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Payton Talks Play-Calling Duties, Lions Defense

Posted Dec 1, 2011

New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton
Media Availability
Thursday, December 01, 2011

Watch Payton's Presser

Opening Statement:
“Today’s injury list: DE Turk McBride (left ankle) did not practice, LB Jonathan Vilma (left knee) was limited, CB Jabari Greer (right knee) was full, and DT Tom Johnson (left elbow) as full.  Most of the work today was in our nickel and third down.”

Is it easier when you have just one wide receiver like Calvin Johnson on a team to focus on defending him and shutting him down?
“Certainly the challenges always shift to run and pass as to how you’re going to support the run and if you’re going to play with safety help over the top of a receiver, then there’s an area there that you’re giving up.  I think more importantly than anything you have to have that mix.  There may be times when you won’t have safety help over the top, then you have to understand clearly what you have to do underneath if you’re the corner defending him.  The challenge when you watch him on tape is the earned receptions where the coverage is good and he has the stature to go up and make a play above his head.  He runs extremely well.  With that combination of size and strong hands, those are the challenges.  When you’re in the right spot and he’s able to elevate and make a play.”

Does it help that their running game may be a little weaker than it was a couple of weeks ago?
“I think when you’re offensively looking at what teams are trying to do to take away a player like Calvin, you want to have that balance.  Typically you get into seven or seven and a half man fronts instead of eight man fronts when you’re playing with safety help over the top of the receiver.  Again, it just gets back to the mix and I think more importantly than anything else is doing your best to prevent the big plays, the ones that change momentum in games and the ones you see that he’s made in big spots for them.  It’s easier said than done, but certainly it’s a point of emphasis when you’re defending a player like him.”

What is it that the Lions do so well to have one of the best pass defenses in the league?
“I think there’s a direct correlation in their pass defense as it pertains to their ability to rush the passer.  They’re a team that does a very good job within the four-man rush of hurrying and  pressuring quarterbacks, so when that clock is shorter for the QB, I think it benefits everyone in coverage.  I think they’re a great example of that.  They’re playing very well on the back end, and yet they’re able to really speed up that clock.  I think that becomes more challenging.  I think they’re by far the number one team in third down defense.  They’re holding opponents to a really low number in regards to conversions.  I think it starts with the rush.”

Has it been impressive that they’ve come such a long way as a defense from ’09 when the Saints last played them?
“It has been.  It’s a credit to what they’ve done with their draft picks and what they’ve done with their free agent signings.  They’ve done it in a relatively quick manner and turned the program around. We’re a little familiar with that and understand the challenges and how difficult that is to do.  Certainly you see a new attitude and a team that is playing for something at this point in the season and it’s a credit to those people involved.  There’s a lot that goes into that.”

Do you think it’s a big point of emphasis for the Lions to do well in this game, especially on Sunday Night Football to show how far they’ve come?
“Early in the week in our PowerPoint presentation really outlining the team we’re playing is the very first or second screen up on the board was just the drastic improvement in all areas, not just one specific area.  They’re playing better defense and they’re playing better on offense and in the kicking game.  I think our players when they put the tape on are smart enough to see the challenges they present.  They’re the first team in the history of the league that’s come back on three different occasions down by 17 points.  It’s never happened before in a season.  It’s a team that has a lot of confidence in playing not only with a lead, but a lot of confidence in getting back into games.  We try to highlight those things and make a point of emphasis on those areas.  Each morning, we kind of hit the emphasis of the day that really correlates to what we’re practicing that day.  Today’s points of emphasis were all on third down.  It’s pretty impressive when you look at their third down numbers, especially defensively when you look at what they’re holding opponents to.  When you’re holding opponents to that low of a percentage, after week two or three you might just say we haven’t gotten that much statistical information in; but ten weeks in, that’s pretty impressive.”

Do you think Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s natural position is middle linebacker, or do you think he’s a very versatile player that can play all the linebacker positions?
“I would say he’s probably more at home or more comfortable playing at the Mike, and yet he’s a very smart player.  The two positions that we’ve seen him at through the years have been Sam and then Mike.  He’ll play in our package with four linebackers.  That versatility is valuable to a team for the very example we’ve seen now with Jon Vilma being injured and him being able to come in and communicate and call the plays defensively and handle the formations, handle some of the audibles that Jon would handle.  It’s not something we take for granted.  We talk about players that have earned their way in and have fought their way in and he’d be a great example of that.”

Do you have to be a really bright guy to do what he’s doing?
“Yes, I think so.  To be the Mike and to handle the play calls that come in and to get the defense set up and do it in a very quick manner and do it against the no-huddle looks and do it against the two minute looks, I think so.  I think it’s a tough position to play when we’re talking about Mike. I think instincts are key at that position and intelligence certainly plays a big part of that.”

Do you think you could throw him in there at weak side linebacker?
“We certainly could, although we’d certainly pass a couple of players that we would put in there first.  I think it’s Mike or Sam for him.  Certainly he could play the Will, but there would be two other players with Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas and a guy like Ramon Humber that I think his niche would certainly be the other two positions.”

How much do you point out to your team when teams like the Texans or the Lions come in and are playing barometer games in which they compare themselves to your team?
“With respect to where they’re at, I think they’re kind of past that point where they feel like they need to make statements in regards to where their program is at.  They’ve played very good football teams and have had success against Dallas and they play Green Bay in their own division.  I think it’s a little bit simpler than that in that it’s late in the season and we’re playing for an opportunity to get into the post-season, and I think that’s the same thing that this club is doing.”

What is Jonathan Vilma’s status in his recovery?
“This is a big week for him in that I think he’s turned the corner.  He’s limited.  Just the work he’s getting, we’re encouraged with where he’s at.”

With the reports you have right now on him, do you think you should get him as close to one hundred percent before he comes back?
“That’s what we’re hopeful for.  His progress has been on pace I would say.  Last week we felt would be not a stretch, but we were somewhat guarded with where he’s be at headed into the game against New York.  I think he’s felt better this week in regards to his movement skills and he’s looked better with the reps he’s taken.  Tomorrow will be another important day for him with another full practice and really the last of the full practices.”

How much does not having him in there alter what you do?
“I think it can.  Hopefully we’re versatile enough and we have enough depth, and back to Jo-Lonn, with his ability to step in and have a pretty clear grasp of what the Mike is doing.  I guess it would be different if your alternative wasn’t as different or wasn’t someone that picked it up as quickly as Jo-Lonn.  We’ve tried to have each game a handful of packages that certainly feature not just the Mike linebacker position, but a handful of packages that involve different players at linebacker.  It helps to have someone with some experience like Jo-Lonn that can come in and not prohibit you from certain looks that you’d like to be in based on that opponent.”

Did it take Jonathan Vilma’s injury for you guys to focus on playing in a 3-4 defense more?
“No, I don’t think so.  I think if you went back and studied our 3-4 snaps, the idea that you have an injury at linebacker and now you’re going to put four on the field, I don’t think it had anything to do with Jon’s injury.  I think it’s been something that Gregg (Williams) and our staff defensively have incorporated going back into ’09 with our snaps.  There have been a lot of snaps in games where it’s a package that we like and because we have a guy like Jo-Lonn where we’re able to keep it in, you might say with an injury to a linebacker you might move away from putting four on the field.  But I think we’re deep enough there where we feel confident when we get into that package that we can still play it and not lose that effectiveness that maybe we would’ve had when Jon was healthy.”

Do you think it helps since the other team has to prepare for it a lot more?
“It’s another aspect that there are only an ‘x’ number of snaps that you can work under in the work week, so it’s a part of it that the opponent would work on.  They’re going to call a dozen plays versus that front coverage.”

With Darren Sproles in your lineup now and with the Wildcat, would you think about running out of that formation with him?
“I’m certain that Darren could run that, and yet we still get back to having a hard time getting away from the ball leaving the center’s hands and not going to Drew (Brees’).  I think he could run it.”

Have you thought about returning to play-calling duties?
“It’s been kind of a work in progress.  Pete (Carmichael Jr.) has done a great job and progressively there will be times during the game where either I’m trying to help him or saying, ‘Hey, let’s get to this.’  Logistically, being back on the sidelines has been certainly a plus for me and getting back down.  When it comes to calling every play, the trick now is that Pete’s wearing the headset communicator, and with two crutches and the hand that goes to the headset and one holding up the call sheet, I have an assistant that works with me now and can hand me that sheet.  Right now, I don’t know that we’re midway through the rehab process, but we’re making a lot of progress and sooner than later, probably by Christmas I’ll be without the crutches.  I think that transition has gone pretty smooth, but right now I think the approach still with Pete is he goes in and he’s prepared to call the offense and the most important thing is that I’m not slowing down the process.  There were times last week where I called a handful of plays just situationally.  It’s a little bit easier as the game’s flowing for me to look down and interject when something comes up that I think is important.  He’s done a great job.  He understands exactly what we’re doing in the week and what the points of emphasis are.  As the plan gets put into place and it’s a process each day, I think there’s really been no change as to how we want to attack our opponents.  Certainly when someone else is calling plays, there will be some tendencies and there will be some changes ro things that are just uniquely different.  That’s something that gradually will work it’s way back to where it’s something that I’m comfortable with and it’s something that I like to do.  Most importantly, it’s the team right now and what’s best for our team.  As the head coach, I try to step away from it and evaluate me being down on the field and then trying to make sure we don’t lose anything from an efficiency standpoint as I’m working with the crutches and that kind of thing.  It’s gone well.  I think each week it’s been a little different, and yet I think Pete has done a good job with it.  He’s done an outstanding job.”

When we watched the feed from Monday Night Football when you were all in the same room, it seemed like you were all on the same page.
“The thing that’s interesting for the fan who may not be as aware of how the process works is all of these different categories of third-and-two to three, or red zone 15 to 10, or red zone five to goal line, or short yardage third and ones, theses are small categories on the call sheet that are boxed in down to four or five specific plays.  Then the days leading up to the game, our players will know on Saturday night what the first goal line call is going to be.  They’ll know what the first short yardage is going to be.  They’ll know what the feature third-and-two to tree calls are going to be.  By the time you get to the game, certainly you have to make those calls but there’s a lot of information that’s been processed where you almost know what the question on the test is going to be.  There is that instinct to not get away from those categories, but which of the four plays in the second quarter.  We’ve begun to look at halftime into scripting five or six plays to start the second half.  For ten weeks, we were starting the second half with the football so we began to script five or six plays to start the second half.  I think the bigger part of the game plan is really the work that’s done Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Those are critical plans that take place during the evenings and then practices the following day.  I think that’s the key to the success and everyone kind of being on the same page.”

Would you like to be back by Christmas doing the play-calling?
“I’d like to be back by Christmas just without the crutches.  I think that process will handle itself.  We just try to take it each week at a time.  Atlanta was a week ahead of schedule and I came down and I thought it was important for us as a team.  Logistically just trying to place yourself in a safe spot on the sidelines is another challenge and it’s probably easier when the ball’s in between the 30’sbecause you can kind of get behind the ball.  The more challenging spot is when the ball is at one end of the field or the other and you’re in a position where the play can potentially come to your bench area.  It’s kind of a work in progress.”

Would you become comfortable if Pete were calling the plays the rest of the way?
“Absolutely.  He’s someone that not only myself, but all of us have confidence in doing that.  I think realistically it’s something that I’ll be back involved with more and more each week.  I’ve said this before, we’re in our sixth year and he’s been here all six years.  He’s very smart.  He’s extremely dedicated and a hard working guy that will be here late at night.  By the time the game begins, not only with Pete but the offensive coaches and myself all kind of understand how we want to play a game and how we want to attack an opponent and what our thoughts are that week.  That’s all worked out well.”

Do you have any say in whether you get flexed to a night game especially coming off of a Monday Night Football game?
“No, we don’t.  I think it basically gave us a few more hours between being on the field from the last game.  I think moving from Sunday to Sunday night especially when it’s a home game is not a big transition.  I think certainly the players and all of us get excited to play in a spot like that where it’s a national TV game.  No, that’s something that’s done with the networks and the league.”

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