There was a moment during Rob Ryan’s tenure when Sean Payton approached him on the sideline and asked him if he had his brother Rex’s phone number.
The former Saints defensive coordinator was confused and wanted to know why Payton was asking him this.
“Because I want to call a Ryan who’s not afraid to blitz,” Payton replied.
Ryan was many things during his tenure with the Saints. He was at times creative and innovative. Sometimes he got results; sometimes he didn’t. But no one will ever attempt to define his time in New Orleans by calling him an aggressive blitzer.
During Ryan’s first two seasons with the Saints, New Orleans blitzed on 28 and 32 percent of its snaps, respectively. That rate fell even further as the Saints had blitzed on only 21 percent of their snaps at the time of Ryan’s firing earlier this week.
Dennis Allen, who will take over for Ryan as defensive coordinator, is the exact opposite. His three seasons as a coordinator and coach (one as Denver’s coordinator in 2011 and as Oakland’s head coach in 2012 and 2013. Allen was fired early in the 2014 season) were defined by his aggressive approach.
Simply put: Allen likes to blitz. A lot.
During those three seasons, Allen blitzed on a staggering 44 percent of his team’s snaps. Any conversation about his tendencies or how he likes to deploy his players has to start with that statistic. Everything else feeds off of it.
It’s difficult to know how much things will change over the next six games with Allen taking over for Ryan. There probably isn’t enough time to start over or make major changes to the scheme. And Ryan also strongly hinted that the current scheme used by New Orleans was Payton’s vision on several occasions, so it’s unknown how much latitude Allen will be granted.
It seems the most likely outcome — at least for the remainder of this season — that Allen will work within the current framework and perhaps introduce some wrinkles to the existing structure. Given that, it’s worth taking a deeper look at how some of his defenses operated in Oakland and Denver to get a better feel for some of his philosophies.
Outside of his penchant for blitzing, one of the hallmarks of Allen’s defenses is pre-snap confusion. It seems he takes particular pride in disguising his coverages and blitzes and doesn’t like to show his hand until the last second. This was true in Denver and again in Oakland, where Allen and former defensive coordinator Jason Tarver worked together on the scheme.
Watching an Allen defense, it’s not uncommon to see a Cover 2 look shift into Cover 3, or a safety lined up in the box or on the line drop back to the deep portion of the field right before the snap. There were also times when a deep player would shift down while someone in the box would fall back to play deep.
The late shifts not only created confusion, they also helped leave blitzers unaccounted for at the line of scrimmage. Another Allen trick is to overload one side of the line of scrimmage, to make the offense think the blitz is coming from that side, and then bring pressure from somewhere else.
Watching his defenses, it looks like there are a lot of moving parts and it can be hard to follow all the things going on within Allen’s defenses. And the same confusion could often be seen on quarterbacks — especially less experienced ones — who would end up holding the ball too long and take a sack.
Denver finished with 41 sacks under Allen, and Oakland recorded 38 in 2013. The Raiders, however, only had 25 in 2012.
One thing for sure is that Allen’s defenses required solid cornerback play since they were often left without help because of the high volume of blitzes.
Considering how difficult Allen’s defenses can be to follow, it appears to be very complicated and complex, which was one of the criticisms of Ryan’s scheme. The Saints felt that his scheme was too complex and worked to simplify things this offseason.
But during Allen’s time in Oakland, he explained to reporters that his scheme only looks complicated. He actually believed his scheme was simple and easy to digest.
“You have concepts that you do defensively and what you try to do is try to change the look up a little bit, but it’s really not different for your players,” he said. “And we try to do that in every game so the offense can’t just get a beat on where we’re coming from.”
In other words, the defense might have a certain concept, but move players around a little bit to achieve a different look. The goal of doing so would be to create confusion for the offense. That approach isn’t different to how the Saints currently operate on offense, where they run many of the same concepts out of various formations.
It remains to be seen how much latitude Allen will be given over the next few weeks. It’s unreasonable to expect him to be able to overhaul and install a whole new defense of philosophy over the next couple weeks.
But considering he’s been on the staff all year, and there are reports that he had a big hand in the third-down package, there might already be some elements of his scheme already in the playbook. Perhaps he can put in some wrinkles, clean up some of the existing issues, and make his mark that way.
If nothing else, it’s probably safe to assume the Saints will be blitzing more often over the next few weeks.