If you need proof that defense wins championships, look no further than Super Bowl XLVIII (48) almost four months ago when the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Denver Broncos, and one of this generation's top quarterbacks in Peyton Manning.
If you want a demonstration of a nearly-complete defensive overhaul, and a look into a unit that’s on its way to joining the Seahawks as an elite defense, look at what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has done with the New Orleans Saints.
It’s not necessary to dig too deep into the annals of history to find a bad Saints defense. Just two seasons ago, in 2012, New Orleans finished the year with one of the most historically miserable defenses ever to step onto a professional field.
The Saints gave up a league-worst 7,042 total yards of offense. Not only was it a league low, New Orleans breezed past the 1981 Baltimore Colts (who allowed 6,793 yards of offense) to become the most porous defense ever. The Saints ranked 31st in pass defense (292.6 yards per game) and last in run defense (147.6 yards per game), as four teams posted more than 500 yards of total offense in a game against them in 2012 and only four failed to reach at least 400 yards of total offense.
The Saints had to do something drastic to fix this defense.
New Coach, New Scheme
The first move was to bring in Ryan and begin the transformation to a 3-4 defensive scheme. Without enough true pass-rushers at the linebacker position, New Orleans wasn’t able to completely move to a 3-4. But the not-so-subtle shift was enough to spark breakout seasons from a number of players, and Ryan’s high-energy philosophy was immediately adopted on the field.
The New Orleans defense ranked fourth in the league last season. Just a year removed from giving up over 7,000 yards to opposing offenses, the Saints gave up just 4,891. Since that horrid defense gave up 440.1 yards per game in 2012, erasing 2,151 yards from the docket was kind of like chopping almost five games from the Saints’ schedule.
But there were still 16 regular-season games played. The Saints just locked everything down on defense. They ranked second against the pass (194.1 yards per game), 19th versus the run (111.6 yards per game) and gave up just 19 points per game, good for fourth in the NFL.
Three defensive standouts shined brighter than the rest, as players who benefited from the arrival of Ryan as defensive coordinator. The transformation from porous to powerful was a team effort, but defensive ends Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan, along with cornerback Keenan Lewis were the catalysts.
Hicks and Jordan were the yin and yang on the outside of the Saints defensive line.
In Hicks’ second season, he became a force against the run. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hicks ranked 13th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run, a huge upgrade considering he floundered around much of the 2012 season attempting to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. And Hicks has much more room for growth.
It was Jordan, however, that had the most monstrous breakout season. In 525 pass-rush snaps, Jordan tallied 12.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 50 hurries. According to Pro Football Focus, only J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, made more of a splash in 2013 as a 3-4 pass-rushing defensive end.
With Hicks and Jordan anchoring the line, and outside linebacker Junior Galette enjoying new-found success as a pass-rusher (Galette more than doubled his sack total from 2012, posting 12 in 2013 after just five the year prior), new cornerback Keenan Lewis was free to shut down the opposition’s passing attack.
Because the Saints were able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks with just four or five players, New Orleans was able to feel completely comfortable using five- and six-defensive back sets. This was a big reason why New Orleans moved from 31st against the pass in 2012, to fourth last season.
Lewis was the lead dog in last year’s New Orleans secondary.
According to Pro Football Focus, Lewis ranked sixth in the NFL among cornerbacks in coverage. He allowed one reception for every 13.8 snaps he was the primary man in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks only enjoyed a 67.4 passer rating when they attempted to throw toward Lewis.
The season prior, in Pittsburgh with the Steelers, Lewis didn’t enjoy that same rate of success. He allowed a reception for every nine snaps he was in coverage, good for a rank of 58th in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Had Hicks, Jordan and Lewis—and to a certain extent, Galette—not stepped up to lead this 2013 Saints defense, progress wouldn’t have been nearly as noticeable.
More Upgrades in 2014
To ensure the Saints did not rest of their laurels, the front office put an offseason plan in motion that should not only make this defensive unit even better but make it one of the best in the business.
New Orleans added a ball hawking safety in Jairus Byrd and a wily veteran cornerback in Champ Bailey to help this secondary. Byrd has pulled down nine interceptions over the last two seasons, and he will help the Saints find ways to create more turnovers in 2014. Bailey will add leadership to a secondary that depends on youth and aggressiveness, but he has the potential to help a Super Bowl-caliber defensive backfield.
Outside linebacker Victor Butler, who was lost for the season in OTAs last year, should be back and fully ready to go in 2014. If his health remains close to 100 percent, he could provide this Saints defense its second true pass-rushing linebacker, a much-needed piece for Ryan’s transition to a 3-4.
This New Orleans defense has grown by leaps and bounds in just over a calendar year. Most people who look at the success of the Saints, and the team’s potential, point toward their high-flying offense, and it’s true, quarterback Drew Brees will have to continue to carve up defenses for the Saints to make a deep playoff run.
But if this team can push all the way to the Super Bowl, this defense will have to be a weapon, too. And all the pieces are in place to do just that.
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.