NEW ORLEANS -- Traditionally, football season has been a time of famine in New Orleans before the big Mardi Gras feast the second week of February. But not this year. The Saints have marched to an 8-1 record thanks to an all-consuming defense that has partied every Sunday over the bodies of fallen opponents and buried enemy quarterbacks.
At the heart of that defense are four linebackers -- Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson on the outside and Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson on the inside -- who believe they have stepped over Buffalo's linebackers to overthrow the New York Giants gang of four as the dominant linebacking crew in the NFL. The Giants and the Bills have broken down repeatedly on defense this season; the Saints have held opponents to an NFL-low 97 points and totaled a league-leading 34 sacks and 19 interceptions.
The climb to the top by the Saints linebackers was a six-year process. It dates from the time Mills and Johnson came over from the defunct USFL and Swilling came out of Georgia Tech as a third-round draft choice to complement Jackson, who is in his 11th season.
"This is the best we've ever played by far," Jackson said as he prepared for today's game against San Francisco, whose five-year run as NFC West champion is close to being ended by the Saints. "We've stepped above the Giants. Their nucleus can't compare to ours. Lawrence Taylor is great and Carl Banks plays the run great, but we're the ultimate right now."
Swilling leads the NFL with 11 1/2 sacks and is having the sort of season that earned defensive player of the year honors for Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith last year. He said "amen" to Jackson's proclamation.
"We always thought we were good," Swilling said. "We hear comparisons to the Giants and Buffalo, but I honestly think they need to be compared to the New Orleans linebackers. I'll take my group to anybody's house in New York and put our four against their four. We're the measuring stick right now."
Jackson has been to the Pro Bowl four times (the last in 1986), and Mills, Johnson and Swilling have two Pro Bowl appearances each. The Giants' Taylor has 10 Pro Bowls to his credit. Banks and Pepper Johnson also have made it but not Gary Reasons.
The Bills have three Pro Bowl linebackers in Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Shane Conlan and a children's-book author in Ray Bentley. No one is as strong as the Saints both inside -- where they have allowed an NFL-low 62.4 yards rushing -- and outside, where Jackson has eight sacks in a keen competition with Swilling.
"For power and speed, I'll take me and Taylor," Jackson said. "[Kansas City's] Derrick Thomas is the only one who compares to Swilling as far as speed off the corner. He has defensive-back quickness for seven to 10 yards, and that's saying a lot. Some days I get a clear shot at the quarterback, and Pat still beats me there."
Saints defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell admits he has used the Giants as a model for his own defense. "We've done a lot of studying of the Giants over the years," Sidwell said. "They've been the very best at playing the 3-4, and we play similar to them."
The major difference is that both Swilling, the weakside linebacker, and Jackson, who plays the strong side over the tight end, are expected to rush the passer. On occasions, they flip-flop because both are strong run defenders. On the Giants, Banks is restricted to more of a run-stopping role, while Taylor free-lances.
At the moment, the Saints also are the most complete defensive team in the NFL. The secondary has been outstanding. Cornerback Vince Buck is one of several players tied for the league lead with five interceptions, and Toi Cook has three. Safeties Gene Atkins and Brett Maxie also have been solid. The defensive line isn't spectacular, but it has depth. After a year out of football to fight a drug problem, Frank Warren has come back to provide inside pass-rush pressure with five sacks from both end and tackle.
But it's the Saints' linebackers who turn out big plays with the regularity of an assembly line. Sidwell offered the following scouting reports on his quintessential quartet:
Swilling: Best pass rusher; outstanding run player; average in coverage. "A lot of his rushes come at critical times."
Jackson: Strongest Saints linebacker; complete player. "He's extremely smart and a real team leader."
Johnson: Best in pass coverage; tough in short-yardage situations. "He can really run to the football and knows where to attack."
Mills: The 32-year-old, 5-foot-9 linebacker from Montclair (N.J.) State is treasured by coach Jim Mora and Sidwell, who said, "He's the smartest football player I've ever been around. He's our defensive signal-caller, and he has all the physical attributes except height. He's 5-9, but he has size 14 feet. They just left out the tall gene."