It probably should have been more obvious that Dennis Allen had his fingerprints all over the New Orleans Saints’ third-down package.
The disguised coverages, the heavy blitzing and various fronts, all hallmarks of Allen’s defenses in Denver and Oakland, have been on display on third downs throughout the season.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise the Saints have had more success on that down than any other this season. And maybe that means it’s a good thing that Allen recently took over for Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator.
But coach Sean Payton said that it would be dangerous to assume the things Allen has done on third down will carry over or foreshadow what will happen on first and second down now that he’s replaced Ryan.
But there’s no question that in a season defined by lows, the third-down defense has been one of the unquestionable bright spots. Still, Payton made it clear that Ryan was involved in some of the things that happened on third down.
“It’s not like we went into the season with a third-down coordinator and then a regular coordinator,” Payton said. “You have a defensive coordinator no different than what we put together offensively.
“Guys will have assignments, and certainly DA is a veteran and sharp coach, and I think a real bright guy and so he’s done a very good job on the nickel and third-down packages, much better than we were a year ago.”
It has been considerably better. The Saints have allowed 40 conversions on 115 third-down attempts (34.8 percent), which ranks seventh in the NFL. Last year, the Saints ranked 31st in the NFL at 46 percent.
As Payton noted, some of the struggles they’ve had on third downs, such as penalties, don’t show up in the overall statistics. But even the harshest critic couldn’t argue against the overall improvement in this area.
One of the reasons for the change is the Saints have taken a more aggressive approach on third downs. New Orleans has faced 111 passing plays on third down (including plays nullified by penalties) and has blitzed on 34 occasions Overall, the Saints have blitzed on only 21 percent of their snaps this season.
The more aggressive approach has helped lead to positive results. New Orleans has recorded 49 quarterback hits on third down, according to Pro Football Focus, and 13 sacks, including three on plays when the defense blitzed.
One of the wrinkles within Allen’s package has been to take measures to disguise coverages and where he intends to bring pressure from, which differs from the approach on other downs. Another one is that the team has used more three-man fronts on third down. The team commonly uses have four linemen on other downs.
Sometimes it can be difficult to follow and appears complex on film, but the players say it’s easy to execute.
“It’s simple for us,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “It’s hard on the offense.”
All of these elements have led to making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
“They give you different looks all the time,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s never the same look two times in a row. It’s a spin-the-dial approach that involves a lot of pressure, a lot of man coverage, and then they might drop eight and then rush three. It’s a tough approach.”
Allen will likely be more aggressive than his predecessor, but it’s not as simple as taking what worked on third down and using those things on first and second down.
For starters, third downs are typically played out of nickel or dime packages, while earlier downs are often played out of the base 4-3 defense.
The calls being made on third down are made to combat three- or four-receiver sets and would not translate to first or second down, where offenses have often attacked the Saints with two tight ends or two running backs on the field.
“Where we’re struggling is on first and second down, (when teams are using) bigger sets,” Vaccaro said. “We got to stop the run, too. A lot of times we’re not getting to third down because we’re giving up a big run or a big pass off play action.
“You can’t really leak your third-down calls onto first and second because schematically it wouldn’t fit.”
Some of the concepts used on third down could translate over. New Orleans could easily start blitzing more, and do some more deceptive things with its coverage, but Allen said Wednesday that he doesn’t see a complete overhaul coming in terms of the scheme.
There simply isn’t enough time for something like that to happen.
“We’re going into Week 11 of the season. It’s not like you can just go in and wholeheartedly change everything you’re doing schematically,” Allen said. “What we’ve got to do is try to give the guys a plan they can go out and execute, trying to eliminate some the white noise and distractions for them, and make sure they feel comfortable and ready to play..”
Instead, the Saints will focus more on becoming fundamentally sound.
There might be some new wrinkles introduced and a more aggressive approach at times, but Allen will mostly look to find success within the current construct of the defense. The biggest change might be how he calls plays and approaches specific situations.
But the one thing he absolutely shouldn’t tinker with is how this team has approached third downs.