For as long as quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton are together, the Saints will be known for their turbocharged offense, while their defense's task will remain the same: Just be good enough.
That's more difficult than it sounds. Last season, despite the Bountygate fallout—which included Payton's yearlong suspension—New Orleans still ranked second in yardage and third in scoring. The only offenses that could keep pace with them were, unfortunately, whichever ones they faced. The Saints' D surrendered an average of 28.4 points, second most in the league, and allowed a modern-era-record 440.1 yards per game.
Wanting to install a versatile 3--4 defense, Payton and GM Mickey Loomis fired 4--3 coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and hired Rob Ryan. Rex's twin has been embraced as a savior in the Crescent City, where his unit yielded just 305.7 yards and 19.0 points per game (both fourth fewest in the NFL). Ryan was only available because he'd been canned by the Cowboys for employing a scheme that was too voluminous and complex—ironic because Spagnuolo's Saints system had similar deficiencies. His zone-based, pressure-oriented D was a poor fit for a group that was young, thin and simply not talented.
So why has Ryan's challenging scheme worked where Spagnuolo's didn't? For one, it's because the coordinators take different approaches to complexity. Ryan asks defenders to do a variety of things from play to play; Spagnuolo asked them to do a variety of things within the same play. Saints who were reading and reacting last season are simply attacking this season, as the bulk of Ryan's wrinkles occur before, not after, the snap.
January 13, 2014
It also helped Ryan to have a few more weapons. The biggest was first-round rookie Kenny Vaccaro out of Texas, who could play deep centerfield, strong safety, slot corner or linebacker. Vaccaro broke his right ankle in Week 16, but the hope is that Rafael Bush (above) can step up.
Along with Vaccaro (and now Bush), Ryan has kept incumbent safeties Malcolm Jenkins (a strong cover guy) and Roman Harper (a sturdy box defender and blitzer) in the rotation, creating more speed with a "big nickel" (three-safety) base defense. Augmenting the collective speed are inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Both veterans are fierce attackers.
Having interior back-level defenders who can cover extra ground affords Ryan more disguise options. That's critical in a system aimed at speeding up opposing QBs. Ryan does not blitz as much as people think, but he does enough to make teams worry about pressure. Combine that with a fast defense and the result is sloppy offensive mistakes, which Ryan prizes.
While disguises can rattle an offense, so can firm man coverage behind a potent rush. The addition of free-agent corner Keenan Lewis (whose status is unknown following a head injury) and the emergence of third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan have enabled Ryan to apply this pressure. Defenders have executed even these basic concepts with the same alacrity and aggression they show in disguised blitz packages.
The Saints' defense benefits tremendously from an offense that can overcome bad field position and mistakes. But their offense now has a shot at the Super Bowl because the defense can not only make stops but also contribute big plays of its own.
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