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Saints OTA notebook: Defense simply has to get better

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METAIRIE, La. — With so many new faces populating the defensive side of the ball this spring, which isn’t surprising considering the unit took a big step backward in 2014, the New Orleans Saints are changing their philosophy a bit.

The Saints, who tumbled from fourth in the NFL in total yards allowed in 2013 all the way to 31st last season, are hoping less is more when it comes to what they ask their players to do.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and senior defensive assistant Dennis Allen, who returns to the team, have joined forces to streamline the scheme — dialing back and simplifying things during the first two weeks of OTAs.

“At this point — two, three weeks in, or whatever we are — I know two or three of the base packages we have,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “This time last year, we were like 20 schemes in.”

The Saints struggled from the outset of last season and opposing teams had their way for the most part.

In addition to finishing next to last in total yards allowed, the Saints dropped from fourth to 28th in points allowed and from a respectable ninth to 31st in third-down conversions.

Saints coach Sean Payton said Thursday that the objective is to improve the execution by reducing the variables and the amount that they were doing.

“That’s something we talked a lot about in the offseason,” Payton said when his team closed out a second week of OTAs. “It’s something that we have to do.

“In order to play with speed, improve the fundamentals and all the little things, I think you have to look closely at the amount. If you can reduce the amount, I think you have a good chance at improving the efficiency.”

It certainly is a relief to their defenders, especially cornerback Brandon Browner. He played in simple schemes the last two seasons with the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots and won Super Bowl rings with both.

“It makes it much easier,” Browner said. “It makes you play faster instead of thinking about too many things at one time. Break it down so we can just cut it down and turn it loose.”

Last season’s defensive shortcomings were a factor in the team’s 7-9 finish — Payton’s first losing campaign since his second year as the team’s head coach in 2007. He was suspended for the Saints’ 7-9 season in 2012.

As a result, safety Rafael Bush said the players that are still around came back with “that fire in their eyes.”

The Saints brought in veterans such as Browner and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and used six of their nine draft picks on defenders to try to make a difference.

Ryan said it will. He took full responsibility for last season and returned to work this offseason ready to rectify things with the help of Allen, the team’s secondary coach when it won the Super Bowl in 2009.

“When you finish 31st in the league in defense, I’ve got a lot to clean up,” Ryan said. “I’m happy to have a great coach like Dennis with me. And our other coaches, they’re great coaches, so we took that personally last year.

“It’s been well-documented, it’s my fault. We were slapped in the face pretty good on defense. … It ain’t happening again.”

–The Saints managed to keep one of the cornerstones of their defense when they signed defensive end Cameron Jordan to a five-year contract on Tuesday.

The extension for the 25-year-old Jordan, who made the Pro Bowl in 2013 when he had a career-high 12.5 sacks, could be worth up to $60 million with $33.8 million in guaranteed money.

The reworked deal will keep Jordan, whom the Saints exercised their fifth-year option on last summer as a first-round draft pick (24th overall selection) in 2011, with the team through the 2020 season.

Saints coach Sean Payton said in March that the team was working on getting an extension done with Jordan, whose numbers dropped off a little last season. But the former Cal standout still finished second on the team with 7.5 sacks and was fifth in total tackles with 65.

Jordan has 28 sacks since the start of the 2012 season, the seventh most in the NFC and 13th most in the NFL during that three-year span. He has played in all 64 games since entering the league and has 63 starts.

“New Orleans has become my home and I look forward to continue making an impact both on and off the field for a long time here,” Jordan said. “Now we can put our focus on the most important thing, which is working hard day in and day out toward our ultimate goal of a championship.”

–The Saints are still looking at the possibility of adding another tight end to the roster to help make up for the loss of All-Pro Jimmy Graham, whom they traded to the Seattle Seahawks in March.

Payton and other team officials visited with free-agent tight end Jermaine Gresham, who was a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2010, on Wednesday.

Gresham is recovering from back surgery to repair a herniated disk after last season. He has averaged 54 catches, 544 receiving yards and five touchdowns per season in his first five years in the league and could fit in well with two holdovers at the position — Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill.

“He’s a player we were obviously well aware of coming out of Oklahoma five years ago,” Payton said Thursday in confirming the team visited with Gresham. “He’s recovering from an offseason surgery, and I thought the visit went pretty good.

“It would be about the fit. I think there’s a fit for us if it works out, and he’s a guy that we’ve studied quite a bit now in the last couple of months.”

–For the second week in a row, Payton downplayed the absence of running back Mark Ingram from Thursday’s practice session that closed out the second week of his team’s OTAs.

Payton said last week that Ingram was dealing with foot or ankle issues, but said they weren’t serious. He said they were just being cautious considering they’re not playing any games at this time of the year.

“We just sat him,” Payton said Thursday. “Today, we sat him. It’s nothing significant. This time of the year, we want to be smart and kind of go from there.”

–Out at practice and in uniform, but held out of on-field work, were wide receiver Marques Colston, outside linebacker Junior Galette and rookie cornerback Damian Swann.

Rookie outside linebacker Davis Tull, who had surgery in March to repair a torn labrum, and veteran safety Jamarca Sanford also didn’t practice but worked with a trainer on the side.

Payton said inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who missed most of last season because of a hip injury when he was with the Miami Dolphins, was not at practice. Payton said Ellerbe’s absence was not injury related.

–The Saints had some fun at practice Thursday when coach Sean Payton had offensive and defensive players who normally wouldn’t be returning punts catch balls from punter Thomas Morstead.

The losing side in the light-hearted contest would have to perform five up-downs.

The competition went to triple overtime before the defense prevailed when rookie defensive tackle Kaleb Eulls made his catch and center Max Unger muffed his.

“It tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Payton said. “You see who played baseball and who didn’t. It went into triple overtime, it was like hockey. … A few of those guys were impressive.”


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