Vonn Bell doesn’t make life easy for opposing quarterbacks.
He’s not ripping across the field, flying around to swat down and intercept passes. He possesses 4.5 speed, but his approach is more nuanced than that. It’s technical and tactical.
Watch him. He likes to sit back, read the quarterback and take angles that choke off plays and make it clear to quarterbacks that throwing in his zone would be a dangerous proposition. He doesn’t play the receiver as much as he plays the route.
He’ll pop from the screen when a quarterback makes the decision to throw it his area. But when that happens, it’s usually a bad decision, which was typically the case in the four games reviewed for this story.
It will take time to know if New Orleans made the right decision by trading up to select Bell in the second round of last week’s draft. He’ll have to prove it. Right now, however, it’s clear why the team coveted the former Ohio State safety.
Bell doesn’t always appear to be playing fast. It’s hard to know if this is more the result of his approach or if his instincts and ability to read the field makes it so that he doesn’t need to be flying around all the time. But it didn’t really matter because he was consistently in the right spots operating out of what was primarily two-high safety sets at Ohio State.
When he does need to get somewhere in a hurry, it’s not an issue. One of his more impressive plays came against Penn State when he sat back and diagnosed a run during the first quarter. He watched as the running back tried to turn up the field and then quickly broke on the play as soon the ball carrier’s hips flipped toward the sideline.
Bell caught him coming around the edge and stopped him for a gain of 1 yard. Had he not read the play, considering how open the right sideline was, the play likely would have gone for a touchdown.
Another solid moment, which displayed similar skills, came during the Fiesta Bowl when he stuffed a Notre Dame screen near the end zone before it could turn into a score.
As the play unfolded, Bell remained perched in the middle of the field, reading quarterback DeShone Kizer. He remained ready to break on one of the deep receivers. But as Kizer began to turn his hips toward the right sideline, Bell immediately broke the same direction, toward a running back coming out of the backfield on a screen.
With the angle Bell took, he was able to meet the receiver at the spot where the ball arrived and pulled him down before he could get into the end zone.
It’s easy to see how these skills will help the Saints, considering how often they gave up big runs and passing plays out of the backfield. Opposing quarterbacks targeted the short areas of the field for 1,035 on 111-of-138 passing against New Orleans last season, according to The Advocate’s charting.
The big question is where Bell fits into the defense. It seems likely the team will still use single-high coverage in the base package, with Jairus Byrd serving as the deep safety and Kenny Vaccaro playing closer to the line of scrimmage. The subpackages, however, could look a lot different next season.
There could be merit to using more two-high looks, with Byrd and Bell splitting the field as the deep safeties and Vaccaro roaming around in the box. With the instincts both Byrd and Bell possesses, the two players could choke out a lot of passing opportunities and be in better position to create turnovers. That would mean going back to more of the Big Nickel packages this team used in 2013.
But the truth is that there isn’t likely a nice, tidy way to explain how things are going to work. The personnel on defense means that this group will likely be more multiple and will be better able to switch up looks and personnel groupings in ways that weren’t possible last season.
It’s too soon to know which linebackers will come off the field in nickel packages, or how the safeties will line up. Which corner or safety will be covering the slot is also currently a mystery. It could be anyone of three or four people, including Bell at times, who possesses good coverage skills.
That’s what the presence of Bell does for the Saints. There are more options now, which seems to be the theme of this offseason. He can play deep and he also flashes coverage skills that should help disguise things initially.
There are still areas of his game that need development. He could become a more aggressive tackler. Later in that same game against Penn State, he read a screen, was in position to stop the receiver, but made a weak tackle attempt and allowed the player to score. A few other times he fell off tackles. But that stuff can be cleaned up.
As it stands now, it’s clear that he’ll help the defense. How, exactly, that happens remains to be seen.
That’s probably the point.
If we’re easy to come up with exact answers, the defense would once again be predictable.