The hardest thing to stomach is that it was a series of self-inflicted wounds.
Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett wasn’t necessarily inflicting his will on the Saints on Monday as he ripped off big run after big run. Instead, the Saints were making it easy on him by failing to hit the right gaps during their 34-27 loss to the Ravens.
“Just looking at the film, a handful of times we’re not fitting the gap the right way, maybe even an alignment issue pre-snap,” coach Sean Payton said. “Those things need to be cleaned up.”
The surprising thing is that the Saints believed their run defense was making progress and that the issues plaguing them earlier in the year were in the past. But the group has regressed the past few weeks and is now falling victim to fundamental errors.
And the issues weren’t simply limited to run defense. This team hasn’t had much success against the pass, and Payton said the biggest issues the team has faced have come on third down. Over the past two weeks, New Orleans has allowed the Bengals and Ravens to convert 18-of-26 third downs.
The problems have reached a point that some critics have began to question whether the issues reside with the players or a lack of talent, and whether defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — the man tasked with calling the plays and getting his players to execute — is the one to blame.
When asked that question, some of Ryan’s players almost took offense to the suggestion.
“I don’t think it’s ever on the (defensive) coordinator,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “I feel like each game that we’ve been going into we’ve had a solid plan, and we haven’t executed as players. It’s on us. As a coach, you can only do so much. You can put together a great game plan and put your players in positions to win week in and week out. We haven’t been holding up our part of the deal.”
One of the criticisms often leveled on Ryan is that his defense is too complex and he has too many schemes. This was the reasoning the Dallas Cowboys provided when they let Ryan go two seasons ago after his defense allowed the eighth-most points in the NFL.
Last season, his first in New Orleans, this did not appear to be an issue: The Saints allowed the fourth-fewest points and yards. Those numbers have since plummeted: The Saints rank 27th in yards allowed (377.1) and 25th in points allowed (25.9).
Ryan seemed to admit that some of the issues the team faced early in the season were a result of his complex schemes. But then he simplified things and has stuck with a more stripped-down version of his defense in recent weeks.
His players are adamant that this is not the issue.
“It hasn’t been that way,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I told y’all that 10 games ago when you were like, ‘Has it simplified?’ Yes, it’s simplified.
“At the end of the day, this is our job; it’s our responsibility. This is all we do. It’s not freaking calculus. This is all we do: (It’s) football. Study football. Understand what’s going on. There’s some people that are better at that than others. This is my job. You got to love it. His scheme might be a little more complex, but it’s not too complex.”
Whenever an issue has come up about the defense this season, Ryan has always put the blame on himself. His players are taking the same stance. In some corners, it almost seems as if the players are more upset with letting their coordinator down than with the results.
If the defense isn’t working, it isn’t because Ryan has lost his players or that his message is falling on deaf ears. They’re all prepared to fight this thing together, to try to get it back on track and take Ryan out of detractors’ crosshairs.
“You’ve never heard of a story about (how) he’s lost the players,” Vaccaro said. “If the players go, he’s going with them. He’s riding until the wheels fall off. ... He believes in me more than I believe in myself at times. I think he’s like that with everybody, because I cherish that.”
Despite being widely considered one of the finest defensive minds in the game, Ryan has had difficulty sticking at previous stops. He was fired after one year in Cleveland, and he was let go by the Cowboys after two seasons in which his defense ranked 16th and 24th.
Some have begun pointing to that fall in Dallas as evidence of a trend since the same is happening here. It’s hard to say that here, though. His starting free safety, Jairus Byrd, was lost after a month, and a true No. 2 cornerback has yet to emerge after Champ Bailey failed to stick on the roster.
It’s also hard to blame Ryan for the defensive line, which is not performing up to expectations outside of Junior Galette, whose seven sacks lead the team. Ryan can’t will them into the backfield, no matter how effective his scheme is on paper.
In the end, his players hope their defensive coordinator isn’t held responsible for what they feel are their failures.
So what does Vaccaro hope happens with Ryan in the long-term future?
“I hope he’s here,” he said.