Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan couldn’t answer a question Friday about whether folks in New Orleans greeted him as warmly now as they did when his players held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards and points in the NFL last year.
With Ryan in charge of what was the league’s 27th-ranked defense through 12 weeks this season, “We haven’t celebrated as much,” he bluntly responded.
But Ryan spoke at length about being hard at work on getting the good times rolling again for him and Saints fans. And in preparation for the fifth-ranked Steelers offense waiting for the Saints at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field on Sunday, that meant zeroing in on bolstering the especially impotent third-down defense New Orleans has delivered in its past two contests, both defeats.
“We’re not going to beat anybody ... if we can’t get off the field on third down,” said Ryan, in his second season with the Saints. “It makes it almost impossible to win a game; (and) we put a huge emphasis on it.”
As it was, before losing to Cincinnati on Nov. 16 and Baltimore eight days later, the Saints weren’t enjoying all that much success preventing opponents facing third downs from getting new sets of downs.
The Saints surrendered first downs on 53 of 114 third downs for their defense in the first nine games, of which New Orleans won four. That gave the Saints’ opponents a relatively high third-down efficiency rate of 46.5 percent.
The Saints were much worse in that area in 27-10 and 34-27 losses to the Bengals and Ravens. Both teams had 13 third downs against the Saints, and each converted nine of them — an efficiency rate of 69.2 percent.
It frustrated Ryan that his dialing up more quarterback blitzes against the Ravens than he did against the Bengals had little effect.
“The blitz was coming open, but (Ravens quarterback Joe) Flacco did a great job ... throwing the ball,” Ryan said.
Flacco finished 18-of-24 for 243 yards, a touchdown and a superb passer rating of 120.7.
Saints players have been increasingly vocal about how the defense’s shortcomings ultimately fall on them for not adequately executing. The team’s dearth of third-down stops versus Cincinnati and Baltimore is no exception.
“It’s on us,” defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker said Friday. “(Ryan) puts us in position to make plays; we just have to execute.”
Added defensive end Cameron Jordan: “We’ve been in so many third-down situations at this point, and for us to have the least amount of success I’ve probably seen on third down the past couple of years is something I was not prepared for. ... (That’s) something we have to focus on this game.”
Ryan joked that “it is outstanding to hear” those kinds of statements from his players.
“Hell, it’s all their fault!” he said, his tongue clearly and firmly planted in his cheek.
But humor aside, Ryan insisted he must quickly be better with the coverages he orders up, given that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the league’s fourth-highest rated passer and running back Le’Veon Bell has the fourth-most rushing yards (951) in the league.
“Right now, we’re hurting our team,” Ryan said. “And that’s not what I was hired to do.”