NFC South playoff scenarios: Saints still control their destiny, but it’s getting dicier after Panthers’ win _lowres

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, left, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan watch from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

The decision to fire Rob Ryan wasn’t an easy one.

Not for Sean Payton, and not for the players who had built relationships with Ryan.

But given the depths the defense had fallen to -- New Orleans ranks dead last in the NFL in scoring, total defense, rushing yards per carry and passer rating -- the Saints understood that something big was coming. No matter how much the locker room liked Ryan, the Saints needed something to change.

“I just felt in my gut that we needed something different,” Payton said. “I hate to see that he wasn’t successful, but man, there were a ton of consistent things that were happening that weren’t getting better and I think a lot of them culminated in the Washington game.”

A frustrating three-game stretch -- the Saints gave up 43.3 points per game to Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota and Kirk Cousins in the three weeks leading up to the bye --left little doubt that big moves might be on the way.

Even though some players broke for the bye week before Ryan’s firing, the Saints had a sense change was coming.

“At that point, you’re pretty much ready for whatever,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “We knew something had to happen. Obviously, Coach Payton made that clear, that what was being put out there was something that needed change. Unfortunately, it was him. You don’t like to see that, but at the end of the day, it’s the nature of the business.”

For a lot of the Saints, the abrupt shift from Ryan to Allen is a difficult move to process.

Due to a wholesale turnover on the defensive side of the ball, nearly all of the Saints defenders, from veterans down to rookies, have only played under Ryan’s direction in New Orleans, and few have ever gone through a defensive coordinator transition in mid-season before.

A player like Kenny Vaccaro was identified by Ryan as a potential fit for the Saints in the draft process, groomed in the defense and unleashed. Vaccaro, along with many of the other Saints defenders, had a close friendship with Ryan, and the feeling walking back into the locker room after the bye week was a little surreal.

“It was definitely a weird feeling today when we were going through our defense,” Vaccaro said. “He was one of the reasons why I came here. He’s a friend, and a good coach. It’s a sad day.”

Ryan’s firing also drove home the Saints’ struggles on the defensive side of the ball.

From players to coaches alike, the Saints’ defense agrees that Ryan took the fall for the entire unit’s problems.

“I wouldn’t say at all he’s deserving of the blame,” Byrd said. “From my perspective, I know that we can do a lot better job as players on the field to make plays and do different things to do a better job. ... We could have done a better job for Rob.”

Now, the Saints turn their attention to pulling their defense out of the hole it’s been digging.

“I hate it for Rob, he’s such a good guy. It’s just the situation that it is,” defensive line coach Bill Johnson said. “But I think it’s our job to pull up our bootstrings, and let’s go get this thing in a better situation.”

Allen, who helped design the Saints’ third-down packages and ran the secondary, is well-respected in the locker room, and even though Ryan’s firing is jarring, the former Raiders coach holds the same type of respect in the locker room.

“It’s not like we’re meeting a new face,” Vaccaro said. “He was my position coach before that, so it’s not a hard transition.”

The New Orleans defense is set on moving forward.

Six games remain. This Saints defense still has time to show that all the changes New Orleans made in the offseason can pay off.

“All of us -- players, coaches, everybody – we all have our autograph on where we are at right now as a football team, and specifically as a defense. We have gotten to work to try to change that image and that picture,” Allen said. “Hopefully, it’ll show on Sunday.”