By Jake Saltzman
Things in the NFC South got a whole lot more interesting, with news that New Orleans Saints All-Pro linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season. While the loss of Vilma alone isn’t enough to take the Saints out of the pre-season division favorite position, the Saints will have to make significant changes to their defense in order to repeat as division winners.
First and foremost, the Saints will need to determine how they plan to utilize new arrivals David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. Because both players are veterans of four NFL seasons, and have spent their entire careers in the NFC (Hawthorne in Seattle, Lofton in Atlanta), it is safe to assume both are relatively familiar with the Saints’ defensive system.
But just because both are capable of playing in Vilma’s spot, Hawthorne and Lofton have different skill sets. Hawthorne is best suited to drop back in coverage on passing downs, as his three interceptions last year were three more than any other Seahawks linebacker. Lofton had two interceptions of his own last year, but also had a whopping 147 tackles to his name, including 12 in Atlanta’s lone playoff game. He excels playing all over the field, and can lineup at both inside and outside linebacker.
As a result, the Saints can go one of two ways. They can either opt to go with the linebacker they feel most resembles Vilma’s style of play, or they can revise their defensive structure to compliment the linebacker(s) who will be replacing Vilma in 2012.
If they go with option one, Curtis Lofton seems to be the better guy for the job. Like Vilma, Lofton thrives on his ability to be involved in any given play, and possesses the ability to singlehandedly take over a game (just ask the 2011 week 17 Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Yet if the Saints elect to modify things a little bit, they may look to implement a system that allows for Lofton and Hawthorne to be on the field together.
In either case, expect both signees to play big roles on the New Orleans defense.
As far as division rivals Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa are concerned, Vilma’s anticipated absence serves to further hint at an increased commitment to the run. The Panthers finished with over 150 rush yards per game (3rd in the NFL) last season, and could actually be even better in that department this year. Improvements to the offensive line arrived via the Draft, and former San Diego Charger Mike Tolbert signed with Carolina early in free agency. Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart all scored rushing touchdowns against New Orleans last year, and bear in mind Vilma played in only one of two games against the Panthers.
Atlanta and Tampa are also well aware of what no Vilma means with respect to the run game. The Buccaneers have said they fully anticipate giving carries to the newly formed Legarrette Blount/Doug Martin running back tandem, while the Falcons and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter look to reap the benefits of new additions to the offensive line. The Falcons also took fullback Bradie Ewing in the fifth round of the draft, giving them an absolute cog at the lead blocker position.
All in all, though the Saints have capable fill-ins for Vilma, I fully expect teams to at least try to exploit New Orleans’ linebacking corps. That may not be too effective though, seeing as the Saints went 13-3 last season despite the league’s 30th ranked pass defense.