What Makes Rob Ryan's Saints Defense so Dangerous?

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterNovember 20, 2013

Sep 22, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sidelines in the second quarter of their game against the Arizona Cardinals at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

After finishing dead last in the NFL in defense and giving up 7,042 yards of total offense to opponents—a low never before reached by any defense ever in the NFL—the New Orleans Saints hired Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator and charged him with transforming their defense from a historically bad unit into something that wouldn’t cost the team games in 2013.

Ryan’s done a heck of a lot more than that.

Improvement was expected, how could it not be? Excellence has just been a fortunate and welcomed surprise.

The New Orleans defense is now a weapon. Forget improvement just to the level of getting by (which would likely have been enough to turn the Saints into a playoff team with their potent offense), Ryan’s unit confuses, batters and punishes offenses. The proof is in the pudding.

The Saints are 8-2, lead the NFC South by a game and currently hold the NFC’s second-best record. Their current record is a far cry better than last season’s 5-5 record after 10 games. And while the Saints' top-five offense drives the success, New Orleans wouldn’t be the power that it is without Ryan’s defense.

The Saints defense ranks fifth in the league, giving up a stingy 18.3 points per game. It’s fourth overall in yards given up per game (305.4) and the third toughest to pass against, surrendering just 191.4 yards per game through the air.

While those defensive figures through Week 11 are mouth-watering, even more savory is the fact that this New Orleans defense is still improving. Over the last four weeks New Orleans has gone into shutdown mode on defense.

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2013 New Orleans Saints Defense
OpponentTotal Yards AllowedPassing YardsRushing Yards
Atlanta Falcons36727988
Tampa Bay Buccaneers273113160
Arizona Cardinals24716186
Miami Dolphins330216115
Chicago Bears43434094
New England Patriots376235141
Buffalo Bills29921188
New York Jets338140198
Dallas Cowboys19310489
San Francisco 49ers19611581
Pro Football Reference

Since their Week 7 bye, the Saints have played four games to the tune of a 3-1 record, a loss to the New York Jets being the only blemish. In three of those games (the Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers) New Orleans held opponents to under 300 total yards on offense and twice (Dallas and San Francisco) kept them under 200 yards.

There have only been 10 occurrences this season where a team has held its opponent to under 200 yards of total offense and New Orleans is one of two teams that has done it twice.

Over the last four weeks combined New Orleans has allowed just 570 yards passing and in the last three weeks no opponent has eclipsed the 200-yard mark through the air. The Jets, Cowboys and 49ers passed for 140, 104 and 115 yards, respectively, in Weeks 9, 10 and 11 for an NFL-best average of 119.7 passing yards allowed over the last three weeks.

Thirty times this season NFL quarterbacks have thrown for 360 yards or more in a game. The New Orleans defense hasn’t given up that many passing yards over the last three games combined.

New Orleans has almost been as good against the run over the last month. Three times (the Bills, Cowboys and 49ers) the Saints have held opponents under 100 yards rushing and Buffalo and San Francisco brought top-10 rushing offenses into the game.

Take away the Week 9 debacle where former Saint Chris Ivory blasted through the Saints defense for 139 yards on the ground, and what New Orleans did versus the run of late would truly have been mind-boggling.

What makes this Saints defense so good and why are things getting better, seemingly by the minute?

The easy answer is Ryan’s personnel is growing accustomed to his system; 10 games worth of experience will do that for you. But don’t think the Saints defense is getting too used to Ryan’s mad scientist ways—he’s constantly changing things up, including the scheme that’s supposed to be a 3-4 but isn’t.

Ryan was supposed to transition the Saints from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme with three defensive linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs. But apparently numbers are meaningless to Ryan, at least when it comes to formations.

Of Ryan’s 10 most-used formations, only two are traditional 3-4 schemes. Among his top 10 formations are a 3-3 with five defensive backs, a 2-4 with five defensive backs, a 2-3 with six defensive backs and a 3-2 with six defensive backs. And the personnel is mixed and matched throughout.

There’s no reason to believe that a defensive lineman won’t drop back off the line of scrimmage or even into coverage. The same holds true for linebackers. Ryan could just as easily line one of his linebackers up in the middle of the defense or on the line of scrimmage, on either the end or as a defensive tackle.

Saints: Most-used Defensive Formations
FormationNo. of PlaysDefensive Front
3-3-570Hicks, Jordan, Jenkins, Lofton, Hawthorne & Galette
3-4-435Hicks, Jordan, Jenkins, Lofton, Hawthorne, Galette & Haralson
3-2-626Jordan, Foster, Walker, Lofton & Galette
2-4-518Hicks, Jordan, Lofton, Humber, Hawthorne & Galette
3-2-617Jordan, Johnson, Foster, Lofton & Galette
2-4-515Jordan, Foster, Lofton, Humber, Hawthorne & Galette
3-4-414Hicks, Jordan, Bunkley, Lofton, Hawthorne, Galette & Haralson
3-2-613Jordan, Johnson, Foster, Lofton & Galette
2-3-613Dawson, Jordan, Lofton, Haralson & Galette
NFL Game Stats & Information Systems

Starting locations of each member of the defense are meaningless in Ryan’s defense as well.

A trademark of Ryan’s defense is a ton of pre-snap movement. This is done to confuse the opposing quarterback. If the quarterback can’t tell which player is rushing him, it’s harder to direct blocking assignments. Even if a quarterback does know who’s coming, pre-snap movement alters a defenders' pass-rush lane and causes confusion on the offensive line or with blockers in the backfield.

On this third-down play the Saints start with just one down lineman and six guys standing around moving. Eventually another defender gets into a three-point stance.

Courtesy of NFL.com

Before the ball is snapped, seven Saints defenders are at the line of scrimmage with five standing up. Colin Kaepernick had no clue who was coming and who wasn't. Only three rushed the passer. The other four dropped into coverage, two in man coverage and two in space in the middle of the field.

Courtesy of NFL.com

That’s what makes Ryan’s defense so tricky. And he’s constantly evolving.

According to ESPN.com reporter Mike Triplett, Ryan unfurled a new scheme last week to help slow down the 49ers run game.

The Saints started the game in a package that included three linemen, five linebackers and just three defensive backs. It was a new package they implemented for the first time this past week as a way to combat the 49ers’ unique style of “scheme runs,” as well as the possibility that San Francisco might run some read-option (which the 49ers didn’t feature much).

Here was Ryan's 3-5-3 against the 49ers. There are five down linemen, but the two outside guys are linebackers Parys Haralson and Junior Galette (in blue as are the rest of linebackers).

Courtesy NFL.com

Haralson and Galette were there to rush the passer if Kaepernick dropped back, stop the run if Frank Gore got the ball or contain the outside if the read-option was employed.

Once Ryan has orchestrated where his unit will set up pre-snap, he still has a few tricks up his sleeve to play post-snap. The biggest of which is who’s going to provide pressure on the quarterback and how.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan and linebacker Junior Galette lead the team in attacking the quarterback. Jordan, who ranks second in the league among 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), has 47 total quarterback pressures (sacks, hits and hurries combined) while Galette has 34 total pressures and ranks eighth in the league among 3-4 outside linebackers.

But Jordan and Galette aren’t the only Saints wreaking havoc.

Sixteen different players have notched 20 or more plays rushing the passer on passing downs, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), including two defensive backs (Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro), seven linebackers and seven defensive linemen. The Saints have 18 defensive players that have affected an opposing quarterback with either a sack, hit or hurry.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 06: Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears is hit after passing by Junior Galette #93 of the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field on October 6, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Every quarterback in the league has to worry about pressure from the defense, but Ryan brings it with intensity and regularity. Because he does such a good job of disguising his pass-rush options until the very last minute, quarterbacks take a fraction of a second longer to throw the football. That leads to the quarterback being in duress more often or the timing being off on passing routes, leading to frequent incomplete passes.

The pre-snap movement and disguising of pass-rush lanes sure does help versus the passing game, but these tactics also can help defend against the run. If the defense is constantly moving before the snap, it could make it difficult for the offensive line to properly key on the middle linebacker, therefore rendering blocking assignments less effective or even missed.

If the second level of the defense is going to move around and fill in lanes for the running back after the snap, it forces the running back to make reads a step later than normal, which could slow his ability to break off a long run.

All Ryan’s defensive madness is planned and created to disorient the offense, even if for just a split second. In doing so the defense has extra time to make a play on the football. But the defense has to be smart enough to make the adjustments Ryan’s play-calling demands.

And that’s why not only is the New Orleans defense dominating opponents this season, but it’s getting better of late. The players are becoming more comfortable with the intricacies of the master plan. The front seven, or front four or five or whatever Ryan’s dialed up on that particular play, have grown more accustomed to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks without extra blitzers.

Because the guys up front don’t need extra blitzers on every play, it allows Ryan to stick five and six defensive backs on the field to help in coverage. Ryan can also stick extra defensive backs on the field and ask them to blitz, or dive into the box to fill a run lane.

That’s the beauty of Ryan’s defense.

No one outside of Ryan and the 11 guys dutifully fulfilling his orders know what’s going to happen. And there’s so much chaos (at least for the offense) the confusion is keeping opposing offenses from gaining serious yardage, which keeps points off the board and losses out of the Saints record book.

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.