Drew Brees loves facing a worthy opponent in practice. For years, Brees tested his wits against Jonathan Vilma, turning the Saints’ practices into a daily battle between two grandmasters, both checking out of calls and adjusting plays on the fly in an ongoing chess match.
Brees, whose penchant for turning every practice into a competition is legendary, has been looking for somebody to play Boris Spassky to his Bobby Fischer ever since the end of Vilma’s time in New Orleans.
He might have found his Spassky in new middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. Laurinaitis, the longtime Ram the Saints signed in free agency to right the defense’s play-calling problems of the past two seasons, is already testing Brees in the first six practices of organized team activities.
“It is kind of a game-plan thing I do not want to give away, but he did something today where I was like, ‘Oh, that was clever,’ ” Brees said. “Just on the fly. I see things where it’s like ‘Oh, that is a veteran move’. It’s going to be a fun camp going against him.”
Laurinaitis learned in part from studying Vilma. Always a student of the game, Laurinatis used to marvel at the way Vilma always seemed to be ahead of the quarterbacks on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Then, when the Rams initially hired Gregg Williams in 2012, Laurinaitis reached out to Vilma in an effort to pick his brain about the playbook, and then the Rams signed former Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who offered a whole new level of insight into Vilma’s play-calling.
“I respected the heck out of what he did,” Laurinaitis said. “That Super Bowl against Peyton Manning, how many times he checked, and you hear the stories of it, back and forth. And it wasn’t just blitz to Cover 2, it was blitz to blitz, kind of going opposite direction. Being a middle linebacker, that’s stuff that’s hard to do. When I got in that scheme, and it’s a similar scheme here, you have the freedom as a Mike linebacker to do that, it’s really nice. Prior to that, I hadn’t had that opportunity. ... Watching Jon do it, it was really a work of art.”
Laurinaitis has been known for having the same kind of intelligence and diligence in preparation, going all the way back to his days at Wayzata High School in Minnesota.
So far, he’s lived up to the reputation. Laurinaitis has had little trouble picking up Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme, a playbook that is strikingly similar to the system Laurinaitis ran in St. Louis under Williams the past two seasons.
“No. 1, there’s some similarity with the terminology where he’s coming from and where he’s at now,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s someone that picks things up extremely well. To your second point, he’s already at a stage where he can assist others in alignment. He knows it cold right now.”
Laurinaitis’s ability to pick up the scheme enabled him to start testing the wits of Brees as soon as the Saints hit the practice fields last week.
Like Brees, Laurinaitis relishes a challenge, and Payton’s offense offers the kind of opponent he’s rarely seen in his time in St. Louis.
“The tempo is super-fast compared to anything I’ve been around in practice,” Laurinaitis said. “Just the way they come out of the huddle, get on the line of scrimmage, it puts stress on the middle linebacker, because if you make one bad call, there’s no making up for it. It’s a good thing. It means everyone’s communication has to be on point, everyone has to be a quick thinker and really solve problems fast.”
Brees is impressed by Laurinaitis’s ability to process information so far.
When a quarterback has been in an offense as long as Brees has, the quarterback admits it’s easy to fall into a pattern, checking to certain plays that always work against a certain look.
Now, Laurinaitis is coming up with ways to counter those tendencies.
“You just feel like he’s in command, he’s in control of what’s happening defensively and it’s you check, I check, I’m getting guys lined up in the right position,” Brees said. “You can tell just anticipation like, ‘I’ve seen this on tape before. Here I go.’ There’s just a level of intelligence there that is really key at that position.”
Laurinaitis understands the responsibility he’s inherited.
For the past two seasons, the Saints have been plagued by missed alignments, blown coverages and calls that don’t make it to the entire defense before the snap. Bringing in Laurinaitis is an effort to make those kinds of mistakes the exception, not the norm.
“The worst thing that can happen is if you have nine guys playing one thing and two playing something else, and you have a busted coverage, make it easy for the offense,” Laurinaitis said. “Hopefully I can be that guy that will make all the right calls.”
Brees and the Saints are counting on it.