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New Orleans Saints program cover story: A.J. Klein

Posted Oct 29, 2017

Patience paying off for linebacker in first season with Saints

A.J. Klein is an outdoorsman and, perhaps particularly, has been an avid fisherman for as long as his memory can stretch.

“My whole life, since I was little,” said Klein, who was born in Appleton, Wis. “For as long as I can remember, growing up, camping, doing our family trips, it’s always been a hobby of mine.

“I grew up right next door to my grandparents – my grandparents have a pond in the back yard and I’d spend all summer fishing out of that thing, trying to catch bass and catfish. My mom even has pictures of me growing up, out there in the rain, day, night. I was always doing something. I was the youngest of four so I had a lot of time by myself, especially when my siblings got a little bit older.”

And while the physical demands of fishing significantly are different than those required to play linebacker in the NFL, there’s a mental element that parallels.

“There’s definitely two different people – the one you get on gameday and when you’re playing football, and then the one that does the fishing,” Klein said. “But I think both football and fishing take patience.

“Football is a constant battle, you’re not going to get things the first time around and you’re going to spend a lot of time, and you have to be patient and put in the time and work in the film room, off the field, just as if you put in the time and the effort into fishing. It’s the same thing, I think. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m a bass pro angler, I’m not. I ‘m just a recreational fisher, but having that patience and just the want-to.”

Patience, and want-to.

Klein was dealt a winning hand in both, which explains why the five-year veteran became a coveted free agent by and a starter for the Saints this season, after spending his first four years with the Carolina Panthers.

True, Klein started games for the Panthers – 23, out of 60 games played, to be exact. He was a valuable contributor to one of the league’s best defenses, able to plug-and-play for Luke Kuechly and/or Thomas Davis, arguably the best linebacker duo in the league for the past half-decade.

“A lot of patience was required because week to week, based on game plans, you’re only getting five snaps, some weeks you’re getting 30 snaps, some weeks you’re getting 15,” Klein said. “Your snap count varies every week and your role, based on who you’re playing, adjusts and changes every week.

“Unfortunately, Luke went down with an injury, Thomas went down with an injury, so I was able to fill in to those roles and play full games at some points in time. But the patience to be able to just sit back and say, ‘I’m going to keep working, keep doing what I’m doing, they notice what I’m doing and I’m sure other people are noticing as well,’ and just to let things happen how they’re supposed to happen.

“My dad always told me to be patient. He said, ‘Your time is coming.’ He was like, ‘You’re putting in your dues, you’re putting in your work and at some point and time, you’ll be able to get your shot.’ ”

Father knew best.

“That shot finally came here and I couldn’t be excited and more grateful for the opportunity,” Klein said.

The Saints, too, are pretty pleased with the decision to sign Klein to a three-year deal. Entering today’s game against Chicago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Klein leads the Saints with 33 tackles and also has tossed in a sack, three passes defensed and a forced fumble.

He tackled the opportunity to lead New Orleans’ defense and so far, it has been a win-win for the player and the team, which is riding a four-game winning streak – it’s first four-game winning streak since 2013 – thanks in large part to a defense that has made a gargantuan stride since the first two games of the season, both losses.

In the last four games, the Saints have allowed 13.5 points and 270.3 yards per game, while forcing 10 turnovers (eight interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and totaling 14 sacks.

“I think it’s great for me,” Klein said. “I spent my four years in Carolina, had opportunities here and there to play, I was a spot starter, played in different positions and was rotated around but whatever they needed me to do, I did.

“To be able to have this opportunity, to be able to come in and sign in the offseason and say, ‘You have the opportunity to win this job, it’s yours to lose’ kind of a thing, obviously, I put my nose to the grindstone and went back to work because nothing is guaranteed in this league, and nothing is guaranteed in life in general. I had to come in and prove myself to the coaches, to my teammates and show them I can be accountable and be able to make plays for this defense.

“To be offered that opportunity was huge for me because I’d been wanting and I’d been craving this opportunity for quite some time now, after being behind Luke and Thomas for all those years in Carolina. But I don’t want to look back on my four years there and say it wasn’t a good experience: It was a great experience.

“For me, I just want to be known as a team player, as a team guy, that’s what matters most to me. And to know that I can go back to my old teammates and they can speak highly of me and I speak highly of them, it shows that there’s a good bond and a good relationship that was built there. I want to try to build that same relationship (that was built) there, here with my new teammates and coaches.”

Having success, and contributing noticeably to that success, helps. And Klein, and the defense, have done their part in the last four games.

After limiting Carolina to 13 points, forcing three turnovers and producing four sacks in a 34-13 victory, the Saints shut out Miami 20-0 in London with the help of a turnover and four sacks. Then, they forced five turnovers, scored three defensive touchdowns, and sacked Detroit’s Matthew Stafford five times in a 52-38 win, and followed up by holding the Packers to 260 yards and three second-half points, while forcing another turnover, in a 26-17 win last Sunday.

“Every defense has to find their identity and who they’re going to be as the season goes along,” Klein said. “The first two weeks we kind of had an idea of who we were going to be, the defense we wanted to be, but when it came down to it, we just didn’t execute. In this league it’s about the fine details.

“As broad of a term as ‘execution’ is – you can say, ‘You’ve got to execute better,’ but what does that actually mean? There’s a lot of little, specific things within the game of football that decide winning or losing the game.

“When it comes down to it, those first two games we just didn’t execute well enough. I think the preparation definitely improved. We are in the position that we want. We see guys putting in the work not only on the field and practicing hard and completing and doing their assignments the right way, but also off the field seeing groups of guys watching film together in the mornings before meetings start, seeing groups of guys after practice, after meetings finish in the afternoon, staying after and watching tape. And our communication has gotten a lot better.

“Those first two weeks were a growing process and now it’s a melting pot. Everybody is starting to meld together and you can see the product on the field is a lot better than what it was.”

Klein’s role is one that the Saints envisioned when courting him.

“He played a lot, and his role initially was a Sam (linebacker) there (in Carolina) in the base,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But if you counted the amount of snaps he got at the Mike when Luke (Kuechly) was down, it was significant. And all the way back to him coming out of Iowa State – I mean, I remember the read, and so it was really knowing the player in our division and then having the vision for him in our defensive scheme.”

So far, the picture has been a favorable one. It required a bit of patience to come to fruition, but for Klein and the Saints, the wait has been worth it.

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