The New Orleans Saints ranked last in the NFL in 2012 run defense, giving up 5.2 yards per attempt and a whopping 2,361 yards on the ground. Against the pass the defense didn’t fare much better, finishing the season ranked No. 31 in passing yards given up and getting to the quarterback just 30 times.
It was the Saints' ineptitude on defense that got first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo fired and was the catalyst for head coach Sean Payton to announce that New Orleans was moving to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
The Saints hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator and will lean on him to usher in this new-look defense.
Two of the bigger benefits of moving to a 3-4 scheme are that it’s typically more difficult to run against because the linebackers are spread out wider across the field and team can utilize a wide range of pass-rush looks to confuse opposing quarterbacks and get more pressure on the passer.
Since New Orleans was terrible against the run and rushing the passer, it’s easy to see why Payton wanted to make this schematic change.
But what will it look like?
Ryan’s 3-4 defense isn’t necessarily the cookie-cutter 3-4 that most teams unwrap and roll onto the field. Ryan’s is far more motion-based than most, a technique use to unhinge blocking schemes and get multiple rushers into the quarterback’s face.
In Ryan’s 3-4 defense, the only piece that isn’t mobile or able to move around in a pre-snap flurry is the defensive tackle. Expect to see defensive ends and every linebacker move around in an attempt to make sure offensive linemen can’t key in on a personnel assignment.
Here’s an example from Week 9 last season when Ryan’s Dallas Cowboys were facing the New York Giants. Anthony Spencer was lined up to the left of nose tackle Jay Ratliff, as was linebacker Bruce Carter. DeMarcus Ware was lined up at middle linebacker, but he would soon move.
Jason Hatcher was lined to the right but would soon be joined by two more.
Ware moved, pre-snap, to the left side in between Carter and Ratliff. Strong safety Danny McCray and cornerback Orlando Scandrick moved onto the line on the right side.
Scandrick would move back out into slot coverage and McCray would fall back into coverage too. Spencer would peel off the line from the left side and attempt to attack through the middle.
When Spencer didn’t make it through the offensive line he stopped and looked for a coverage assignment or a possible scramble from Eli Manning. But the Giants offensive line gave Manning plenty of time to get a throw away.
This is one of many examples of Ryan’s unique pre-snap methods.
In addition to the hectic pre-snap movement, Ryan’s 3-4 scheme doesn’t always stay a 3-4.
Against early-down offenses that aren’t using three of more wide receivers, Ryan will stay in his base 3-4 look. But once an offense gets into a passing situation or lines up more than three wideouts, Ryan will throw out multiple looks.
Ryan’s nickel formation has two distinct setups: A 2-4-5 formation and his “psycho” formation that’s a 1-5-5 and typically features three outside rushers and two inside linebackers.
In these passing sets Ryan’s secondary plays man coverage underneath and has two safeties over the top. Then the five linebackers move around to find ways to present the most matchup problems.
While there isn’t a true 3-4 nose tackle on the current Saints roster (Brodrick Bunkley will fill the position until the Saints can find a huge anchor on the middle), New Orleans does have a slew of options that can be transformed to work well with Ryan’s looks.
Linebacker David Hawthorne and strong safety Roman Harper are both good pass-rushers. Since Ryan’s 3-4 likes to utilize every available pass-rushing option, expect Harper and any other personnel from the secondary to take their shots at rushing the quarterback at times.
Junior Galette, Martez Wilson and Victor Butler are all ‘tweeners who will play at outside linebacker in the new 3-4. Ryan is going to find ways to utilize their speed and hybrid skills to line them up on the outside to rush off the edge or possibly move them inside to work next a defensive end.
The versatility of the ‘tweeners is important to Ryan because it gives him many more options on how to use them, both pre- and post-snap.
Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks are going to be asked to shoulder a lot of the burden of drawing double teams on the edge. Both are going to have the option of setting up on the outside to set that edge on running downs and they’ll be able to show off pass-rush capabilities when teams pass out of those run formations.
Jordan and Hicks will also be asked to move inside at times and play tackle in nickel situations. Once again versatility is big in a Ryan-led 3-4.
The ability to mix and match personnel and use them for different assignments, and in different locations, is theoretically what should make Ryan’s 3-4 defense so tough to handle. But at the end of the day if the Saints don’t execute in the new scheme 2013 won’t be much different than 2012.
And that could be devastating to the Saints.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.