Jon Vilma the heart and soul of Saints defense

While the NFL lockout cost every team in the league time on the practice field, the New Orleans Saints players may have done the best job of coaching themselves through the down time.

Close to 50 Saints players gathered in New Orleans for weeks of player-organized workouts. Quarterback Drew Brees received most of the attention for getting the team together, but another Saints captain was instrumental in the offseason outings.

While Brees put the offense through its paces, middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma did the same for the Saints defenders.

As the player responsible for calling all the signals when the defense is on the field, Vilma pretended to be Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams. Rumor even has it that Vilma and Brees wagered a few dollars each day on which of their units would play better.

"I think it helped us a lot when the lockout ended, especially the new guys because it gave us a base to work from," Vilma said. "It didn't surprise me that we got the kind of turnout we did because I know the kind of guys we have in our locker room."

Vilma, a first-round draft choice of the New York Jets in 2004, made an immediate impact in his rookie season.

Vilma lead the league in tackles with 187, earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and Associated Press

Vilma was a mainstay of the Jets defense until injuring his knee midway through the 2007 season. Vilma was then traded to the Saints, in a move that many believed was of the best the team has ever made.

Returning to health, Vilma gave the Saints the force in the middle they were lacking.

In his first season with New Orleans, he led or shared the team lead in tackles in 10 games and recorded double-digit tackle totals in eight games. Vilma's 151 stops (100 solo), were the most tackles for a Saint since Winfred Tubbs had 160 in 1997. He had two fumble recoveries and added three forced fumbles, an interception, a sack and eight pass defenses.

The Saints rewarded Vilma with a long-term extension after the season.

In eight seasons in the NFL, the only year Vilma failed to make at least 100 tackles was 2007, when he had the injury.

"Jonathan is a true impact player on defense and one of our leaders," said coach Sean Payton. "He is consistent, he never comes off the field, and we rely on him to make plays. He proved to be everything we expected when we made the trade for him."

The 2008 season proved to be a warm-up for both Vilma and the Saints.

With Vilma in the middle, the Saints defense led the NFL in turnovers in 2009, which helped contribute to the team's Super Bowl title run.

After falling short of repeating as Super Bowl champions last season, Vilma said the team is determined to do whatever is necessary to get back on top.

It has started with the truncated training camp, which has moved to Oxnard this week.

Since arriving on Sunday, Vilma said the Saints have been in lockdown mode. He said most days begin around 8 a.m. and don't end until around 10:30 p.m.

"It's a business trip," Vilma said. "We have a bunch of guys on this team who are all committed to one goal and that's winning the Super Bowl again.

"We have plenty of guys here who are a year removed from that moment and we are chomping at the bit to get back to it. It's really easy to relate to these guys because we're all on the same page."

Like many teams, the Saints offense gets most of the headlines, while Vilma and the defense take a back seat.

While that might bother some players, the veteran linebacker has no problem with Brees and the offense being in the spotlight.

"We love that," Vilma says. "It sells tickets and makes fans happy. For us (the defense), we are focused on playing sound defense and getting the ball back for the offense. We have always been cool with that and we've won a lot of games that way."

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