After three games of the 2012 season, the New Orleans Saints were 0-3 and had given up 102 points to opposing offenses. Steve Spagnuolo’s defense wasn’t working, and the team was reeling from suspensions to a few of its players as well as its head coach, Sean Payton.
The 2013 season has been nothing like the year prior.
The Saints hired Rob Ryan to usher in their new 3-4 defensive scheme this season, but he’s done more than just alter the look of this defense. Ryan has changed the look, the feel, the speed, the attitude, and he has brought more success, much quicker than anyone could have imagined.
Not only are the Saints 3-0, but no team has reached the 20-point plateau against them this season. The Atlanta Falcons mustered 17 points in Week 1 on Ryan’s defense, then the Saints held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to 14 points in Week 2 and the Arizona Cardinals to seven points a week later.
What a difference a year makes. Through three games last year, the team gave up 102 points; through three games this year, the team has given up only 38.
The 12.7 points the Saints are giving up per game is good for the fifth-best mark in the NFL. Only five teams, on average, have given up less than 300 yards per game, and only three have allowed fewer than the Saints’ average of 295.7. The Saints rank fourth in the league, having allowed just 48 first downs, and they are one of six teams with a positive turnover differential (they rank fifth at plus-2).
Last year, the New Orleans defense was the worst in NFL history.
Again, what a difference a year makes.
If the Saints want to continue to live at the top of the defensive rankings, Ryan is going to have to make adjustments—not because anything Ryan and the Saints are doing is wrong, but because the NFL is a game-film league. Sooner or later, opposing offensive coordinators are going to find ways to poke holes in the New Orleans defensive game plan.
Keep Changing Things Up
Even though the Saints have moved to a 3-4 defense, that look isn’t the only one that gets shown. New Orleans still uses a lot of 4-3 looks, and quite frequently, the look that an opposing quarterback sees as he arrives under center isn’t the same look he sees when the ball is snapped.
Here’s a play in the first quarter of the Arizona game where the Saints have reverted back to a 4-3 look:
On the very next play, however, Ryan switches the defense into a 3-4 and brings the two outside linebackers up to the line of scrimmage as stand-up pass-rushers.
Moving from the 4-3 to a 3-4 isn’t the only method of giving the opposing offense different looks, though. The Saints can also move players off the line and into coverage, or vice versa. They can also move players around on the line to alter pass-rush lanes, and they can make all of these adjustments pre-snap.
As teams see more film, and as the NFC South teams roll back around to play New Orleans again, Ryan is going to have to not only do more of these different looks through in-game adjustments, but he’s going to have to come up with new ways to position players to give the opposing team different looks.
Keyon Jeff of The Houma Courier credited the Saints’ ability to get pressure on Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer in Week 3 with only four pass-rushers:
Most of the credit goes to the youthful and talented defensive line, featuring Cameron Jordan and Akiem Nicks, along with linebacker Junior Galette. Their ability of generate pressure without blitzing helped the secondary limit All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald to five catches for 64 yards.
As the secondary gets more acclimated to Ryan’s defense, Ryan is going to have to start asking them to play defense on an island.
As offensive lines learn to see how the Saints front-four is attacking with only four players, those units will adjust to try and slow that pass rush down. Eventually, Ryan is going to have to ask the linebacker corps to blitz more regularly, and possibly even the safeties, too. When that happens, the secondary is going to have continue making plays without the help of extra men in coverage.
Continue to Develop the Youth
Bradley Handwerger of WWL TV told a story of the young players along the Saints defensive front seven—defensive end Cameron Jordan in particular—who felt the unit's youthful exuberance and lack of experience wasn't a hindrance but was actually a good thing:
Jordan is the elder statesman in his third year. Akiem Hicks was a third-round pick in 2012. John Jenkins went in the same round this past April. Tyrunn Walker and Glenn Foster both were undrafted.
Add to that group Junior Galette, an undrafted hybrid end/linebacker in his fourth year, and what could have been a weakness for a unit in transition has turned into its greatest asset. And none of that brings in veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, out with a calf injury, and journeyman end Tom Johnson, out with a hamstring issue.
The veterans on the defensive side of the football—Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins specifically—are in awe of what the young defensive front has accomplished.
“We don’t really have any stars if you talk about big name guys," said Jenkins. "We just have a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence, not only in themselves but in each other, and we’re growing and growing.”
And as these young guys up front continue to grow, they should become even more effective. Jordan has three sacks, while Galette is next on the team with two. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the duo has accounted for 21 quarterback hurries this season, 74 percent of the entire team's tally in that regard.
As the other youngsters among this group grow, Ryan must find ways to spread the pass-rush assignments around. And when someone not named Jordan or Galette has his name called, they must get to the quarterback. If not, teams will find a way to shut down the two top play-makers on the Saints revamped defensive unit.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.