Saints' difficult coaching changes have paid off so far

Young on Saints' defense: 'Better, more talented' (0:37)

Steve Young compares this year's Saints team to the Super Bowl-winning edition from the 2009 season. (0:37)

METAIRIE, La. -- One year ago today, instead of preparing for the New Orleans Saints' first playoff game since 2014, Sean Payton was officially announcing one of the toughest decisions he has made in 12 years as a head coach -- the firing of longtime assistants Joe Vitt, Greg McMahon and Bill Johnson.

It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that one led directly to the other. The Saints won a Super Bowl with those coaches on staff. But it’s one of the most telling illustrations of how much things have changed around Saints camp in a one-year span.

One year ago, they were coming off their third straight 7-9 season and felt like such major changes were necessary.

“This time of the year, you make changes. It happens with personnel, it happens in the front office, it happens in coaching, it happens with players,” Payton said Friday. “I think it’s always a challenging time of the season, and I think a lot of good football coaches this past Monday were released. And you stay here long enough and some day when I put my finger on that little print that opens the door, it won’t say, ‘Open.’”

From talking with players, it sounds like the major shift from Vitt and Johnson to new linebackers coach Mike Nolan and new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen was an increased emphasis on fundamentals and technique. Especially in the defensive line group, where Nielsen was hired as a first-time NFL assistant after previously working at North Carolina State and other college programs.

“It’s a lot more emphasis on pass-rush technique. And the run technique is more sound,” said defensive tackle Tyeler Davison, who said the Saints didn’t do nearly as many specific pass-rush drills during in the past. “It’s really beneficial. The more you practice something, the better you’re gonna get at it.”

Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins agreed.

“Ryan definitely harps on every aspect of the game, every technical aspect,” he said. “Playing the run, hands, eye discipline, makes guys work out every rush move until you find what works for you -- and it’s paid big dividends.

“We still worked on fundamentals and different things like that (last year). But we definitely didn’t work on pass rush as much. It was kind of one of those things where you just kind of had to teach each other, so to speak.”

On the flip side, it’s not as easy for a young coach with a lot of big ideas to win over an established veteran like Cameron Jordan, who said, “Seven years in, you know some things work already.”

It was funny to hear the high-energy Jordan talking about someone else when he said, “You sort of have to try and reel him in sometimes.”

“I think he came from a military background. I came from a little more, ‘Berkeley free-esque, laid-back background,’” said Jordan, though he said he has picked up a few valuable new ideas from Nielsen, especially when it comes to hand techniques. “You have to be able to mesh. He’s gonna bring 40 things to the table, and if you can add two or three or those to your repertoire, you’re only gonna get better.”

On the opposite extreme is Nolan, a former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers who has been coaching in the NFL for 30 years, many of them as a defensive coordinator.

But players also described Nolan as someone who has focused in on the “nitty gritty” details and fundamentals of the position. And defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said Nolan has brought ideas and concepts into the meeting rooms that help him, as well.

“He’s been around this league for a very long time. I think he’s really smart and does a really good job with those linebackers. He’s a valuable asset to me and to our whole defensive side of the ball, coaches and players,” Allen said. “He brings some new thoughts and ideas and experiences. When we get into the game-planning part of the day, we will talk about the things that we want to do and he will bounce some ideas off of me. If nothing else, it really does a good job of challenging me to really think about the whole process as we’re putting in a game plan.”

The transition to new special teams coordinator Bradford Banta wasn’t quite as smooth. The Saints decided they needed to make another change late in the season when they brought longtime special teams guru Mike Westhoff out of retirement to oversee the units.

But punter Thomas Morstead, for one, has had one of the best years of his stellar nine-year career. Kicker Wil Lutz has been solid in Year 2. And Westhoff has injected some excitement into the return games in recent weeks, culminating with Alvin Kamara's 106-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 17.

Morstead has nothing but great things to say about McMahon, whom he considers “family.” So he said the switch last year was a “big shock and big adjustment.”

“I will say that Coach Westhoff being here has been fantastic, though, and I feel like you can see it,” Morstead said. “I feel like every time we have a kickoff return or punt return, everybody feels like, ‘We’re gonna make a play right now, it’s gonna happen.’ And I think getting everyone to feel that way is more important than the actual play call.”