To the eye of an observer, it looks like the New Orleans Saints have been using a more complicated defense the past three weeks.
There has been more blitzing and disguising of coverages, which often leaves players shuffling to another spot on the field after initially showing a different look before the snap.
There are a lot of moving parts, which could lead one to believe things are more complicated. And with the stated goal of simplifying the defense this offseason, it appears the past three weeks, with Dennis Allen serving as defensive coordinator, have run counter to that initiative.
But the Saints say looks can be deceiving.
“You can feel a little hesitant when a play is called,” cornerback Delvin Breaux explained. “Guys are like, ‘What do I have to do? What do I have to do?’ It’s simple for us now. We just go out there and play now. It’s easier.”
But with all the different looks the defense is now showing, there certainly has to be more to digest and process than earlier this year when Rob Ryan was said to be running a stripped-down defense, right?
“It’s a play, but it’s one play and we’re using it in multiple situations,” Breaux said. “We’re out there, we’re playing, we’re talking, we know where we have to be. It’s much easier.”
The defense has shown improvement in various areas the past three weeks, with Sunday’s win at Tampa Bay, when New Orleans held the Buccaneers to 17 points and 291 yards, serving as a high point.
Coach Sean Payton used to lament the number of big plays the defense gave up or the number of broken coverages or substitution errors that often marred performances. But he hasn’t seen those things in recent weeks and is pleased with the progress the defense is making under Allen.
“I felt like after the game there has just been a noticeable amount of fewer misalignments or (mental errors),” Payton said. “Half the battle is getting the personnel on the field you want and getting the defense communicated and get aligned to it.”
Those are all positives, especially considering the team has been making greater efforts to disguise, which should make things more difficult on opposing quarterbacks and create more opportunities for the defensive backs to make plays.
One of those wrinkles was the implementation of an inverted Cover 2 last week. The Saints showed a single-high safety look pre-snap, which indicated the team was playing press-man coverage. But after the ball was snapped, Breaux flowed up the field to serve as a safety, and safety Kenny Vaccaro slid over to serve as the low player.
The shift caused quarterback Jameis Winston’s reads to change as soon as the ball was snapped, and he was then trying to beat a zone coverage instead of press-man.
Breaux, who has allowed five catches for 33 yards on 16 targets over the past five games, according to charting by The Advocate, said he’s in favor of the new wrinkle since it puts him in position to make more plays.
“I can just actually move now and I don’t have to just go down, ‘OK, I got him’ and everybody know that,” Breaux said. “Now I can play off, I can read, I can see the formation, I can actually move around and actually make plays on the ball rather than just being pressed up, not knowing where the ball is. I think (Allen) mixing that in with some man-to-man, it’s awesome.”
Vaccaro also likes the look since he feels it puts him in position to play to his strengths.
“I like being able to force the ball. I can read run-pass really well,” Vaccaro said. “I can get up underneath the guy when it’s pass, but I can also — I think I got a tackle for a loss when we were in Cover 2 — I’m almost a blitzer at some points in it.”
How far Allen can take this defense over the next three weeks remains to be seen, but he already has made a noticeable impact during his first three weeks — and in some ways his impact has exceeded initial expectations.
The measure for success when he took over for Ryan was to clean up the missed assignments and improve the communication and the group’s fundamentals. By all accounts, he has passed in these areas. And he receives bonus points for successfully implementing some scheme changes.
At his core, Allen shares the same principles with how the Saints have played all season. And the fact that he has been around since the beginning of the season and worked with the secondary all year has allowed him to easily implement some changes, even if it looks drastically different to observers.
“It’s kind of the same. We tried to disguise stuff with Rob; it looks different now that (Allen is) calling it,” Vaccaro said. “He’s calling more coverages that require disguises.
“It’s a good changeup. I think ultimately DA wants to be a man-to-man, in-your-face team. (Playing Cover 2 is) good against the pass. If you can play good run defense in orange — or Cover 2 — you’re solid.”
Everything has been a lot more solid recently.