When the New Orleans Saints hired Rob Ryan to be their new defensive coordinator after Steve Spagnuolo led a 2012 New Orleans defense that set an NFL record for yards allowed, the general consensus was that hey -- at least things couldn't get any worse. Ryan, after all, had been dismissed by Jerry Jones as Dallas' defensive coordinator after drawing things up for a unit that ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics. Throughout his history as a schemer for the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns, and Cowboys, Ryan had tried to balance as many line combinations and coverage concepts as any defensive coordinator in the league -- including twin brother Rex. In Dallas, Ryan's tendency to alternate between all-in blitzes and major coverage clusters apparently did more to confuse his charges than anything else -- or, at least, that's what Jones said when Ryan was canned in January -- there were too many schemes on the field, and the 'Boys needed to "skinny it down."
Undeterred, Ryan took his big-ass playbook to the Crescent City and opened things up in a different way.
Through five games, the Saints are undefeated and quite possibly the NFC's best team. And that's as much to do with their defense as it is the always-combustible offense led by Drew Brees and Sean Payton. New Orleans ranks fourth in points allowed, and 11th in yards allowed. Ryan has made a star out of end Cameron Jordan, advanced the profiles of previously unheralded players such as pass-rusher Junior Galette, and has put rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro in about as many spots as you can without drawing penalty flags. The primary issue with Ryan's blitzes before seemed to be that he left his defensive backs on islands they weren't prepared to inhabit -- but he's doing some very cool and different things now when he brings the house.
The Chicago Bears got a good look at this last Sunday at Soldier Field, and they didn't like it. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns, but Chicago could get nothing going with its running game, and the Saints took the game, 26-18. Cutler was sacked three times, and the first two sacks revealed some interesting tendencies regarding Ryan's ability to show similar blitz looks and do totally different things after the snap.
“I think they were problematic," Bears head coach March Trestman said of Ryan's pressures. "We hadn’t really seen them. I thought Rob did a good job. We had answers for them early, we just didn’t get it communicated it to the guys. Once we did, I think you see we efficiently moved the football up and down the field. Our guys did a good job of making that transition. I don’t know if all of them were the same ones. I think two of them were the same, one was a little different. So they got us early. But I was pleased we were able to make the adjustments. I would have liked to make them sooner."
The Saints played what was essentially a 3-3-5 base defense -- they played so much nickel that third-year safety Rafael Bush was listed as "NB" -- a starting nickel back. You don't see that too often. Ryan moves his linebackers in and around the front to make it look like a 4-2-5, but you'll see a lot of weird stuff when you study this defense.
The first blitz-to-sack came with 7:38 left in the first quarter. The Bears had first-and-10 at their own 20-yard line, and had lineman Eben Britton (62) in as a sixth blocker upfront. Ryan responded by putting both his starting safeties -- Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins -- in a blitz look at the line just outside left tackle Jermon Bushrod, Bush patrolled the deep middle. Jenkins was head-up on receiver Earl Bennett, who was in a stack formation to the left in front of Brandon Marshall. He wasn't covering Bennett or Marshall, though -- at the snap, both Vaccaro and Jenkins took off straight for Cutler's blind side. Bennett and Marshall were covered in their routes because linebacker Curtis Lofton veered over to the seam to help cornerback Jabari Greer on that side. Meanwhile, linebacker Ramon Humber peeled off from his position outside Britton and right tackle Jordan Mills to help cornerback Keenan Lewis cover Alshon Jeffery on the offensive right side. Running back Matt Forte ran a quick route right up the middle and wasn't available to help with the pressure. The first screencap shows New Orleans' coverage, and the second shows that Jenkins had a free release to Cutler.
Jankins had that free release because Bushrod extended out to deal with Vaccaro, while left guard Matt Slauson and center Roberto Garza blocked Galette, who stunted inside Bushrod's gap. Jenkins forced a fumble that was recovered by Cam Jordan, who had been taking a double team from Mills and Britton. The Bears thought they had the protection dialed up -- they even had extra protection -- but Ryan exploited a weakness on the blind side, and his coverages insured that Cutler couldn't break off to an easy read.
The second sack came on the next Bears drive, with 3:59 left in the first quarter. Chicago had second-and-10 at its own 34-yard line, and this time, Ryan put Vacarro and Jenkins on the other side of the formation with the same kind of blitz look. The Bears responded with five receivers -- a stack to the left with Forte and Bennett, and trips right. This time, Vaccaro and Jenkins were stacked over trips, and they didn't blitz at the snap -- they took off into coverage.
This time, the play worked because Humber rushed outside to take Bushrod out of the play, while Galette looped inside Slauson, taking Slauson to his right. This left a huge gap for linebacker David Hawthorne, who blitzed from the weak side and came through completely unblocked for the sack. Nose tackle John Jenkins -- all 359 pounds of him -- had Garza and right guard Kyle Long occupied, while Mills blocked Jordan after he was chipped by tight end Martellus Bennett.
“It’s not really an inability to communicate, it’s just seeing a front we hadn’t worked on," Trestman said. "As a young line, as a new line, just being able to make the conversion into delineating who the line blocks and who the backs block in that particular play. We got it cleaned up and did well throughout the rest of the game. I thought the guys kept Jay very clean during the course of the game.”
Well, not quite. Ryan sent Vaccaro and Jenkins from the defensive right side early in the second quarter, and this time, Vaccaro came through clean for the sack. That led to a Chicago third-and-17 in which Ryan backed five of his defenders about 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, had a safety behind them, and had one down lineman at the snap. One 12-yard pass to Forte later, the Bears were punting.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will be the next guy to deal with Ryan's blitzes when the Saints travel to Gillette Stadium this Sunday.
"I’d say last year they were a really heavy blitz and zone team and they gave up a lot of big plays," Belichick said of the Saints on Tuesday. "I would say this year under Rob, they haven’t given up very many big plays. I’d say one of the characteristics of their defense is that they play a lot of multiple defensive packages that vary from week to week, similar to what Rex does, or has done at New York, at times. They might play nickel, but one week it’s one version of nickel and another week, it’s another version of nickel. They’ll play dime and they’ll play seven DBs but the players don’t necessarily all play in the same spots, they’ll move them around by game plan and by matchups and by the type of plays or calls that they want to run.
"Last week was probably a good example, where they came out in kind of a new-look, nickel look against the Bears and sacked [Cutler] in the first couple series. They got a strip-sack and a turnover on a couple, it looked like, protection errors that the Bears had on a couple of their blitzes ... they really kept Chicago from getting into much of rhythm in the game for the better part of the first half, just because of the way it started.
"You have to be ready for something different. The way they deploy can change quite a bit from a game-to-game matchup basis. They played a lot of 3-4 defense early in the preseason, and that’s certainly their base, similar to what he did in Dallas, but the actual number of snaps that they’ve played during the regular season this year has been a far lower percentage."
Belichick last faced a Rob Ryan defense on Oct. 16, 2011, when the Pats beat the Cowboys. 20-16. Ryan did what he always does when he faces New England -- he brought as many different fronts as possible, and delayed the position of his potential pass-rushers until the last possible second. This gave Tom Brady pause in processing his reads, and Brady was sacked twice and intercepted once in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, however, Brady performed a checkmate by going no-huddle on every possible offensive play. This forced the Cowboys to stay in their base defense to avoid mismatches against the run, and New England scored 10 points on 20 plays.
"You just can’t count on [Ryan] to blitz every play, because that’s not going to happen," Belichick concluded. "But there are times when they’ll three-man rush, there are times when they’ll send the house and things inbetween. They’re not just the type of defense that’s going to sit in one or two things and do that all day unless on that particular play it really happens to be working well and you’re having a hard time with it." Forcing Rob Ryan to adjust? That's the idea, but with the personnel he has in New Orleans, that seems to be a more difficult task than ever. We'll see if the Patriots can do what other offenses have not this season.