The New Orleans Saints spent last offseason trying to create additional layers of deception to its defense.
Throughout the summer, the Saints had Kenny Vaccaro taking many snaps that began with him aligning as a deep safety. Not every play required him to sit back and play zone, but the initial snapshot quarterbacks often saw was of a two-safety shell.
From there, the coverage could morph into many different things. Maybe it became a single-high coverage, Cover 2 or even Tampa 2. Whatever it might be, the goal was to have safeties Marcus Williams and Vaccaro be interchangeable, to some degree, so the quarterback had to guess which player was dropping down and which one was playing deep.
Then the season began. The results weren’t great. After a couple of weeks, Vaccaro primarily moved back into the box, where he is most comfortable, and New Orleans either used a third safety to create those looks or went about business in other ways.
It required some adaptation. But the goal for the Saints defense is to be as deceptive as possible.
“We’re going to do as much and be as complicated as we can, that our intelligence level will allow us to be, as well as our athletic ability will allow us to be,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “That’s a combination of things, but I think smart teams in our league win, and certainly, we’re trying to get as many smart guys as we can.”
This is where Kurt Coleman might make a difference. The Saints didn’t hesitate to sign the veteran safety this offseason after he was released by the Carolina Panthers, giving him to a three-year deal worth more than $16 million before free agency even opened. The Saints knew right away he was someone who could help their young secondary achieve even greater heights.
It’s easy to envision all the ways they can use Coleman. He has played free safety, strong safety and down in the box throughout his career, something New Orleans got a close look at least twice per year the past three seasons while he was playing in Carolina. And his ability to play all those spots is one of the reasons he was so appealing.
“Look, he’s versatile,” coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a guy that’s played in a handful of schemes. He’s smart. He knows what to do.”
The safety credits some of his versatility to the instability he has experienced. Coleman has played eight seasons in the NFL — four in Philadelphia, one in Kansas City, three in Carolina — serving under six defensive coordinators. He played for Sean McDermott his first season in Philadelphia and again during his first two with the Panthers.
The constant change forced Coleman to learn how to do different things and view the game through various perspectives. The thing Coleman appreciates most about being exposed to so many different coaches. It forced him to learn the intricacies of the game in ways he otherwise might not have if he had spent his career in the same system.
“With every defensive coordinator, they have to put their twist on things,” Coleman said. “You’ve got to be able to adapt. You have to understand how a coach wants something to play because it’s not always going to be the same way. You can say quarters coverage, but it could be played a multitude of different ways. So, I think that’s the learning process. Yeah, I know how to play quarters, but how do you want me to play it, coach? How do you want me to read it?”
Like many teams, New Orleans’ primary used Cover 1 (205 snaps) and Cover 3 (92) last season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Carolina played 141 snaps of Cover 1 and 160 of Cover 3 last year. But the Saints defense might go about forming those pictures a little bit differently than some of the places Coleman has played.
Coleman views that as a benefit. Given how versatile he is, and how many safeties the Saints can play on the field at one time — whether it’s Coleman, Williams or Vonn Bell — Coleman will be able to do a lot of different things.
“You have to be versatile when you go to different schemes,” Coleman said. “I’ve played both positions, and I’ve done very well at both positions. I think within this defense it allows two safeties, three safeties, sometimes four safeties on the field at a time. It creates a lot of havoc for the opposing team.
“I think that’s the great thing about this defense is; it’s not just this is the set defense. We bring from a lot of different formations, a lot of different personnel groupings and we change things up often. It allows me to kind of play. The best thing about what I’m able to do is, I can be a playmaker. Don’t just put me in one spot and tell me to have fun there. I like to move around.”
The Saints aren’t afraid to move players around. Coleman should have plenty of opportunities to do different things this season. You can bet Allen is already envisioning how that might look.
When offenses see those things, they might not make much sense at first.
That's when you’ll know the Saints are onto something good.