The New Orleans Saints have underwent a complete transformation over the past few seasons. The defense is no longer the laughingstock it once was, and a big part of that has come from the revitalization of the linebacking corps. Mike Nolan completely reshaped them in the past three seasons, with Demario Davis’s addition in 2018 being a huge contribution.
Dennis Allen has also helped this transformation, using different blitzing packages and looks to keep defenses off-balance. Despite some injury issues, the Saints’ team defense has managed to stay intact. With Nolan’s departure to the Cowboys to be a defensive coordinator and the addition of rookie Zack Baun, Allen will have to be more creative than ever to make the linebacker situation work.
For starters, we need to take stock of who the Saints will have at the second level. Demario Davis is a mainstay, while Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso are constant question marks due to their injury history. The Saints do not want to be in a position where Stephone Anthony is re-signed and getting snaps on defense next year.
The departure of A.J. Klein will be a big adjustment for the Saints to cope with. When an ex-Panther went on the market, it was inevitable that he would go to the Bills. So how did the Saints address the departure of Klein, the only consistently healthy starting linebacker on the roster outside of Davis? By adding a safety, of course.
The Saints now have two safeties who they can reliably put into the box to disrupt things for offenses. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins are versatile defensive backs, and Jenkins could be a godsend for Gardner-Johnson in the film room. Marcus Williams doesn’t play as well in the box, but he shouldn’t have to.
So, the Saints’ base package this season might end up being a nickel set, in which Davis and Anzalone/Alonso are joined by Marshon Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins, Williams, Gardner-Johnson and Jenkins. While that layout sacrifices a lot of size, it may be necessary in order to not put too much pressure on Baun too early in his career.
The unfortunate reality of the Saints’ linebacker situation is that it’s thin. Craig Robertson, Kaden Elliss, Joe Bachie and Anthony Chickillo can all slot in for injured players, but the Saints will not want them to play substantial time. Alonso and Anzalone’s injury histories are major concerns. So the best way to work around that is to not use linebackers as frequently, and instead follow the league trend of playing more nickel formats.
The good news is that the Saints have already embraced that trend, and the only difference this year really has to be personnel. Jenkins and Gardner-Johnson will really simply have to slot in for Vonn Bell, as Gardner-Johnson did more and more as last season went on.
This is an example of what the Saints’ base look could end up being next year. Davis at the will, Anzalone/Alonso at the sam and Gardner-Johnson/Jenkins over the tight end, as we see here with Bell.
We may even see a good deal of six-secondary player sets from the Saints, as Gardner-Johnson and Jenkins can both move around the formation. It would definitely be valid to worry about Gardner-Johnson, but make no mistake, he is a tremendous talent.
Gardner-Johnson on this play diagnoses the checkdown to Christian McCaffrey, avoids the rub route over the middle, flies across the entire field and tackles McCaffrey in the open field for a short game. That’s a play that very few secondary players can make, but Gardner-Johnson was doing it as a rookie late last season.
In the running game, Gardner-Johnson’s large frame has also come in handy.
This is a remarkably advanced read for a young safety playing out of position, to a degree. While it obviously isn’t Derek Henry running at you with a full head of steam, Gardner-Johnson catches the run, stops flowing off-tackle with the offensive line, and fills the gap, stopping the run for a short gain.
It’s more of the same here on the outside, as Gardner-Johnson creeps up around the line of scrimmage. A fantastic push from Jordan springs Marlon Mack outside, right into Johnson’s waiting arms.
Gardner-Johnson could answer a lot of glaring questions for the Saints heading into next season. He has learned a number of positions very quickly for the Saints, and his size allows him to be a perfect tweener-type player. If P.J. Williams holds his own in the slot next season, the Saints can use a lot of different looks to confuse offenses.
The key to the equation is, as always, health. The defense was still successful despite injuries last year because Klein and Davis were able to stay healthy. If both Alonso and Anzalone are injured again, then the Saints may have to see Chickillo — who they signed for special teams prowess — get serious reps. After all, Gardner-Johnson is excellent in the box, but he can’t just become a linebacker.
If Jenkins can teach Gardner-Johnson a bit more discipline at the point of attack and if Gardner-Johnson can improve his pure coverage by a few degrees, he could well become an every-down player early this season.
Allen has his work cut out for him this year. There’s a lot of talent on the roster, but a good deal of it is up front or in the secondary. He’s proven to be up to the challenge in the past, but linebacker could be the spot that makes or breaks a late postseason run in what feels like an all-or-nothing season for the Saints.
How do you think the Saints’ defense will fare this year? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @SkiverK9.