The Saints know they asked a lot of Stephone Anthony last season.
As the middle linebacker, the rookie didn’t just have to learn his own responsibilities. He was also responsible for making the proper checks and get his teammates lined up. In essence, during his first game in the NFL, he was leaned upon to direct the defense.
That’s a lot to keep up with while also trying to adjust to life in the NFL.
There was plenty to like about how Anthony performed during his rookie season. But there were also some things that could have been better. Improving some of those things is what led New Orleans to bring in veteran middle linebacker James Laurinaitis this offseason.
“That’s a lot on the plate of a rookie, first-year player getting the signals, making the calls, all of that,” coach Sean Payton said. “I think that’s one of the things obviously Laurinaitis is very comfortable at.”
Payton said the current plan, which could change over time, is to have Laurinaitis play middle linebacker, with Anthony moving to the strong side and Dannell Ellerbe playing on the weak side. That could then push Hau’oli Kikaha to the Jack position, which is the weakside defensive end, and Cam Jordan over to the other side. Jordan played Jack last season.
Laurinaitis said the five or six teams that showed interest in him this offseason only talked to him about playing middle linebacker.
There’s a reason for that.
The middle linebacker is typically the so-called leader of the defense and is responsible for making the calls and getting everyone lined up. Laurinaitis excelled at those things during seven seasons with the Rams. So while teams certainly coveted his physical abilities, a lot of Laurinaitis’ value comes from his mental ability.
He’s aware of this, and it’s something he’s taken a lot of pride in, dating to his high school career.
Laurinaitis said he never wants to be in a position where he has to rely on someone else telling him what to do or how to line up. He strives to be the most prepared player on the field.
“I’m very, I guess, prideful in the fact that being a guy that when coach goes to bed on Saturday night, he doesn’t think, ever, ‘Oh, gosh I wonder if James Laurinaitis is prepared,’ ” Laurinaitis said. “I want him to always know that I’m going to be prepared. I want to kind of be inside the mind of coach (Dennis) Allen and do things that he would expect or that he would do in certain situations and kind see eye to eye and be that extension on the field.”
Laurinaitis said a lot of his success as the so-called quarterback of the defense comes down to having situation awareness.
For instance, if the defense has called a blitz, and he realizes the offense recognizes their intentions, he’ll check out of it so that the defense isn’t left exposed in man-to-man or zero coverage in the secondary.
As he put it, the goal is to make sure the defense doesn’t end up running into a “brick wall.”
Those are traits this defense could use, especially considering that the players said communication on the field was one of the biggest issues they faced throughout last year’s 7-9 finish. Laurinaitis should be able to help fix those issues.
“One of the things we felt we needed was someone with his experience that can help on game day with the overall understanding of what we’re doing and what they’re doing,” Payton said.
The other thing he brings, which has been previously noted, is the flexibility to move some of their pieces on defense around and into spots that could end up benefitting not only the team but also the players.
When the Saints brought in Laurinaitis, Payton told his staff the team can’t be afraid to make changes that best suit the personnel. And some of the changes that could be coming shouldn’t be much of a stretch for the players.
After drafting Anthony, Payton said that he saw him either playing in the middle on the strong side. He mentioned the Jack position after acquiring Kikaha. For both players, the new jobs could fit their talents better.
Anthony wouldn’t be forced to diagnose as much, and his coverage assignments will at times be more man-to-man on the strong side. Those things should help him play faster. As for Kikaha, who is at his best rushing the passer, he’ll no longer have to drop into coverage.
If those changes come to be, if should be for the benefit of the defense. And with Laurinaitis in the middle directing things, Kikaha and Anthony should often be in a position succeed.