Saints safeties Josh Bullocks and Kevin Kaesviharn, along with Roman Harper, have combined for only three interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero sacks this season.
When the Saints sit down in two weeks and start evaluating where they can improve in 2009, it’s safe to assume the safety position will be at the top of the list.
It’s not just that the Saints defense has given up too many deep passing plays this year, as it has in years past. The blame for that falls on the entire defense, from the coverage to the pass rush to the schemes.
But there also has been a lack of big-play impact from a position that breeds some of the league’s most dynamic difference-makers — guys like Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, Baltimore’s Ed Reed and Indianapolis’ Bob Sanders.
The Saints’ top three safeties, Roman Harper, Kevin Kaesviharn and Josh Bullocks, have combined for three interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero sacks this season.
Harper, a third-year strong safety, has shown the most promise of the bunch, though he has been much more effective in run support than in coverage.
Bullocks, a fourth-year free safety who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, has been more inconsistent, though coaches say he played his best game of the year last Thursday at Chicago.
Both young safeties can still use these final two games as a platform to prove they deserve to stick around, with two of the most dangerous receiving threats in the league on the schedule — Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Carolina’s Steve Smith.
Kaesviharn, who has two years remaining on his contract, is out for the year with a neck injury.
“Every game, you’re putting your resume out on tape, ” said Harper, a second-round draft pick out of Alabama in 2006. “You’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to show up and play hard. And if you’re not playing well, then in the offseason you’ll recognize that people will be talking about it.
“But I’m not going to get too worked up about it. I know I’m not young, but I’m a young guy in the league. I’m still learning, too.”
Harper said he would be the “first one to stand up and say if I’m messing up or not, ” and he pointed out some lowlights, like when he got flagged for the game-clinching pass interference penalty last week at Chicago (still questionable in his mind), when he let Smith get behind him for a 39-yard touchdown at Carolina in Week 7, and when he dropped at least three or four catchable interceptions.
But he said he doesn’t think the Saints need a drastic overhaul on defense or in the secondary, where he believes newcomers like cornerback Randall Gay and injured rookie corner Tracy Porter have already given the Saints a boost.
“I think we have a really good group of guys. I don’t look at any other defensive backfield and think, ‘Wow, they’re so much better.’ ” Harper said. “I think we’ve improved since last year, and I think we’re going to continue to improve. And I think a lot of that comes from just jelling and playing together, you know, having a couple pieces being around each other and learning what this person and that person are thinking. Not just every year, just, ‘Oh man, shake up the pieces. We’ve got to build a new puzzle. Break it up.’ ”
There are some intriguing names on the list of potential free agents at safety this offseason — starting with veteran free safety Brian Dawkins, who has been dominant for 13 seasons in Philadelphia. The 35-year-old just earned his seventh invitation to the Pro Bowl this week.
Perhaps Dawkins will re-sign with the Eagles, try to finish out with a more proven contender or even consider retirement. But he’s exactly the kind of difference-maker the Saints are lacking. When the Saints prepared for two pivotal showdowns against Philadelphia in 2006, Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees singled him out as the guy to worry about.
Chicago Bears veteran free safety Mike Brown also could hit the open market, as could two young up-and-coming free safeties, St. Louis’ Oshiomogho Atogwe and New England’s James Sanders.
At strong safety, Miami’s Yeremiah Bell, Cleveland’s Sean Jones, Tampa Bay’s Jermaine Phillips and Minnesota veteran Darren Sharper all could make a difference.
The draft, too, is an option, though the Saints will likely have just one first-day pick, a first-rounder.
“When the season ends, like always, we’ll sit down and begin to evaluate first internally, our own players. That’s not something you just go through quickly, ” Payton said, lumping in the safeties with every other area of the team. “We have to look at it like, ‘Do we feel like there’s growth potential? Do we feel like the player is improving?’
“Then after that process takes place we move on to free agency, then the draft.”
It’s not like the Saints have ignored the safety position in recent years. Bullocks was a second-round draft pick in 2005, and Harper a second-rounder in 2006. In 2007, the Saints took a long look at several of the top safeties in the free agent class and aggressively pursued Kaesviharn, beating out Cincinnati and Arizona for his services.
It’s just that none of those players has consistently panned out so far.
“No different than our entire defense, I think we’ve had our moments, ” defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs said, “I think they’ve had their moments where they’ve made some good plays, and I think there’s been times when we’ve seen the ball over our head and our inability to make the play down the field.
“You know, when you play back there, it’s a high-wire act. And when you can’t make a play on the ball down the field, a lot of times bad things will happen, and that certainly was the case the other night (at Chicago).”
“I think there’s no doubt there has been improvement. But it certainly isn’t to the extent that we need it to be, ” secondary coach Dennis Allen said of the deep-ball defense, which has been the Saints’ biggest area of vulnerability in their current era. “The fact of the matter, really at the end of the day we’ve still given up a big play or two big plays a game, which really kill you. That’s coaching, that’s playing, that’s the whole deal. And we’ve just got to continue to work in that area.”
Bullocks lost his starting job to Kaesviharn in the offseason but seems to have benefited from the step back, based on his play in the past two games after Kaesviharn got hurt.
Allen said Bullocks lost a little bit of his focus at first when he wasn’t playing as much, but he has really started to come on lately.
“It was frustrating, but it was a big learning experience for me, ” said Bullocks, who made a game-changing interception in the third quarter at Chicago last week, his first pick of the season. “Sometimes when you’re in the driver’s seat you can’t always see everything. Sometimes just being in the passenger’s seat, you can see a lot of things differently. And I did. And so far, so good. I’m just happy to be back out there and get that feeling back.”
Bullocks said he would like to be back with the Saints next year but understands the decision will be in the team’s hands.
Allen said that Harper, too, has been “up and down at times, but that’s to be expected with a young player.” He said one of the things he likes best about Harper is his dedication.
“You see him out here right now doing extra work, ” Allen said after Thursday’s practice. “The guy wants to be a good player. And we’ve just got to continue to work with him and continue to get better.”
Harper said if he had just caught half of those potential interceptions, people would be talking about him “as if I’m some kind of hero, ” and he said his uncle told him he would spend the offseason throwing balls at him in the back yard to help him with the “problem.”
But he also talked in a more serious vein about working to improve.
“Roman Harper’s going to continue to be who he is. He’s going to work. He’s going to have a big smile on his face. He’s going to have fun. And he’s going to come downhill and hit people, ” Harper said. “That’s just what I do. And I’m going to continue to do that and get better.”