Rob Ryan, Defense Could Define Saints' Season vs. Seahawks

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Rob Ryan, Defense Could Define Saints' Season vs. Seahawks
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The old cliché “live and learn” will be completely flipped on its ear if the New Orleans Saints didn’t learn from their Week 13 debacle in Seattle. If the team didn’t learn, it won’t live.

The Saints know exactly what not to do Saturday when they travel to take on the Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs. Losing 34-7 definitely gave the coaching staff a long laundry list of items to fix.

New Orleans needs to score more points and run the ball better, Drew Brees must perform better, the defense must contain Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, the defense must, once again, stop running back Marshawn Lynch, and Rob Ryan's unit has to play better against the pass. That’s just the beginning of the to-do list.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan met with the media Thursday and said his Week 13 defense didn’t play like it had all season and was nowhere near the level he expects.

I think pretty much everything.  We did not play our style of game at all.  I think that’s really the only game that I just don’t think we were ourselves at all.  Whatever it was we just made mental mistakes.  We made fundamental mistakes, some technique things and we pride ourselves on playing the game the right way.  I don’t think we really did that and I think obviously the execution of their quarterback was something to be seen.  Hopefully he doesn’t have that type of game against us again or we are in big trouble.

Ryan made massive strides this season transforming the New Orleans defense from a laughing stock into a very formidable presence. The 7,042 yards the Saints defense gave up in 2012 before Ryan’s arrival was the most by any defense in NFL history. This year Ryan’s defense was 2,151 yards better and ranked fifth in the league.

The New Orleans defense also ranked fourth in points scored per game by opponents (19) and second in passing yards allowed per game (194.1). Last year the Saints floundered and gave up 28.4 points and 292.6 yards passing per game (both ranked at 31st in the NFL).

Take nothing away from what Ryan did with this defense, his results were truly magical. But what happens on Saturday in Seattle is going to define how Ryan is perceived moving forward.

Ryan had never been coordinator for a team in the playoffs prior to last week’s win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Right now he’s 1-0. A loss to Seattle wouldn’t just push him back to .500, but it might call into question why none of the three teams that employed Ryan prior to New Orleans (the Oakland Raiders from 2004-08, Cleveland Browns from 2009-10 and the Dallas Cowboys from 2011-12) ever made it into postseason play.

Is that fair? Hell no. Will it really happen? Without a doubt.

Ryan is well-known as a 3-4 guru, and general consensus was that he was a decent choice to usher in the switch from 4-3 to 3-4 that New Orleans underwent in the offseason. But he never had seen the kind of success that he's experienced this season.

In his nine years as a defensive coordinator, Ryan never coached a team with a winning record. He did have one defense in 2006 with the Raiders that ranked third in the league in yards allowed, but typically his defenses ranked in the bottom third of the NFL.

Rob Ryan as Defensive Coordinator
Year Team W-L Yards Allowed (NFL Rank) Points Allowed (NFL Rank)
2004 Oakland Raiders 5-11 30th 31st
2005 Oakland Raiders 4-12 27th 25th
2006 Oakland Raiders 2-14 3rd 18th
2007 Oakland Raiders 4-12 22nd 26th
2008 Oakland Raiders 5-11 27th 24th
2009 Cleveland Browns 5-11 31st 21st
2010 Cleveland Browns 5-11 22nd 13th
2011 Dallas Cowboys 8-8 14th 16th
2012 Dallas Cowboys 8-8 19th 24th

ESPN

If Ryan’s defense goes to Seattle Saturday and lays an egg like it did earlier this season, questions are going to be asked. The biggest: Was the progress on defense this season due to Ryan or the natural progression of a young unit learning how to play?

Is Ryan’s job safe? Yes, without a doubt. Is he the reason the Saints defense improved? For the most part, yeah. But he’ll still face criticism unless his defense shows up in the divisional round.

What’s the recipe for success on defense against the Seahawks?

“I think we have to get pressure on him (Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson)," Ryan said on a conference call with the media posted on the Saints’ official website.  "We have to attack the pocket and we have to do a better job of keeping him contained."

The Saints sacked Wilson just once on Dec. 2, and according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only hit the Seattle quarterback three times and hurried him nine times. Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the team in rushing with 47 yards, a huge reason why Ryan said his defense must contain Wilson on Saturday.

We went through some three man rush and he definitely exploited that and then when we came on all out pressure he made the throws and we didn’t quite execute the coverage.  It made for an awfully long evening out there and we are looking to do better than that and we will.

It would be amazing if Ryan didn’t take a look at the game film from Seattle's game on Dec. 22 against the Arizona Cardinals.

The Cardinals beat the Seahawks in Seattle—the only team to pull off that feat—and sacked Wilson four times. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Arizona defense also hit Wilson four times and hurried him 11 times, all while allowing him just 108 yards through the air and 32 on the ground.

The Saints must slow Wilson down, both running and throwing the football, and find a happy medium between rushing just three players and all-out blitzing the second-year passer. But Wilson isn’t the only problem lying ahead for New Orleans.

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New Orleans focused on stopping Lynch from running the football in Week 13. He only averaged 2.8 yards per carry and gained 45 yards in the first meeting between the teams. Mission accomplished for the Saints. Now New Orleans must find a way to do that again while paying more attention to Wilson.

Nothing is going to come easy for Ryan Saturday, and he’s going to have to find ways to creatively use his trademark aggression in pass-rush situations while not over-pursuing Wilson or allowing too many open passing lanes. That’s no simple task.

But neither was overhauling a broken Saints defense in the offseason, a task Ryan took to heart and performed admirably. He’s been a mastermind all season and an overwhelmingly positive influence on the New Orleans defense.

Results are tied to success, however, and Ryan’s unit needs a good showing against the Seahawks to not only give New Orleans a shot at winning but to define just how great a job Ryan has done this season.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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