The New Orleans Saints are 5-0 and the toast of the NFC as the conference’s only remaining unbeaten team. Don’t laugh at this next statement: It’s because of the defense that this team is enjoying such unbridled success.
Sure, the Saints have one of the better quarterbacks to ever play the game in Drew Brees and have a top-five offense that almost seems effortless in its ability to move the ball down the field. Yes, tight end Jimmy Graham has proven to be an unstoppable force. But we’ve come to expect this offensive prowess.
No one knew this top-notch defense was on the horizon. Well, maybe new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan knew, but no one believed he could deliver such a product.
There are no more disbelievers.
After the Saints gave up an NFL worst 7,042 yards last season (the most yardage any defense had given up in the history of the league), New Orleans hired Ryan to usher in a new 3-4 defensive scheme and find ways to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Through five games of the 2013 season, it’s already time to give that man a raise because Ryan has not only transformed this defense into a weapon, he’s loaded it, cocked it and is firing on opposing quarterbacks at will.
The Saints are giving up 110 fewer yards per game on defense, and instead of huddling at the bottom of the league rankings, they are tied for the 11th-best defense in the NFL. The defense also ranks seventh in the league with 15 sacks. Last season, New Orleans only pulled down 30 opposing quarterbacks. Through five games, the Saints are already halfway to last year’s sack total.
How did Ryan revolutionize the New Orleans defense?
Is Ryan’s 3-4 a myth?
The scheme change is only a small portion of the answer. Moving to a 3-4 has allowed New Orleans to slow down opponents’ running games and get more pressure on their quarterbacks. But the accolades this unit have enjoyed aren’t solely because of the scheme change.
In fact, the Saints aren’t even in a true 3-4 that often. The two most frequently used formations by Ryan this season feature five defensive backs, three linebackers and three down linemen.
According to stats provided by the NFL, New Orleans has been in a formation with at least five defensive backs on the field 235 times out of a total of 279 defensive plays (84.3 percent).
Pressure with just 4
The key to Ryan’s success with the Saints on defense this season has been the ability of the front four to get pressure on the quarterback. Because the Saints have been so good at applying pressure with just four guys, it’s given Ryan the ability to use extra defensive backs and even drop linebackers into coverage.
In fact, the two ideas are somewhat symbiotic.
With the extra coverage guys on the field, it’s taking opposing receivers longer to get open, which means the quarterback needs more time to find that open receiver. Because the opposing quarterback is taking longer to find a target, the Saints pass rush is getting to the passer more frequently.
On this play against the Miami Dolphins in Week 4, the Saints put six guys on the line of scrimmage, but only four rushed the quarterback.
While linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Chris Carr released into coverage, Junior Galette blew past Miami left tackle Jonathan Martin and crushed Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins quarterback.
Here’s another play from Week 4 where the Saints only rushed four players.
There are no pre-snap disguises here; New Orleans used four down linemen. Other than a stunt on the left side, it was basic pass-rush 101.
But “basic” is not often used to describe Ryan’s defense, and if that was all New Orleans was doing, the defense wouldn’t be thriving.
There’s always a plan with Ryan
Everything Ryan does with his defensive maneuvers is done with an end result in mind. After using just four down linemen to rush the passer the play prior, Ryan brought a different look to the line of scrimmage in Week 5 against the Chicago Bears.
There are six players on the line of scrimmage and two more in the box. There are two defensive backs (red), three linebackers (blue) and three down linemen (yellow).
Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro, along with Lofton, one of the linebackers in the box, released into coverage. But instead of the Saints rushing just four players, Ryan sent linebacker David Hawthorne in on a blitz. But this isn’t an ordinary blitz.
Linebacker Kevin Reddick, who was on the line of scrimmage but standing up, took a wide path to the quarterback, bringing the left tackle out with him. Galette, who was lined up as a defensive end with his hand in the dirt, cut inside of the left guard and tried to penetrate through the “A” gap. This move pivoted the guard to the right and moved him toward the center.
With the left tackle being drawn out wide and the left guard moving toward the center, Hawthorne had a wide open lane to quarterback Jay Cutler for the sack.
Earlier in the game against the Bears, Ryan took advantage of a Chicago formation where the Bears lined up two receivers in the slot and stacked them. New Orleans, who may have gotten lucky with Galette lined up outside toward that same slot with his hand in the dirt, brought two defensive backs up to the line of scrimmage to defend the two receivers.
Instead of covering the receivers, however, Jenkins and Vaccaro blitzed. With the added pressure to Galette’s attack, the left side of the offensive line broke down, and Cutler had to run for his life. He did not get away.
The offense picked up Galette and Vaccaro, but Jenkins bounded around the edge untouched and laid a lick on Cutler that forced him to fumble the football.
Ryan has a plethora of pre-snap looks, adjustments and formations to utilize with the Saints defense this season. And the unit is young and hungry enough to be aggressive, which fits Ryan’s style beautifully.
Not only has Ryan used his play-calling to dial up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he’s found a way to get more out of the talent that was already on the roster. Of the 11 players who have played the most defensive snaps in 2013, only Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis are new to the team.
That means Ryan is responsible for Galette’s disruptive hybrid role as a linebacker and defensive end. Ryan is responsible for the emergence of Akiem Hicks, who was a defensive tackle last season and has learned to use his size and strength to bull rush offensive linemen from an end position.
Defensive end Cam Jordan had immense upside potential already, so saying Ryan is responsible for his success is a bit irresponsible. But Jordan already has four sacks through five games, while he had eight all last season. Ryan seems to have unlocked Jordan’s turbo mode.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jordan leads all 3-4 defensive ends with 19 quarterback hurries and is tied for the lead with his four sacks. Jordan’s 28 total quarterback pressures are also a league standard among 3-4 ends, one more than the 27 from Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.
Ryan’s aggressive play-calling mixed with intelligent game-planning has resulted in an incredible turnaround for this Saints defense. And each week, as these young players along the defensive line grow and get better, so too will the New Orleans defense.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.