Adjusting to the speed of the NFL is always an adjustment even coming from a college football powerhouse program. Even more difficult is arriving when a team's defense is in the midst of a philosophical change. In season four Saints strong safety Vonn Bell has overcome both challenges with a breakout 2019 campaign.
With a father who played college football at Virginia Tech and works for a YMCA, athletic opportunities never were lacking for Bell. Starting out playing basketball and tennis and swimming as a youth in Chattanooga, Tenn., Bell credits those sports with helping his lateral and vertical movements as well as endurance, once he picked up football as a middle schooler.
With a second round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Ohio State, the Saints selected Bell with the intention of seeing where he fit best in the secondary. In three seasons at Ohio State, two as a starter, he posted nine interceptions, 176 stops, 24 passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He blossomed as a junior in 2015, when he was an Associated Press first-team All-American, as well as a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist after starting all 13 games he appeared in, recording 65 stops, two interceptions, one brought back for a touchdown, one fumble recovery and 11 passes defensed.
As a rookie, Bell's diverse ability allowed him to appear in all 16 games, playing both safety positions and in the club's three-safety sets, posting 98 tackles, one sack, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. The next two seasons he was a part-time starter and contributor in multi-defensive back packages.
Following the departures of Kenny Vaccaro following the 2017 season and Kurt Coleman in the 2018 campaign, the strong safety position was finally his. Bell has responded by posting 50 tackles, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, one returned for a touchdown.
While Bell did not move into the starting lineup until the second half of the season in 2018, he managed to lead the secondary with 87 stops and Saints Head Coach Sean Payton saw growth in his game, enough to give him the confidence to let him take over the strong safety position full-time in 2019.
"I thought last year was a good season for him and I think Kurt Coleman coming in, there was some experience, obviously some competition, but nonetheless a veteran player (that provided competition) and I think we began to see that in the last year,' Payton said.
Bell also saw that while he came into the NFL with great credentials from Ohio State, more work was necessary to develop into a complete players that gave coaches trust to both play at the line of scrimmage, as well as make an impact in the passing game. Mentors such as Coleman, former Saints strong safety Roman Harper as a rookie in 2016 and Secondary Coach Aaron Glenn, himself a 15-year NFL veteran have filled that role.
"Toward the end of my rookie year, I started getting better game by game, burning the film work up with Harp," Bell said. "Him and A.G. really taught me not only the business aspect, but the football aspect, breaking it down piece by piece, from first and second down to short yardage and red zone. You got back to the second year with OTAs and training camp the game started slowing down. It's like a night and day difference to be stepping into the building now, the whole football process has grown for me so far in what I've become."
Bell has rewarded the trust of the Saints coaching staff as he is part of a starting group with cornerbacks Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore and free safety Marcus Williams that combine for only 14 years of experience. The chemistry and experience of also having played with Apple and Lattimore with the Buckeyes also helps.
"This is still a young group, but they have played a lot of football together," said Glenn. "Each week in that meeting room I challenge them to be at their best and just play one play at a time, whatever the call is live with the call and be the best you can be on that one play. Take each play like its own game. They've bought into that philosophy and the reason I know it is because now they talk about it themselves. As a disciple of Bill Parcells he would challenge me daily and I've taken the same approach with those players. I know Coach Payton does the same thing. Players want to be challenged and players want to be coached. Those guys want to continue to get better and if I wasn't doing my job they wouldn't be getting better."
New Orleans faced a high-powered Houston Texans offense in the season opener and the entire team struggled in a 27-9 loss at the Los Angeles Rams, where QB Drew Brees suffered a thumb injury that would sideline him for the next five contests. However, staying on the West Coast and practicing at the University of Washington served as an experience for both bonding and correction for the team, breeding what has become a six-game winning streak for the 7-1 NFC South leaders. This uptick was also reflected in Bell's production.
In the contest at Seattle on September 22, Bell finished with nine tackles and a pass defense, but his 33-yard fumble recovery and return for a touchdown sparked a true team win in desperate times for New Orleans, as they recorded offensive, defensive and special teams touchdowns for the third time in franchise history.
Hosting a 3-0 Dallas team the following Sunday night on prime time, New Orleans won a physical 12-10 defensive struggle as Bell killed two Cowboys scoring opportunities with two second quarter forced fumbles, allowing New Orleans to go into halftime with a 9-3 lead.
Bell wasn't and isn't done yet. After he surpassed 300 career tackles in a 13-6 win at Jacksonville on October 13, he forced and recovered a fumble in a 36-25 win at Chicago on October 20, giving him four recoveries the most by a Saint since another strong safety with a nose for the ball, Sammy Knight posted in 2001.
"We just talk about attacking the ball all the time, especially on a takeaway circuit on Wednesdays at practice," said Bell, explaining how four yards of hard work is bearing tangible results.
"He's got a nice athletic skillset for the safety position," said Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen. "He has a knack for being able to get his hands on the football. When you get a chance to add some guys from a championship program guys that understand what it takes to win, I think that helps your football team," discussing the package of athleticism, strength, nose for the ball and championship pedigree that has made Bell a perfect fit for the Saints defense in 2019.
As the Saints start the second half of the season today ranked fifth in opponent yards per game and fourth in rushing defense, the possibilities of grouping a traditionally explosive offense and productive special teams with a surging defense are exciting. Defense will reign key in a four-game stretch in November of NFC South opponents for the Black and Gold with some of the most explosive quarterbacks, wide receivers, tight ends and running backs on the horizon. Bell and the Saints secondary are ready for this continuing challenge.
"The evolution of my game, shows the trust factor in our coaches and the evolution of our defensive scheme," said Bell. "It feels great we are all on the same page now and there's all that camaraderie where it's just like family. Everyone on the back end as well as the coaches are on the same page and the sky is the limit for us."