Throughout the New Orleans Saints' training camp, it was anyone’s guess as to which linebackers would be playing where.
The Saints have a lot of players who can play different spots, so it made sense for the coaches to mix and match. After a while, it looked like the team was settling in on A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o and Demario Davis in the base defense, with Te’o, a run-stuffer, dropping out in nickel packages and Klein moving to the middle.
But then Anzalone took some snaps at middle linebacker during one practice at Tulane on Aug. 5, then got some snaps at the spot in the next preseason game. The targets have been moving ever since.
Sunday’s regular-season opener against Tampa Bay was supposed to provide concrete answers.
The base package was the expected one. The surprise came in the Saints' nickel package when Anzalone played in the middle alongside Davis. And that’s how it held until the second half of their 48-40 loss to the Buccaneers, when New Orleans started rotating through middle linebackers. It went from Anzalone to Klein to Te’o.
The Saints might have entered the game wanting to utilize their linebackers in different ways as part of the game plan.
But even some of the linebackers themselves were surprised with how they were used in the second half.
Was Te’o expecting to play in nickel packages Sunday?
“No,” he said. “But whenever my number is called, I’m going to produce as best as I can to help my team win.”
So, why was he in the game?
“That’s an answer for a coach,” Te’o said. “I think I can speak for everybody: We all prepare so that whenever we do get the opportunity, we can go in there and do what it takes to win.”
Coach Sean Payton answered a question about using the linebackers in a rotation during the second half by saying, “Yes, that’s part of the plan.”
“I think the feeling is we’ve got a handful of guys who are playing well and trying to settle in on making sure we get the right guys out there and still have the chance to play with some combinations,” Payton said. “We’ve got a few of those guys (who) played Mike and/or Will and Sam and/or Mike. It’s just trying to find the right group in base and the right group in nickel.”
The only constant on Sunday was Davis, who played all 66 defensive snaps, mostly on the weak side. Anzalone (34), Te’o (27) and Klein (25) shared the rest of the snaps. The majority of the game was played out of nickel packages.
This summer shuffling prepared the linebackers for all kinds of different possibilities. So while some of them were used in unexpected ways (Anzalone was asked if he expected to see a rotation during the second half and responded by saying, “Umm. I don’t know”), they weren’t altogether taken aback by the shuffling and wouldn’t be surprised if there is more of it in the future.
“For us, we all know that we can all play,” Klein said. “We all support each other and whoever is out there. Week in and week out, we could see different packages, different changes. We’re a versatile group, and the coaches are trying to utilize that.”
Marshon Lattimore once talked about last year about how he approaches every game as if it is going to define who he is as a player.
Sunday’s game against the Bucs marked Anzalone’s first snaps at middle linebacker in a regular-season NFL game. He played the position while in college and during the preseason and said the transition was not too difficult.
The two spots aren’t too different. Some of the drops at middle linebacker are different than they are on the weak side, but the run fits are fairly similar because they work off one another from one position to the next.
Most of the differences are in the smaller details, and Anzalone believes he is settling into them — even if he has spent his NFL career looking at things through the eyes of a weakside linebacker up until a few weeks ago.
“I’ve been playing Will for the past year or so,” Anzalone said. “But I think they are relatively similar positions. It’s not that they’re crazy different, but I wouldn’t say I have a best spot.”
That might serve him well. Being able to play multiple spots could help him get on the field. But it seems likely the team will eventually settle on a typical rotation and have the group settle in.
But as Payton said, there wasn’t much good on defense last week, so trying to find something that worked a little better might not have been a bad thing.