New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was reinstated by the National Football League from his season-long suspension earlier this week and is wasting very little time addressing a defense that allowed 7,042 yards of total offense in 2012, setting a new NFL single-season record.
On Wednesday, Payton suggested that the upcoming meetings with his staff would be "painful". On Thursday, Payton's third day back on the job, the Saints announced that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and secondary coach Ken Flajole had been relieved of their duties and that the team would be moving from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense in 2013.
"I personally want to thank Steve and Ken for their contributions during what was an unprecedented 2012 season," Payton said in a statement released by the team. “Philosophically we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment and right now is the best time to accomplish this transition."
Spagnuolo joined the Saints after spending the previous three seasons as head coach of the St. Louis Rams, who lured former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams away last offseason. (Williams remains in an indefinite suspension for his role in the Saints' illegal bounty program) Flajole had coached under Spagnuolo with the Rams and also joined the Saints in 2012.
In setting the single-season record for yards allowed, the Saints allowed 440.1 yards per game and ranked dead last against run (147.6 yards per game) and were 31st against the pass, allowing 292.6 passing yards per game and a league-worst 7.78 yards per pass play. The Saints allowed 28.4 points per game, which ranked 31st.
The Saints have a few young players in the front seven who could make a fairly easy transition to a 3-4 defense. At 6-foot-4 and 287 pounds, 2011 first-round pick Cameron Jordan played in a 3-4 at Cal and could be an excellent option at the "5" technique. 2012 third-round pick Akiem Hicks is 6-foot-5 and 318 pounds and could man the other end position. Veteran defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley had 43 tackles and played nose tackle in 43.21 percent of the Denver Broncos' defensive snaps during the 2011 season and could be short-term option at the nose in 2012 if the team cannot re-sign Sedrick Ellis, a 2008 first-round pick who will be an unrestricted free agent in March.
The move to a 3-4 defense could benefit Martez Wilson, a 2011 third-round pick out of Illinois who played in just 15 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps the last two seasons (333 of 2,198), but had 11.5 sacks in his final season in college. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Wilson moved to defensive end in 2012.
Former Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, now a free agent, told Nakia Hogan of NOLA.com that the move wasn't a shock.
"I can't say that I am surprised by the move after the way that last season went with the bad records that were broken," Shanle said. "It's hard to sit still as a team and think we can go another year and improve only a little bit. The switch to a 3-4 defense is really, really good. I really felt like last year would have been really nice to mix it up with Martez Wilson and Junior Galette as possible outside linebackers. They are really skilled edgerushers. And Cam Jordan is very good and he could be [3-4] defensive end, They have so many guys that fit into that mold."