last year’s team averaged one every 55 plays.
Many of the moves made on the defensive side of the ball this offseason was with an eye toward improving that ratio, including the signings of safety Jairus Byrd, who has intercepted 22 passes over his five years in the league, and cornerback Champ Bailey. But bringing in a few new troops isn’t enough to turn this around.
“You don’t put all that on one man,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “We have an excellent defense. We’re going to work. We are going to strive to be better on these turnovers. We have to be. It is not just a one man job. It has to be all of us.”
So, the rest of the defense not only needs to take advantage of the opportunities that exist, they also need to find more ways to create them. That starts with jumping on the ball whenever it hits the grass, but it also means going about business with an entirely different mindset.
“What you have to do is make a conscious effort every single day to get the ball,” McGriff said. “The next thing you have to do is make sure you have strong population around the football on every play. I think the more aggressive you are with your hands, the more people you have around the football, you increase your opportunities to create turnovers.”
The defense is buying in. Early on, players stuttered their feet when McGriff bellowed what has now become the rallying cry of the defense. As the days progress, you can now see several members of the defense making their way to the ball before McGriff begins barking.
So, perhaps it should be taken as a positive sign that the biggest defensive play during Saturday’s Black and Gold scrimmage was an interception, even if it had nothing to do with a bunch of Saints swarming the ball. All it took was one player, rookie safety Marcus Ball, jumping in front of a Luke McCown pass and taking it back for a big return.
Fumbles have been less common, but the change in mentality was evident during a practice last week. Wide receiver Joe Morgan caught a short pass, turned it up field, and was on his way to end zone. Morgan thought he was safe, so he loosened up his grip on the ball and lowered it toward his hip. As he did so, safety Pierre Warren was closing in and managed to knock the ball loose before Morgan reached the goalline.
It the big scheme of things, it was a meaningless play, but it illustrated how deeply the defense is buying into the program.
“Even last year we made it a priority to stress taking the ball away,” linebacker Victor Butler said. “I think that guys have, even more so this year, gotten on top of that. Guys are punching the ball away, whether it’s an incomplete pass picking it up and running with it or an interception, fumble, anything like that.”
In other words, “ball, ball, ball.”