General manager Mickey Loomis said he had a good feeling about the New Orleans Saints' defense after he saw the early changes taking place under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan last summer. But Loomis admitted that he didn’t quite know what to expect after the team suffered so many season-ending injuries as the summer went on.
When asked if he saw that kind of potential in the defense, Loomis said, “That’s kind of complex.”
“Obviously, we felt like we could improve our defense. There weren’t a lot of places to go but up,” Loomis said while visiting with the media this week during practices at the Senior Bowl. “I was excited about the things that we saw in the offseason with Rob and … the change to a different front. I felt like, ‘Hey, this might suit us better.’ What I wasn’t prepared for was the number of injuries that we had on defense.
“What was encouraging was seeing all these young players step up. And by young players, I don’t just mean rookies. I mean (third-year end) Cam Jordan took another step up from a year ago, and we felt like he played real well last year. And for [second-year end] Akiem Hicks to take a step forward …
“I thought [veteran linebackers] David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton both improved. David was hurt a lot last year, so I don’t think we ever saw what he was capable of or what we expected [in 2012]. So for him to have a good season and Curtis had a real good season, that was encouraging and obviously contributed to our success.”
At other points of his conversation, Loomis also mentioned guys like fifth-year cornerback Keenan Lewis and fourth-year linebacker Junior Galette -- two of the Saints’ other breakout performers this year. Obviously there was plenty of praise to go around after such a remarkable turnaround.
Projected starters Will Smith, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman never played a snap for the Saints in 2013. And linebacker Jonathan Vilma played in only one game after beginning the season on short-term injured reserve.
If you include all four of those veterans, the Saints’ projected starting defense lost a total of 77 games due to injuries during the regular season (although it’s hard to believe that replacement starters like Galette, Hawthorne and Hicks wouldn’t have worked their way into the starting lineup, based on how well they all played).
The Saints’ other missed starts came from cornerback Jabari Greer, who missed six games after suffering a season-ending knee injury, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (four games) and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro (two each).
Yet the Saints still wound up with the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL in yards allowed (305.7 per game) -- a stunning turnaround after setting the league record for most yards allowed one season earlier (440.1).
The Saints also went from 31st to fourth in points allowed (from 28.4 to 19.0).