August 31, 2009

Coleman's departure reveals a juggled defensive tackle depth chart

DT Rod Coleman, 33, wasn't expected to start, and signing him coming out of retirement this offseason was a hope and a prayer, fueled by a desire to return to form and a relationship with defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

But it would have been so nice to have him.

The Saints are now faced with entering the season with second year Sedrick Ellis and steady but unremarkable veteran Kendrick Clancy as the starters. Behind them are second year DeMario Pressley and third year journeyman Remi Ayodele.

If you're not impressed with the depth behind two good starters, you're not alone. Pressley and Ayodele are short on experience and Ayodele is the only one of the two to have played in the NFL - he has six career solo tackles.

Undrafted rookie DT Earl Heyman is also on the roster, but appears to be a longshot. He's done little in late preseason action except to rough QB Jeff Garcia on the Raider's lone touchdown Saturday.

But one function of missing both your starting defensive ends for the first four games of the season is that you must field quality players in their absence. Quality, versatile players like Paul Spicer and Anthony Hargrove who can play both end and tackle.

Pressley too has seen action at end and may be used there before Charles Grant and Will Smith return from their Starcaps-related suspensions. Grant, upon his return, has years of experience sliding inside.

So while the Saints appear to be thin at true defensive tackles, they have more than enough versatility to field quality players at defensive tackle.

What is still missing will be size inside. Clancy is the only player with legitimate run-stopping technique on the roster. The Saints have no super-sized defensive tackles, having allowed Hollis Thomas to depart. Gone are the days of the heavy lunch bunch, supersized defensive tackles Norman Hand, Grady Jackson and Martin Chase, circa 2002.

The Saints lack of gap-gobbling girth in the middle will likely be felt most by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Middle linebackers across the league plead for size in front of them to stop offensive lineman from breaking into the next level and preventing Vilma from making the play.

Instead, the Saints will be forced to force interior double teams with quickness and penetration between the guard-tackle and center-guard gaps in order to free Vilma and the two outside linebackers to work the field.

Moving defensive ends inside to tackle, even versatile ones like Grant, Spicer and Hargrove, is usually only done in passing situations. None of them line up at over 300 pounds, a general benchmark for bulk on at the position. While safeties Roman Harper and Darren Sharper are good in run support, the Saints cannot afford to have make tackles on running plays: that means the offensive linemen got to the Saints' linebackers.

The very success of the Saints defense this year will be predicated on a thin depth chart and a mix of versatile but limited group of defensive linemen. Starting-quality interior lineman are not found in free agency during the season; an injury or two could really cost Gregg Williams' new defense.

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