Rob Ryan to the Saints as Defensive Coordinator Could Work, Maybe

Will OsgoodAnalyst IFebruary 6, 2013

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 30:  Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan of the Dallas Cowboys looks on in the third quarter of their game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on December 30, 2012 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Rob Ryan to the New Orleans Saints as defensive coordinator seems like anything but a match made in heaven. His brash confidence, wild hair and simple schemes to be the antithesis of everything Sean Payton has tried to create in New Orleans. 

That said, Payton was seen during Super Bowl week partying it up with Snoop Dog and 'Lil Wayne, to name but a few. Perhaps Payton has gone off the edge and is taking a new approach with a new mentality. 

As first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter late Tuesday night, 



Larry Holder of quickly retorted Schefter's claims just minutes later. 


At this point, it is a he-said, she-said dilemma. All signs point to Ryan, though, being named the Saints’ defensive coordinator by the end of this business week.

Whether you like it or not, Ryan is likely to be the Saints’ next defensive coordinator. It is time to move on with Ryan at the helm. The question is fair, though—is this a good hire by Sean Payton?

One thing is unmistakably obvious—Ryan is the polar opposite of the man whose place he is taking, Steve Spagnuolo.

Spagnuolo was, and is, known in NFL circles as a man of great faith and commitment. His defenses would make a Biochemical Engineering doctoral student blush with their intricacy and complexity.

Rob Ryan is a “see what you get” kind of guy. His hideous sideline garb and Pink Floyd/Motley Crue look are not that far removed from the reality with Ryan.

He is brash, he is bold, he is as much overstated as Spagnuolo was understated. Spagnuolo seemed less intrigued by the limelight than a baby boomer male is of a Justin Bieber concert.

Ryan is all about that. While not quite the equal of his brother Rex—the head coach of the New York Jets—Rob Ryan is intense and loud. In fact, Ryan is pretty much the closest thing the Saints could realistically get to Gregg Williams, without actually re-hiring Williams.

Both defensive schemes are offshoots of Buddy Ryan’s “46 Bear defense.” While Gregg Williams stuck to the four down lineman look, Rex and Rob chose to add their own flavor to the scheme—making it a three-down lineman defense which is nothing, if not simple.

Like in Williams’ scheme, Ryan prefers to play one high safety, while maintaining a safety “in-the-box”. Williams’ and the Ryan’s employ the lone remaining NFL defenses that differentiate between free safety and strong safety (most defenses simply play two safeties with no distinction).

The Saints were begging to get back to basics—to play fast and not have to think much. Ryan’s defense is pretty much a no-think defense. The best quality of Ryan’s defenses is that he looks to highlight his best players and give them every opportunity to succeed.

In that sense, it is a matchup scheme. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were allowed the freedom to use their God-given ability to beat pass-rushers one-on-one. Ryan simply put them in position to do that.

Similarly, Ryan aimed to place his best cover corner on the opponents’ best receiver whenever possible. As such, the unit played a ton of man-to-man coverage. Unlike Williams’ defenses, though, Ryan will not “big blitz” a ton.

In the two games I charted from 2012—games against NFC South rivals Tampa Bay and Carolina—the Cowboys employed two primary looks—a “40 front,” which is two down lineman and two outside linebackers and a “50 front,” with three down lineman and two outside linebackers.

Most often, the ‘Boys would rush four or five and play everyone else in coverage. Linebackers match up with running backs and tight ends. But linebackers and safeties are limited in their coverage responsibilities.

Instead, it is a defense which preaches playing downhill. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne will be asked to be extremely aggressive. They will be allowed to run to the football at all cost.

It is a defense, though, that is ultimately only as good as its’ top playmaker. Currently, the Saints are without that guy. Anthony Spencer from Dallas would be a great add if Mickey Loomis can once again finagle his way through a murky salary cap situation.

Spencer, of course, would know the defense and instantly become the Saints’ best player on defense. With or without Spencer, the Saints will need to find one more outside linebacker—either early in the draft (Barkevious Mingo is the only 3-4 outside linebacker worth drafting in the first round) or hope Stanford’s Chase Thomas falls to them at pick No. 13 in the third round.

It is imperative the Saints have outside linebackers who are strong enough to hold the point of attack against the run, as Ryan asks his edge rushers to hold contain quite often. They must also be rangy enough to chase plays down from behind when teams run the inside zone scheme away from them.

Thomas and Mingo are the two players in this draft who possess those two skills in addition to elite pass-rushing acumen.

Interestingly, this defense may allow Brodrick Bunkley to remain a Saint and actually become a productive New Orleans nose tackle. It is a defense predicated on versatility on the front line. At times Bunkley will be asked to two-gap—essentially take up two blockers. Other times he’ll simply be asked to shoot gaps in the attempt to create a negative play in the backfield.

Of course it is a scheme tailor-made to make Cameron Jordan a star. Don’t expect huge sack numbers—he’ll probably tap out around seven—but look for Jordan to become the preeminent run-stopping defensive end in the league.

Here’s one more key point to consider. Naysayers will cry, “Look at the numbers.” It is true that Ryan’s defenses are mediocre at best statistically. Last season the ‘Boys were 27th in yards per carry against them. The problem wasn’t the scheme, it was the players.

In much the same way that Steve Spagnuolo was wrongfully used as a scapegoat in New Orleans, the same was true in Dallas with Ryan. Most analysts acknowledged that the Cowboys’ safeties were atrocious.

One thing Ryan won’t have to worry about in 2013 with New Orleans is bad safety play. The Saints have essentially two starting units in the back end. How many teams can legitimately say that? Roman Harper is the perfect fit as an “in-the-box” safety in this defense. Malcolm Jenkins can also be used in that role as a way to confuse opposing offenses whenever desired.

Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Jabari Greer will have plenty of opportunities to show whether they can cover man-to-man. In fact, that’s about all they’ll be doing under Ryan. Time will tell if that’s a good thing.

This much is certain, should the Ryan hire go through. Sean Payton is making a bold move, hoping to capture some of the same magic he did when obtaining the services of Gregg Williams in 2009. The circumstances are nearly identical.

He hopes the results are as well.

The truth, though, is that Payton knows he doesn’t need to have the best defense. His only real aim is not to have the worst.