The move most of New Orleans has been expecting for the better part of a year finally came Monday.
For the fourth time in the Sean Payton era, the Saints defense is headed in a new direction.
Frustrated by a string of shootouts that crippled his team when the Saints should have been starting a playoff run, Payton fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and handed Dennis Allen the unenviable task of fixing the NFL’s worst defense on the fly.
“We made a change,” Payton announced in his weekly appearance on WWL Radio’s Coaches Show. “Dennis Allen will take over. He’ll be handling everything from A to Z, and recognizing it’s a tough challenge for him, coming in mid-stride. He’s been on the defensive staff, he knows the direction that we’ve gone and he recognizes we’ve got to get a few guys back from injury.”
Ryan’s tenure in New Orleans spiraled out of control quickly.
Hailed as a hero after the Saints finished fourth in the NFL in total defense in 2013, Ryan tumbled to the other side of the spectrum in 2014, finishing 31st in the league in a lost season. Fans and media alike were surprised Ryan was given a shot to turn things around this season, albeit with a renovated roster and a streamlined playbook.
Then Ryan’s remade defense fell off the rails at a critical juncture for a Saints team fighting to get back in the playoff race. New Orleans gave up an average of 471 yards and an abysmal 43.3 points over the past three weeks, sabotaging its chances to turn a three-game winning streak into a playoff push.
Moments after a debilitating 47-14 loss to Washington on Sunday, Payton found himself once again answering questions about Ryan’s job security.
“I’m disappointed for Rob it didn’t work out,” Payton said. “He’s a fantastic staff guy; he’s a guy that is respected greatly, not only in the locker room but by his peers, and we just had to, at some point, look closely and begin to at least give this an option, because the direction we were going wasn’t good.”
Payton’s timing Monday left a few hitches from a public perspective. A Fox Sports report indicated Ryan was fired Monday morning, only for Payton to deny it hours later at his news conference, saying he hadn’t spoken to general manager Mickey Loomis yet.
Whatever the machinations, the Saints arrived at a decision that seemed unavoidable.
“It just didn’t time up with when I was meeting with the media,” Payton said. “Typically, any time we’re discussing something like that, Mickey and I would visit. You know, as a head coach, you want to spend a lot of time going through your options.”
Allen, armed with the onset of a bye week to give the players a clean break, still faces a monumental task.
New Orleans ranks last in total yards (424.7) and scoring (31.5 points), 30th against the run, and finds itself on pace to set an NFL record for the highest passer rating (116.6) any team has allowed despite facing a schedule void of most of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Allen also must fix substitution and alignment issues, repair a leaky red-zone defense and find a way to overcome a rash of injuries that have decimated the Saints’ linebackers and cornerbacks.
“The front’s got to play better; we’ve got to be better in the back end,” Payton said. “You know, really looking at it from a coach’s perspective, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to look closely at the things that we do, and what we feel like we do well, and improve in those areas.”
The good news is that Allen already commands respect in the Saints locker room.
Brought in to shore up the secondary, Allen has helped Kenny Vaccaro get back to his 2013 form and presided over the development of cornerbacks Delvin Breaux and Damian Swann.
If there’s a bright spot on the Saints defense, it’s that teams have torched them largely by attacking the defense’s underbelly rather than going over the top.
“It starts, maybe not even in the game, stuff in the film room that we’re just on top of,” safety Jairus Byrd said during the team’s three-game winning streak. “(Allen) is in there doing a heck of a job. His demeanor, his energy, what he brings is awesome. And it meshes well. That balance is what DA brings us.”
Payton has already spent considerable time meeting with Allen to talk about the direction they want the defense to go.
And Allen does have an extra week to smooth the transition.
New Orleans has made the bold change nearly everyone expected. Now, the Saints have to find a way to pull this defense out of the cellar.
“We know what we have to do,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “The next six weeks we have to show our resiliency, resiliency as a defense and as a team to bounce back.”