WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the axis shifted.
But if one had to guess when the New Orleans Saints defense began to put their porous past behind them, a logical place to look would be last season’s Week 2 game when Cam Jordan twice busted through the Arizona Cardinals offensive line and welcomed the 34-year-old Carson Palmer to the NFC by putting him on his back for two sacks. And just to be cordial, Junior Galette sent him a gift basket by dropping Palmer another time.
It might not have been obvious that afternoon that the Saints were no longer going to be identified by their 2012 performance, when they earned the dubious distinction of being the worst unit in league history by allowing 7,042 yards. But at the very least, they sent a notice to the rest of the league that a trip to New Orleans was no longer an invitation to enjoy some of the country’s finest cuisine, a stroll through the French Quarter and a chance to post record-setting offensive numbers.
In their current iteration, this group would much rather punch you in the gut and leave you in the Mississippi River, which it did time and again last season by finishing within the top five in virtually every defensive category that matters. This season they hope to turn those twos, threes, fours and fives into ones.
“We’re not here to be a good defense,” Jordan said. “We’re here to be the best defense.”
Why not? It’s appears to be an achievable goal. With one of the league’s best offenses already in place, the Saints spent the offseason pushing dollar signs around the ledger to create enough cap space to further improve what was already one of the league’s best defenses.
New Orleans released safety Roman Harper and let Malcolm Jenkins walk this offseason but managed to improve the roster by signing one of the league’s premier players at the position, Jairus Byrd. It then further solidified the secondary by signing cornerback Champ Bailey, who may no longer possess the talent that once made his résumé one of the most impressive in the league, but he certainly has enough left in the tank to make a difference this season.
And then there is Rob Ryan, who is entering his second season as the Saints defensive coordinator and should be able to help this defense enjoy more growth as it continues to settle into his system.
For a young group, having some continuity in both personnel and in the captain’s chair is invaluable. Only three members of the defense — Patrick Robinson, Junior Galette, and Ramon Humber — were here in 2010, when then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was in the second of his three seasons with the team. So for anyone who joined the team in 2011, such as Jordan, this is the first time they have had the same defensive coordinator in consecutive seasons.
And for the guys who are now going to be around Ryan for his second season, there isn’t anyone else they would rather have leading their defensive meetings.
“His personality, his coaching style,” Aikem Hicks said when asked what it is about Ryan that players respond to. “You can list a million things, but the way he takes over a room when he comes in and the way that he delivers his messages and allows us to receive it. He makes it your choice whether you’re going to be successful or not.”
The choice for these guys is simple. They want to be No. 1 in every category.
Galette said the only thing holding the Saints back from being one of the best defenses in the NFL is turnovers. Last year, New Orleans ranked 29th in the NFL with 19 takeaways, placing them 20 off the lead.
If the Saints achieve that goal and do become the top defense in the NFL, the downside is that Ryan could become a more attractive option for a team with a head coaching vacancy. It is an opportunity he covets, but did not receive as much as a sniff from seven teams with openings.
That’s fine with Ryan. He realizes he cannot will himself into an interview room.
“I’ve been an assistant for a long time. I’ve never been a head coach,” Ryan said. “When people want to give me that opportunity, that will be great. Until then, I want to whip ass and be a great assistant.”
Head coach Sean Payton said he does not believe it will be long before someone attempts to hire away Ryan.
“From my experience, he is going to have that opportunity, and you just can’t put a clock on it,” Payton said. “We had success, and there are times where it all depends on the owner and it all depends on the situation. It is not as simple as, hey, you finished this on offense, you finished this on defense, you receive five interviews. It doesn’t work like that.”
Someone will eventually look to hire New Orleans’ defensive maestro. Until then, Ryan and the defense will look to make sure that any opponents who comes to New Orleans have an unpleasant experience.