When the Saints defense took the field last year, the game plan was often tentative, an ever-shifting concept built around trying to counter every one of the offense’s whims.
If the offense came out one way, the defense changed what it was doing. And then if, say, the receiver stepped off or the tight end shifted or motioned over, the defense’s play call changed entirely again.
The playbook was massive, and players had to know an endless amount of checks to operate the right way. By extension, the opportunity for confusion and broken plays was massive. That was part of the reason the defense finished 31st last year and often failed to create turnovers.
“Mental things,” safety Kenny Vaccaro explained. “We’re dealing with that.”
New Orleans is dealing with it by stripping down the playbook. There are no more variables or worrying about what the offense might change. In other words, the defense is going to take the field, line up how they line up, and tell the offense to beat them.
Players say they have a better grasp on what is expected of them on each and every snap. As a result, they feel like they’re playing faster and expect these changes to help the defense produce more turnovers and cut back on mental errors.
“This defense -- they explain the base defense, they set it up and we know exactly what to do based on every formation,” Vaccaro said. “Things don’t change. A lot of positions are mirrored. If you end up on the wrong side you’re playing the same position.”
That wasn’t always the case last year. A broken coverage left wide receiver Corey Fuller open for a game-winning touchdown in a loss to the Detroit Lions. There was some confusion on who was supposed to be where. The issue arose because the Saints were playing man coverage on one side of the field and zone on another.
A stripped-down playbook should reduce those errors.
“It’s to improve execution, reduce variables, the quantity and amount that we’re doing,” coach Sean Payton said.
The idea is nothing new. New Orleans identified this as a problem last September and began talking about it prior to a Week 3 game against the Minnesota Vikings. Efforts were made to simplify things, but there was only so much the team could do after spending the whole offseason installing a particular defense. By that point, it was too late to throw everything out and start over.
So, this offseason, it became a point of emphasis and something the coaching staff felt was critical to their success. The defense will still have some wrinkles designed by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but maybe the scheme won’t be defined by those wrinkles.
There won’t be a new game plan every single week. Instead, the defense will mostly do what it does and trust its talent to get the job done.
“It’s something that we have to do,” Payton said. “You’re playing snaps in man or snaps in zone, but in order to play with speed and improve the fundamentals and all the little things, I think you got to look closely at the amount. Reduce the amount and I think you have a good chance of improving the efficiency.”
Defensive assistant Dennis Allen has been key in helping the secondary better understand everything that is going on. Vaccaro described him as the apprentice to Ryan’s mad scientist. While Ryan’s busy coming up with the ideas, it’s Allen who breaks it down and makes sure everyone better understands what is going on -- specifically the safeties.
That understanding will be key for success. In Ryan’s first year in New Orleans, the Saints fielded a top-five defense.
The Saints fell to 31st last year. As cornerback Keenan Lewis joked, this unit can’t really fall much lower, so these changes have to work.
From an outside perspective, considering the success in Ryan’s first season, it’s hard to understand how things went so wrong last season. But the truth is, some of the same problems existed during that first season. The defense just did a better job of covering them up.
And as Vaccaro points out, there was still a big issue that season that many overlook.
“We didn’t get the turnovers we needed, though,” Vaccaro said. “Either way we had a good defense my rookie year, at the same time the turnover ratio is the most important stat in football and we didn’t have that.”
If these changes work, perhaps the Saints will check all those boxes next season.