Who dat behind the Saints' remarkable defensive revival?

Former Redskins assistant Williams thrives with New Orleans

By Rick Maese
Thursday, December 3, 2009

Washington Redskins cornerback Carlos Rogers smiled as he leaned over the stairwell railing to hear Jason Campbell, his friend and former Auburn teammate, talk to reporters about the New Orleans Saints' aggressive defense.

"Jason probably needs to have his track shoes on," Rogers had said earlier in the week, well aware of the style and tendencies of his former boss, Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach-defense from 2004 to '07 who was passed over for the team's head coaching job and is now in his first year as the Saints' defensive coordinator.

"He's going to be ready for this game," Rogers said. "He wants to win first, but he wants to prove to this organization that he should still be here."

The Redskins have remained a top-10 defense since owner Daniel Snyder fired Williams following the 2007 season and instead hired Jim Zorn to replace Joe Gibbs as head coach. But after a one-year stint as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator, Williams has brought a missing component to a New Orleans team that already boasted one of the league's top offenses. Now, playing strong on both sides of the ball, the Saints bring an 11-0 record into Sunday's game at FedEx Field.

"We always were known as a great offensive team and the defense is just adequate," said Saints safety Darren Sharper. "We wanted to change that type of mentality, change that type of outlook on our defense. From Day One, Gregg preached that to us, we're not going to be second-hand, play second-fiddle to anyone."

He used similar motivational tactics that veteran Redskins had seen years before, harping on young players, preaching conditioning and instilling a philosophy in his players that games hinge on turnovers.

Thus far, it's paid off. The Saints lead the league with seven touchdowns, four more than any other team. They have a league-best 22 interceptions -- 15 more than Washington -- and have forced 32 total turnovers, five more than any other team.

The Saints' turnover differential ranks No. 2 in the league with 12 more takeaway than giveaways. For sake of comparison, the Redskins are ranked No. 28 with six fewer takeaways than giveaways.

"It's still the number one statistic in football," said New Orleans Coach Sean Payton. "And that differential and our ability to get takeaways and reduce them on offense helps you win games."

It's Williams's style. While Greg Blache inherited Williams's defense, it's evolved into a more conservative outfit than the one Williams employed, especially when free safety Sean Taylor was roaming the field.

With more talented options now at his disposal in New Orleans, Williams is able to take advantage of multiple formations and attack the quarterback with a multitude of rushers.

"He's going to blitz and blitz and blitz even more," said Redskins defensive end Andre Carter. "Despite whatever the matchups may be. He expects everybody to get there and make plays."

Williams has used that philosophy to transform the Saints' defense, which last season ranked 23rd in the league in yards and tied for 26th in points into an attacking group that's suddenly tied for 10th with 26 sacks.

Payton barely knew Williams when he brought him on board earlier this year. But he heard of his reputation. It's hardly a secret.

"I remember when I was drafted," said Redskins safety Reed Doughty. "I talked to Coach [Joe] Gibbs, and he said 'here's your D-coordinator.' So Gregg says, 'Hey, this is Coach Williams.' 'Hey coach how you doing?' 'I hope you're in shape because I'm going to make you puke.' "

Many Redskins defensive and offensive players had hoped Williams would succeed Gibbs, who stepped down after the 2007 season. Redskins players agree that Williams will not be short on motivation when he returns to Washington this weekend.

"He'll probably want to get us a little bit more considering everything that transpired a couple years ago with him," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, who also played under Williams in Buffalo.

Said Carter: "Gregg is going to be Gregg. Despite whatever history he had here, he's coming in here as if he's going to hate you. That's Gregg Williams for you."

Reminiscing about Williams instantly makes several Redskins players chuckle. Most aren't surprised that he's improved the New Orleans defense so quickly, helping make the Saints arguably the league's best team.

On Monday night, the Saints routed the New England Patriots, 38-17. New Orleans twice intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who failed to throw at least one touchdown pass for only the second time this season.

"Jason, offensive line, they better be ready," said Rogers. "Because he's blitzing. I've played in his scheme. There's so much stuff you can do out of different packages. They send so many players. I used to blitz, Sean [Taylor] had one of his best years blitzing. So he's gonna send a lot of packages."

But Payton noted that despite that various looks, Williams is tough to predict. Against New England, for example, the Saints often rushed only three linemen, dropping eight into coverage.

"The thing about Gregg is he doesn't really give teams a chance to learn his tendencies," said Campbell. "He'll bring linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, but he changes it week to week. You may see one package one week and then not see it again for another four weeks. You see stuff on film but you really don't know what he's going to do."

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