There are two reasons the New England Patriots approach Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints with trepidation. The last time these teams faced off, the Saints exploded for 21 points in the second quarter as New Orleans blew out the Patriots, 38-17, in New Orleans in 2009.
The other is Rob Ryan.
Saints head coach Sean Payton’s return to coaching, after serving a season-long suspension, is the ongoing story for the Saints as they are off to a 5-0 start. As the coach that lead the Saints to a Super Bowl XLIV win in 2009, Payton is credited for New Orleans’ fast start.
But a huge factor in the Saints turnaround is the defense coached by Ryan.
After ranking last or next to last in points allowed, passing yards, rushing yards and total yards allowed, New Orleans is giving up 12.2 points per game (third in the NFL) and 11th in total yards.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is familiar with Ryan as New England faced Ryan-coached defenses three times and is aware of Ryan’s aggressive approach. There was reason for concern before the season started, but it’s amplified after the Cincinnati Bengals’ front seven overwhelmed New England’s offensive line.
New England is 2-1 against Ryan’s defenses, but it hasn’t been easy. Well, once it was easy, but that win should be kept in perspective.
In 2008 the Patriots trampled the Oakland Raiders, 49-26, led by a ground attack that gained 277 yards. This was with quarterback Matt Cassel leading the offense, as Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season opener.
Also, this was the Raiders during a hapless period, as the franchise was in disarray at all levels. Head coach Tom Cable was replaced by Lane Kiffin midseason, scouting was atrocious as Oakland repeatedly whiffed on draft selections, and free agency was botched annually to give Ryan poor talent to coach.
It was nearly impossible for Ryan to be successful in that environment. With other organizations and better talent, Ryan found ways to confound Brady and the offense.
What people remember most about the Cleveland Browns’ 34-14 pummeling of the Pats on November 7, 2010 was running back Peyton Hillis virtually unstoppable as he pounded his way for 184 of the Browns’ 230 yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile Brady and the offense struggled that day, as he completed just 53 percent of his passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The running game barely got anywhere as well, gaining 64 yards on 20 attempts.
Less than a year later at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots needed a Brady touchdown pass with 27 seconds left in the game to help complete a 20-16 comeback. Brady completed 66 percent of his passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns, but he was also picked off twice and sacked three times. Success on the ground improved to 101 yards on 25 attempts.
With the memory of those two games, Belichick knows the offense is facing a difficult challenge. He can’t feel encouraged about handling the Saints' aggressive defense after New England was bullied by the Bengals’ physical front.
New Orleans has stifled passing games with a ravenous pass rush with 15 sacks. Pressure contributed to seven interceptions, and they have forced six fumbles.
That aggressiveness comes at a price, as opponents are successful running the ball, averaging 108.6 yards per game.
It’s up to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to test New Orleans’ run defense. He virtually gave up on the running game in the second half against Cincinnati, running the ball just six times after halftime despite averaging five yards per attempt in the first half.
That would play right into the strength of the Saints defense. Ryan wants his defense to pin its ears back and rush the quarterback. He saw the success Cincinnati had. Ryan hopes to do the same.
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