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Saints hoping to upgrade defense

By By Richard Dark/EMG staff writer
September 6, 2003
This is the third story of a three-part series previewing the New Orleans Saints' 2003 football season.
NEW ORLEANS For the past year, one would be hard pressed to walk the streets of the greater New Orleans area and not hear the grumbling from Saints fans.
Phrases such as: "Aw, that sorry defense can't stop anybody," were en vogue.
The comparisons drawn to defensive coordinator Rick Venturi and former coach Jim Mora's offensive coordinator Carl Smith are commonplace. Back then, fans held firm that Mora stood by Smith even though he wasn't qualified to do the job, or able to produce big numbers. The outcry to run Smith out of town became a daily sacrament.
These days the thinking is that Jim Haslett is stubbornly doing the same thing where Venturi is concerned.
Whether or not you subscribe to the school of thought that he may not be the man to lead the defensive units, it's hard to argue that since the beginning of the 2002 season, for whatever reason, Saints' opponents have had little trouble scoring.
It's not lost on either Haslett, a former defensive coordinator under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh, or Venturi. So, heading into training camp the two set out to find out whether or not all their attempts at upgrading a leaky unit paid off.
Is free agent Tebucky Jones as good as advertised? Will the defensive line become dominant? How will rookie Johnathan Sullivan pan out? Will Darrin Smith's play be enough to lead a patchwork linebacking corps?
These are just some of the areas of concern when trying to fix a unit that was 27th in the league a year ago.
So much so that Haslett felt compelled to bring in such names as Tom Coughlin and Cortez Kennedy to help observe camp and consult with both the players and staff.
But a lackluster preseason has done nothing to answer any of those questions, save one. Unlike last season, the Saints are able to stop the run.
Entering the Miami preseason contest, the Saints opponents' yards per carry average hovered around a miniscule 2.9. Now, it's the pass that they are having problems defending against.
With last week's loss of speedy strong safety Mel Mitchel, who was elevated to replace the slower, departed Sammy Knight, the overhaul on defense has six new faces, and both Haslett and Venturi insist that one cannot judge a team based on preseason results alone.
With Haslett playing it so close to the vest during preseason, as far as the playbook is concerned, this entire unit is still pretty much shrouded in mystery.
This much is certain they are big, fast and talented.
Whether or not that translates to stopping the opposing quarterback from putting up big numbers, remains to be seen. They, like most NFL teams, don't run any gimmicks, stunts or blitzes in the preseason.
One player charged heavily with fixing some of those glaring problems is Bruce native Fred Thomas.
Thomas, who played at Northwest Community College before a season at Ole Miss and then Tennessee Martin, has been in a spirited competition with former Mississippi Valley product Ashley Ambrose. But to hear Thomas talk, you'd hardly believe that.
Venturi was instrumental in Ambrose' return to New Orleans this offseason.
Ambrose said the loss of Mitchell is something the entire unit would have to absorb.
Thomas said whichever one starts on any given week; it isn't a big issue because their play complements each other on the right side. Both will assuredly get plenty of playing time, as the backup will more than likely spell the veteran Dale Carter.
Another backup that will see a lot of time is Meridian native Kenny Smith on the defensive line. Smith, who has been in the center of trade talks seemingly since he arrived, will have to step up this season and have nothing less than a solid year.
And for those fans that came out of the dismal exhibition slate with a sense of dread, Thomas has a message.
Ambrose, in his second stint with the Saints, agreed.
If his unit can hold up their end of the bargain, Ambrose may be right.