METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Jonathan Vilma needed one season in New Orleans to resurrect his career.

Coming back from major knee surgery, he played every defensive snap at middle linebacker in 2008, leading the team with 151 tackles to go with two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and a game-sealing interception.

Vilma understands he’ll be challenged to top those numbers in his second season with the Saints, but said he’s trying not to worry about his own statistics.

His play-making ability is no longer in question at this point. What the Saints need him to do now is become the “quarterback” of a defensive unit that struggled last season, even while Vilma thrived individually.

“The personal goals, I try not to really worry about,” Vilma said after a recent practice. “It’s really about the team goals and trying to be a better leader, trying to be a better communicator, trying to make sure that the defense is in the top tier and people start mentioning the Saints defense — and doing things bigger than just myself.”

The Saints’ defense ranked 23rd in yards allowed last season and 26th in points allowed. So head coach Sean Payton went in search of a new defensive coordinator and decided on Gregg Williams, who said the opportunity to work with Vilma was a major part of what drew him to the Saints.

“I wanted to draft him when I was at Buffalo, almost traded for him when we were in Washington and then the next year he was traded here,” recalled Williams, who was the Bills’ head coach from 2001-03 and the defensive coordinator for the Redskins from 2004-2007.

“We need players that are going to rise up and help the other people rise up,” Williams continued. “Jonathan is good enough that he’ll play at a high level, but the way he can help everyone else out with the cues, the little fast-thinking things, the tips, he can raise the people around him.”

Though it’s early, Vilma appears to be thriving in Williams’ new scheme. During the Saints’ preseason opener against Cincinnati last Friday, Vilma recovered a fumble and returned it 47 yards. A couple series later, he nearly ran an interception of Carson Palmer back for a touchdown, though he regretted getting caught from behind and fumbling inside the Cincinnati 5-yard line at the end of the play.

Still, his 112 combined return yards were a good sign.

“We feel like we can be a very good defense,” said Vilma, who makes defensive pre-snap calls from his middle linebacker position. “We have a good defensive coordinator right now that’s trying to build this. … The more I know about the other players and what they’re doing, which I’ll eventually get to, the better I’ll be as a linebacker, so that’s really more of my focus — to understand what everyone is doing around me.”

Vilma said he feels a deep sense of loyalty to the Saints, and not only because they signed him last winter to a five-year, $34 million contract.

A serious knee injury in 2007 had put the former Pro Bowl linebacker’s career in doubt, but the Saints wanted him anyway. The New York Jets were willing to unload Vilma in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

Vilma’s attachment to the franchise grew when he had trouble off the field last winter, and found the organization ready to stick by him.

Vilma briefly ended up in jail in Miami last January, allegedly for resisting arrest during a traffic stop. Police said they’d pulled the NFL linebacker over for reckless driving. Vilma said he was on his way the airport and did nothing wrong.

Ultimately, the charges were dropped, but another strange situation arose in March, when a double slaying occurred in a Long Island apartment Vilma owns.

Police said it appeared two African immigrants were killed in the unit in retaliation for a fake money scam. Vilma had lived in the condominium when he played for the Jets, but had long since moved out and was trying to sell it when the killings took place.

“I was just as confused as anyone else. I didn’t know anything that was going on,” Vilma said. “It was a little disturbing, of course, to hear that and then it was a little frustrating because I didn’t have all the facts. People were asking me what’s going on and I didn’t even know.”

Vilma said he still doesn’t know any details about the investigation because detectives stopped talking to him once they ruled him out as a suspect.

What Vilma does know is that the Saints backed him “the whole way, and I’m very grateful for that.”

“When I have the family of my football team and my real family, there’s nothing more I need in situations like that.”

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