Deuce McAllister’s future and the defense dominate the final New Orleans Saints Insider mailbag

Posted by Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune January 02, 2009 12:43PM

Welcome to the final installment of the weekly regular season mailbag. This was by far the longest edition of the season. I want to thank everyone for your participation in this first year of the Saints Insider format. It’s clear Saints fans have passion for their team and the NFL game.

Forgive me if I got a little long-winded in my responses this week. After two days of watching bowl games on the couch, I was a little stir crazy and needed an outlet.
As expected, there were plenty of questions regarding the Saints’ offseason, their plans in free agency and the draft. Among the other topics: the chances of Deuce McAllister returning in 2009, Jammal Brown moving to right tackle and the Saints switching to a zone blocking scheme on offense.

Starting next week, I’ll continue to take questions from readers, but will run the mailbag only on a bi-monthly basis, or as news merits. The exceptions, of course, will be during Senior Bowl week, free agency, the Combine and NFL Draft, when I’ll run weekly installments.

Now on to the Q&A:

Q: I am in the military, currently deployed to Pakistan. I’m a resident of Louisiana, however, I’m stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. Due to my deployment, I didn’t get to see all of the Saints games, but I did follow them closely. My question is this, what’s your take on the Deuce McAllister situation? I think if Deuce was utilized more earlier in the season, i.e. Washington and Denver, the Saints may have been able to establish a power running game and perhaps win those games. It looked like to me, when Deuce did get the ball, he was productive. I think if the Saints utilize Deuce more between the tackles and Bush on the outside, the Saints again could have the top running back duo in the league. Kevin J. Knox, U.S. Embassy, Pakistan.

A: Kevin, first and foremost, thanks for your service to our country. I’m not sure anyone knows the total answer to this season’s Deuce McAllister conundrum other than Sean Payton. For some reason – injury, running style, the emergence of other backs – Payton was not keen on playing McAllister. There’s no doubt Deuce has lost a step. He admits it. His days of breaking off 50-yard runs are over. But he still has great vision and understanding of the running game and can be a productive between-the-tackle runner. He reminds me of an aging veteran basketball player, who no longer gets by on athletic ability but uses fundamentals, technique and court smarts to produce. It was no coincidence that the Saints offense start to click once Payton stuck with Deuce solely in the backfield during the second half against Carolina rather than platooning him with Mike Bell. McAllister is terrific in the passing game. He’s an excellent and willing blocker in pass protection, a skill the Saints’ other backs are still trying to master. When McAllister is back there Brees can concentrate on finding the open man rather than dodging defenders. We’ve asked Payton a million times about McAllister’s role or lack thereof this season and he masterfully sidesteps the issue or double-talks the answer. My best guess is that he doesn’t think Deuce’s running style fits his offensive system. Payton prefers a quick, versatile back in his offense rather than a pounding power back, which, at this stage of his career, is McAllister. It’s no different than Tom Moore’s offense in Indianapolis. The Colts use backs like Joe Addai and Dominic Rhodes rather than Jamal Lewis. I think the whole thing is an offensive style issue more than a personal issue. Regardless, it’s a dicey situation for Payton because of McAllister’s overwhelming popularity in the community. I really think he underestimated that whole issue when he chose to sit Deuce earlier this season. It backfired and became a distraction for the team. More than anything, I think Deuce’s days are numbered here for that reason alone. Could he still play a valuable role on this team? No doubt. Would he be willing to take a paycut? Yes, I think so. But I think Payton has grown weary of the situation, sees it as a distraction and is ready to move on. That’s just my guess. Stay tuned.

Q: At what two positions do we need help the most heading into the offseason? We need another pass rusher, but which spot (defensive end, outside linebacker, defensive tackle)? And we urgently need another defensive back, but free safety, strong safety or corner? I think if we upgrade at two more positions on defense we could be all right. Carter, Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.

A: I agree with you, Carter. I don’t think the Saints need an overhaul on defense. A couple of players could make a world of difference in this unit. Unfortunately, what they need are the two rarest commodities on that side of the ball – pass rushers and pass coverers. There’s a reason defensive ends and cornerbacks are the highest paid players on defense. Their skills are rare. You have to read between the lines on what Payton was saying last week but he emphasized developing the players on the current roster as the top priority. That indicates to me that the Saints aren’t going to make wholesale changes but rather target a few specific areas for help. The team has invested heavily in defensive ends Charles Grant, Will Smith and Bobby McCray. All are under contract and are heavily paid. They aren’t going anywhere so the challenge is to develop them and get the best out of them. I expect this to be an emphasis for the new defensive line coach this offseason. The Saints like their cornerbacks and linebackers but have to be concerned about Mike McKenzie. He’ll be 32 this spring and is coming off his second major lower leg injury. That’s a tough combination. I would expect the Saints to bring in a corner, either in the draft or free agency, to bolster the position but I’d be surprised if it’s a big-ticket player like Asomugha. That leaves the safety position and I think this is where the Saints will concentrate their efforts in free agency. The Saints could use help at both spots. There are a couple of intriguing free safety prospects that potentially could be available. Phiadelphia’s Brian Dawkins and St. Louis’ O.J. Atogwe could head the list. If either is available, I’d be shocked if the Saints don’t make a strong effort to sign them. The other safety spot is less of a pressing need but nonetheless could use an upgrade. James Butler of the Giants and Sean Jones of the Browns are the kind of young, improving veterans the Saints like to target in free agency.

Q: With Brees chasing the passing yardage record and the offense having its way with the Lions defense, I am still totally perplexed as to why Coach Peyton ended the Lions game with three runs and then the kneel downs. Even if we did not try to score, we still could have passed for another 20 – 40 yards. Besides, running up the score does not carry the negativity it used to. Can you explain? Robert, Meridian, Miss.

A: There’s not much to explain, Robert. Payton did the right thing by taking a knee. He has great respect for Rod Marinelli and there was no reason to embarrass him or his team any further. There’s a right way and a wrong way to conduct yourself on the field of play and trying to run up some artificial passing yards in the final seconds of a blowout would have ruined Payton’s reputation around the league. The coaching business is a tight-knit fraternity and there are unwritten codes. Payton would have violated a big one if he called for Brees to pass on first or second down on the final drive. There is no defense for such actions. He handled the situation the right way.

Q: To me the main problem our defense has it that we don’t pressure the quarterback. Are our linebackers athletic enough to get the job done? You need exceptional speed, strength and agility to have a killer defense. We don’t have it. Linebackers have to cover, sack (or at least disrupt the quarterback with blitzes), take on lineman and fullbacks head on, attack the line, cover both sides of the field, take down large backs in the first level, etc. Our guys get blown up by blockers, miss tackles, and are always a step late getting to the play (Vilma somewhat excluded because he did a stand up job this year). Will there be some emphasis on getting the most athletic position on the field filled by better athletes? I think the Shanle/Fujita experiment has run its course. Tony Robinson, Humble, Texas.

A: Interesting observation, Tony, and one that I can’t disagree with. As I said earlier, I think safety has to be the main emphasis in player acquisition this offseason. After that, I think the Saints could go in a number of directions, with another corner being high on the list. Team officials do not share your opinion of Shanle/Fujita. They like their linebacker corps and do not see a reason for change, or at least that was the case a few weeks ago. Scott Shanle is a smart, serviceable starter but he’s not much of an impact player and on the weak side, you really need a player who can make plays from sideline to sideline and get after the quarterback from time to time. The Saints linebackers are not explosive or athletic enough to rush the passer. That was obvious this season. The Saints blitzed more often than Saints fans realize this season. The problem is the linebackers never got there. They combined for four sacks on the season. Shanle had two and Jon Vilma and Chris Reis (who was playing linebacker at the time) each had one. What’s more, they rarely hurried or rushed the quarterback into incompletions or quick throws. Whether that’s the fault of a poorly-designed scheme – the blitzes weren’t very creative – or an indictment of the players’ skills, the results simply were not good enough. The Saints need to evaluate that aspect of their defense thoroughly this offseason. As far as the defensive ends are concerned, they are pretty much stuck with the hand they dealt themselves. The challenge is going to be to get Smith and Grant healthy and in better condition next season.

Q: Going into the draft, the Saints don’t have many draft picks. Should the Saints trade down and get a lower first round pick and a second/third round pick or trade out the first round to acquire more draft picks? Jeffrey, Arlington, Texas.

A: I like your thinking, Jeffrey. If ever there was a year to trade down this is it. The Saints are desperate for picks and are in a solid spot (No. 14) to make a deal. For reference, the Panthers traded the No. 14 pick in the first round of the 2007 draft for the Jets’ first-round pick (No. 25), a second-rounder (No. 59) and a fifth-rounder (No. 164). They also threw in their sixth-rounder (No. 191). The Panthers used those first two picks to select linebacker Jon Beason, a Pro Bowler this year, and center Ryan Kalil, a future Pro Bowler. This is the kind of deal I expect the Saints to pursue if they can get it. The key, of course, is finding a trade partner.

Q: How will the possibility of the Saints’ starting defensive ends missing the first quarter of the 2009 season affect the moves they make this offseason? Will they gamble on the players winning the case, believe that McCray, Charleston, Savage, or another comparable end can do the job for the first four games if the case does not go well, or do they make replacing the defensive ends for the first four games a top priority? Lance, Sylva, N.C.

A: Excellent question, Lance. The Vikings face a similar predicament with their defensive tackles next season. The looming suspensions definitely handcuff the teams roster-wise. I think the Saints definitely are aware of the possibility that both players could be suspended and will prepare themselves for the worst-case scenario. McCray has proven to be a capable spot starter but a quality fourth end now becomes a necessity. I’m not sure if they think enough of any of their young ends to fill that role but there’s a reason they signed Rob Ninkovich and Tearrius George late in the season. I think they’ll give these guys a long look in the offseason to see if they can develop into contributors as the fourth end on the roster. If not, they could always draft an end but I’d be shocked if they invested a high pick in one simply because of the other, more pressing needs on the roster. It doesn’t make sense to invest heavily in an end when you already have so much money committed to the position already. Their best strategy would be to develop the young, inexpensive ends on the roster.

Q: We all would love to see Reggie Bush perform to his potential. Wouldn’t a running back coach help him and Pierre Thomas sharpen their skills? Why do the Saints have an offensive line coach in this position? Comment on the status of the strength and conditioning coaching staff. Many feel that they should be replaced because of all the injuries this year. Stuart Johnson, Wichita, Kan.

A: I think the Saints will look to hire a running backs coach this offseason, with Aaron Kromer sliding into Doug Marrone’s offensive line spot. With Bush and Thomas slated as the key backs, I think a veteran hand would be a wise investment. That said, I really don’t think Kromer’s lack of experience as a backs coach has or had anything to do with Bush’s development. Bush, as they say in the coaching profession, is what he is. I think it’s pretty obvious that he lacks the size and running style to be an every-down, between-the-tackles back. He still can be and will be a key piece to the Saints offense. He needs to become more of a complimentary player rather than a featured player. I’ve had numerous questions about the Saints strength and conditioning coach but I really don’t think he has anything to do with the Saints’ spate of injuries. That’s a misguided notion. Tracy Porter broke his wrist. Mike McKenzie broke a knee cap. Reggie Bush, Sedrick Ellis and Mark Campbell had knee injuries. These things happen in the NFL. It’s a violent game. Dan Dalrymple was the strength and conditioning coach in 2006 when the Saints suffered few injuries. It’s a cyclical thing.

Q: Considering the elite running offenses within the NFC South, would the Saints be better served throwing the bank at Albert Haynesworth or is cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha better to take away the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White, and Antonio Bryant? Gregory, Austin, Texas.

A: Gregory, I’ve got a column scheduled to run in this weekend’s editions of The Times-Picayune that looks at the Saints’ free agent options so make sure you check it out. The cliff notes version: I’d be shocked if the Saints made a big splash in free agency. Other than when they signed Drew Brees, it’s not their M.O. First of all, I doubt very seriously that any of the really big names – Haynesworth, Asomugha, Ray Lewis, Julius Peppers, Terrell Suggs – make it to free agency. Teams tend to keep their core players and those are all key pieces to their respective teams’ puzzles. If Asomugha did fall through the cracks I think the Saints would have interest. But I’d be surprised if they were able to outbid some of the other teams on the market. Their best bet is to go hard for a quality safety or two. They’re less expensive than corners and defensive linemen, and in my mind, a more pressing need right now.

Q: Jeff, who are some of the free agents out there the Saints might be interested in? I’m talking defense of course. Hey, do me a favor and write as much as you can about Taylor Mays (the junior safety from Southern Cal). I would love to see him patrolling out there in the secondary for years to come. Please, let’s fix this secondary. Bill.

A: Bill, I think St. Louis free safety O.J. Atogwe would be a perfect fit for the Saints secondary. He’s smart, in his prime and, most importantly, a playmaker. He has intercepted 13 passes the past two seasons. That’s an incredible number. He also forced six fumbles this season. The guy has a nose for the ball and that’s exactly what the Saints need on their back end. The problem, of course, is that the Rams know this. They’ve identified Atogwe, along with cornerback Ron Bartell, as their top priorities in free agency. Bartell is another interesting prospect. He has great size – 6-1, 205 – and potential. He finished tied for the sixth in the NFL with 19 passes defensed. Both players would attract interest in free agency and might be interested in a change of scenery after the miserable year in St. Louis. And Taylor Mays doesn’t need me to be his publicist. He’s projected as a Top 10 pick if he declares for the draft. I’d be shocked if he were to drop to the Saints at No. 14 and the club is in no position to trade up this year because of their limited draft cache.

Q: Jeff, the defense has taken much of the blame for the losses this year and deservedly so, but the way I see it there is a lot of blame to go around. I remember the days of equally high scoring offenses of the Chargers and Dolphins and the truth is for all the yards we accumulate we left plenty of scoring opportunities on the field. The way I see it, Drew Brees cost us a win but he is forgiven as we would be nowhere without him. The kicking game cost us a win and Payton’s stubbornness, poor play calling and coaching three others. How would you break down the losses this year?. Carl, Covington.

A: Carl, when teams lose everyone always is looking for reasons. There’s no doubt the Saints’ failures in the short-yardage running game and in the kicking game played a role in those early losses at Denver and Washington. But the over-riding factor in the club’s losses was defense, in particular a failure to defend the deep ball. I’ve already documented this in a previous column, but fourth-quarter breakdowns in coverage cost the Saints in losses to Washington, Minnesota, Chicago and Sunday against Carolina. In each case, the Saints had a fourth quarter lead and let an opponent hit a big pass play over the top either for a long reception or pass interference penalty. It’s not all the fault of the secondary. The tepid pass rush obviously didn’t help. But it’s hard to blame Gary Gibbs’ scheme when he has two defenders in position to make a play on the ball in almost every instance and neither is able to make it. That’s not scheme. That’s personnel. And the Saints saw enough of the repeated errors this season to know they need to upgrade at those positions. If the Saints find a player or two who can break up or intercept those passes then everyone won’t be picking nits on their minor shortcomings on offense.

Q: Jeff, the Saints will be playing very physical teams in 2009. Not only must we contend with the tough NFC South but we play the NFC East and AFC East. How can the Saints compete at all for the playoffs next year with no pass rush and and lack of toughness? I don’t think we need major changes on defense, I would take three to five pass crucial pass deflections or two to three critical-moment sacks and we’d be 10-6 instead of 8-8. Lavar in Houston.

A: Lavar, I agree with you on not needing an overhaul. The Saints aren’t far from being a playoff team. They just need to have a strong offseason and find the missing pieces to the puzzle. It’s impossible to predict how tough or easy the Saints’ schedule is going to be next season. Too much changes between one season and the next in the NFL. The Miami Dolphins were 1-15 in 2007 and 11-5 in 2008. Green Bay was 13-3 in 2007 and 6-10 in 2008. That said, the Saints are going to play some excellent offenses next season. They are scheduled to play seven games against offenses ranked in the top 10 in the league: New England (No. 5), the New York Giants (No. 7), Philadelphia (No. 9) and two each against Atlanta (No. 6) and Carolina (No. 10). Each of these teams is led by a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. So they obviously need to address the secondary this offseason and improve the pass rush next season if they hope to improve on their 8-8 record. As I mentioned earlier, if the Saints can just find a playmaker or two in the secondary and get Grant and Smith back on top of their games that would go a long way toward accomplishing their goals. It would help if they could avoid having 18 season-ending injuries, as well.

Q: Jeff, I have several not so obvious questions regarding the Saints’ 2008 season and the offseason ahead: (1.) Would the Saints seriously entertain the thought of drafting (Andre Smith, Michael Oher) or trading (Jason Peters) for a left tackle and moving Jammal Brown back into his more natural right tackle spot? Brown’s athleticism is an upgrade over that of Jon Stinchcomb, as well as his run blocking ability. This would also allow them to upgrade the overall ability of the offensive line to be a bit more physical in those crucial third-and-1 situations. (2.) Has Jonathan Goodwin done enough to justify not upgrading the center position in a draft where there are several good options available? (3.) Reggie Bush has stated in the past that he enjoys and excels in zone blocking running plays. With the success that Denver, Houston, and Atlanta has had over the years with this scheme, is there any chance Coach Payton would be open to adjusting this part of the offensive attack to cater more towards his best skill player? (4.) I heard Coach Payton mention that we employ a similar Cover 2 scheme similar to what Tampa and Atlanta both use. Is it obvious to anyone else but me that the athleticism of the players in comparable positions on both teams lack severely? Also if the Saints lack the “pieces” needed for the scheme, why not run a scheme more suitable for the players you have? Will, Baton Rouge.

A: Let me see if I can address all of your queries without writing a novel, Will. I think the idea of moving Jamal Brown to right tackle has merit but I think the Saints have way more pressing needs this offseason than to worry about offensive tackle. In my mind, Brown played well enough to hold down the fort there for another year. Sure, he struggled at times, but he plays against some of the best ends in the league on a weekly basis, is usually left on an island against them and therefore is going to lose his share of battles, especially considering the surgically-repaired knees he plays on. When Brown gets beat it’s so conspicuous that everyone sees it. For as much criticism as Brown takes, the Saints set a club record with just 13 sacks this season. I know much of that can be attributed to Brees’ awareness and quick trigger but it’s not all Brees. Besides, tackle is one of the few positions where the Saints actually have solid depth. Reserves Zach Strief and Jermon Bushrod have been waiting in the wings for two years. It’ll be interesting to see if the Saints make an effort to sign Jon Stinchcomb this offseason or let him leave. The Saints drafted Strief and Bushrod for a reason. If they don’t think they’ve developed them by now, then they need to admit the mistake, re-sign Stinchcomb and move on. They’ve kept Bushrod on the roster for two years and he has played in just three games as a special teamer. At some point, it becomes a luxury that a team with so many pressing defensive needs can’t afford. I think the Saints feel good about Goodwin as a starter but it wouldn’t surprise me if they drafted another interior offensive lineman for depth. Jamar Nesbit could be a roster cut and Matt Lehr is only adequate. Switching to a zone blocking scheme is a major, major adjustment. It sometimes takes years for offenses to adjust. The Lions tried to do it this season under new coordinator Jim Colletto and it was a disaster. It’s not impossible but it would require a major investment of time and personnel. Not sure it’s worth the gain at this point. Funny, Pierre Thomas didn’t seem to have as much problem running behind the Saints offensive line. He averaged a healthy 4.8 yards a carry this season. Seems to me the problem is the runner (Bush) and not the scheme or line. Again, the Saints led the NFL in total offense and scoring offense. Tackle, center and zone blocking are not their biggest worries. In regards to the defense, I think what Payton meant when he references Atlanta and Tampa Bay was the Saints defense is a 4-3 base with various principles of Cover 2 and man scheme coverage. Few teams in the NFL employ strictly Cover-2 or straight man coverages. Most teams vary their coverages throughout the game in an effort to keep offenses off-balance. While Tampa Bay is known for its Cover 2 scheme, the truth is they’ve evolved into a diversified coverage scheme in recent years. They mix in single coverage and hybrid zones with man-to-man principles. I would agree that the Saints could use some more physical players on defense. I think this whole argument goes back to personnel acquisition and the Saints’ building plan. The Saints have done a solid job of acquiring offensive talent and depth. That’s why they were able to withstand so many injuries on that side of the ball this season. Unfortunately in doing so, they’ve neglected the other side of the ball (See: 2007 NFL Draft). They would have been more competitive and better able to withstand the spate of injuries this season if they had better depth on defense. That’s an area the club has neglected in recent years and must continue to address this offseason.

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