Three weeks ago, the Saints wrapped up their final minicamp workout and scattered into summer break, cautiously optimistic about the offseason changes made to their overhauled defense.
But there were no big, sweeping predictions, and there likely will be none three weeks from now when New Orleans opens training camp in West Virginia.
Big expectations last summer spiraled into a 31st-place finish in total defense a year ago, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan spent the summer fighting the urge to predict any kind of wild turnaround in his third year in New Orleans.
“The thing is, we did a lot of talking last year and got our butts kicked,” Ryan said. “So I know we’ll be great, but we’ll just prove it this year.”
The New Orleans front office spent plenty of time this offseason trying to put more tools at Ryan’s disposal.
Brandon Browner, Anthony Spencer and Kevin Williams arrived via free agency. Delvin Breaux was picked up from the CFL. Dannell Ellerbe came back in a trade that sent Kenny Stills to Miami, and the Saints added even more talent by using six of their nine draft picks on defense, including a first-round middle linebacker in Stephone Anthony, a second-round pass rusher in Hau’oli Kikaha, and a third-round cornerback prospect in P.J. Williams.
Even the coaching staff got a boost with the addition of former Raiders coach Dennis Allen to run the secondary and offer another set of eyes to Ryan.
All of the offseason overhaul added the feel of a fresh start to the Saints defense this summer.
“This year, we’ve got completely different, uplifting faces,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We’ve got different linebackers showing out, now we’ve got (Hawthorne) playing the Mike, we’ve got Ellerbe coming in, we’ve got Stephone. Then you go out, and we have the outside linebackers we brought in, so many different faces. You think about the offseason, and you can’t pick up a better guy than Brandon Browner.”
Ryan doubled down by altering his approach.
Famous for his complex, exotic schemes, Ryan instead spent the summer installing a simplified version of his defense. By the time the Saints broke for the summer, the defenders could count the number of packages installed on one hand.
A year ago, it would have taken every finger and toe.
“We took it as slow as possible,” linebacker David Hawthorne said. “We got back to the basics of football. That’s where we’re at during all these OTAs and minicamps and stuff like that, and I think it’s coming along fine for us. Guys are keying in and playing harder.”
By simplifying the defense, New Orleans hopes to limit the blown coverages and missed communications that caused so many big plays last season.
And a defense that’s not plagued by confusion can attack with a lot more aggression.
“Once you go through, singing the same song over and over, it becomes second nature to you, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Hawthorne said. “We’re trying to get that feel, go home to mama kind of defense. You know how to play, you know the ins and outs and you can execute when you’re tired.”
The New Orleans defense still has questions to answer before the season begins. A revamped secondary must come together, the rookies have plenty to prove in live game action, there are position battles all over the field, and no news has come from Junior Galette’s meeting with the NFL yet.
But Ryan can’t hide his optimism, even if he’s not inclined to make any wild predictions this time around.
“I’m excited,” Ryan said. “I love the players we’ve added. The attitude of the whole group’s been fantastic. It’s been great getting everybody back together, and I’m excited for the challenge in front of us.”