The New Orleans Saints have become no stranger to taking part in meaningful Football games in January. For years upon years, a franchise that had become synonymous with the cellar and subsequent top-ten draft picks now finds itself in the form of a perennial contender. This paradigm shift actually did, to an extent, occur overnight, kicking on in earnest when Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans early in 2006.
The Saints went from a 3-win team without a home, literally, to the NFC Championship game in the span of one season. Thanks in large part to Payton's brainchild, a potent offense operated to near perfection by Drew Brees and a viable arsenal of weapons. This unit was complemented by a "bend but don't break" defense. In other words, a defense that more often than not, found itself trying to tread water and keep just enough distance for their offensive mates to continue to do their thing.
Will 2014 see the Saints return to the biggest of stages?
Over time, the defense took small steps. Gregg Williams entered the frame ahead of the 2009 season, and his blitz-happy, pressure-packed defense joined hands with Payton, Brees and the offense to help spur the franchise to its first Super Bowl title. Williams was not the only new face to bring a positive impact to the Saints' defense, as multiple key offseason additions to that side of the ball paid dividends. Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer signed on as free agents. Jonathan Vilma, acquired the previous spring, signed a new long-term deal. The team's first round pick that year? Versatile Ohio State DB Malcolm Jenkins. In other words, the Saints were well aware that an influx of talent and clout was needed to help take the team forward. The results spoke volumes, as New Orleans stormed out the gates to a 13-0 start, and ultimately lifting the Lombardi trophy on that February night following their victory over Peyton Manning and the Colts in Miami.
Over the course of the next three seasons, things began to go back to how they were before. The blitzes weren't as effective. Injuries piled up. Williams bolted following the 2011 season and left town just before the crushing blow of the infamous bounty scandal encompassed the franchise. In the blink of an eye, it was 2012. The Mayan calendar may as well have had a fleur-de-lis on it, as the Saints defense, under the guidance of Steve Spagnuolo, withered away to historically bad proportions. A team without a coach, without multiple key players, left hung out to dry. This time, Brees and the offense were left seemingly just as hapless. The season couldn't come to an end quick enough.
But it did. Re-enter Sean Payton, fresh off his season-long suspension. Out went Spagnuolo. Looking to make not only a splash, but the right hire, Payton took a chance on the enigmatic Rob Ryan, who had just been shown the door by the Dallas Cowboys. The appointment proved immense, as Ryan oversaw an incredible spate of improvement across the board, as the Saints' defense rose from dead last to fourth in the league in total defense in 2013. They surrendered just over 300 yards a game, almost 140 yards less than the previous campaign. Ryan's impact was sizeable, and a feisty group of underachievers and unknowns impressed league-wide as New Orleans charged its way to the divisonal round of the postseason.
Following the season-ending loss to the eventual champion Seattle Seahawks, the Saints clearly put an emphasis on adding talent to Ryan's defensive arsenal. Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler, was the early surprise of the 2013 free agent frenzy, inking a six-year contract with the Saints. Add 9 Pro Bowls to Byrd's tally, and you have Champ Bailey, the future hall-of-famer who signed a two-year deal with the club following his release from Denver. Rafael Bush saw his Atlanta offer sheet matched by the Saints, and the team looked north of the border to further bolster its options, bringing in Toronto Argonauts Safety Marcus Ball. Cameron Jordan's fifth year option was exercised by the Saints, while the likes of Keyunta Dawson and Parys Haralson were re-signed for quality depth and insurance. Many draft analysts had earmarked New Orleans to use a high pick on a defensive standout, and the team did just that, selecting Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the 2nd round, with the hope of the former 'Husker developing into a potential starter at corner down the line. Same face, new place. Champ Bailey hopes to taste glory as a New Orleans Saint.
Plenty of new toys for Ryan to work with, indeed. The team's secondary, in particular, now jumps off the paper. Once an achilles heel in New Orleans, the back-end of the Saints' defense looks poised to be a major strength in 2014 and, perhaps, years to come.
Byrd figures to have a strong impact, adding a dynamic presence in the secondary. Able to operate as a single high Safety, the ball-hawking maestro, who picked off four passes and forced a fumble as a Buffalo Bill in 2013, should only upgrade New Orleans's chances of producing more turnovers in 2014. Bailey, who will wear the number 27 jersey, isn't just in New Orleans to soak up the final days of a long, illustrious career. Bailey still has plenty of juice in the batteries, and should provide a solid number 2 option at corner, teaming with Keenan Lewis, one of last season's more unheralded free agent acquisitions. He will also have the chance to help mentor young Jean-Baptiste. Bush played a key role on special teams and in defensive sub-packages, thriving in Ryan's 4-2-5 alignment when injuries at the Linebacker positions forced the Saints' defensive staff to get creative. Add Kenny Vaccaro, who impressed as a rookie in 2013, as well as returning veterans Corey White and Patrick Robinson, and a plethora of talent exists in the Saints' secondary heading into the 2014 season.
As sensational as the Saints were defensively in 2013, they know that they will need to be markedly better in 2014 if they are to supplant the Seahawks and their NFC West nemesis San Francisco 49ers and return to the Super Bowl. The parallels to 2009 are visible, but the two teams are different in their own right. Nevertheless, if Bailey can bring the veteran impact and playmaking ability of a Sharper, if Byrd can follow in the footsteps of Greer, who also joined the Saints after a stint in Buffalo, if Jean-Baptiste develops and contributes in a role a la Jenkins in 2009...you get the picture.
Plenty of NFL fans still think of an offense lighting up the scoreboard when they think of the New Orleans Saints. That's just fine. As long as things keep trending up defensively, Football fans may have a different view of the team in the years ahead. The defense as a whole needed extra pieces to take that next step, and there is no shortage of pieces in the Saints' loaded secondary.