Dennis Allen is unleashing the New Orleans defensive line this season.
By installing his personal variation of the attacking, aggressive scheme Gregg Williams deploys, Allen is also taking a lot of the guesswork out of the game for the guys up front.
From edge rushers like Cam Jordan and Kasim Edebali, all the way to John Jenkins and Tyeler Davison inside, Allen wants the Saints defensive linemen firing off the ball, aiming for penetration and wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines.
“We don’t want to sit back, we don’t want to react to nothing, we want to dictate what’s going to happen,” Saints pass rush specialist Brian Young said. “So it starts with the front, so we’re going to get off and we’re going to get under their pads and we’re going to knock them back 3 yards and let the chips fall where they may.”
Former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan ran a 4-3 defense the past two seasons, but his background is in the 3-4, and some of those principles extended to the line.
New Orleans often asked defensive linemen to “two-gap,” which requires a linemen to read the play and react, a technique that can keep blockers off of the linebackers but also forces a linemen to hesitate for a brief moment to make a play. Under Ryan, the Saints often tweaked the two-gap technique by asking certain defensive linemen to “shade” or line up on the shoulder of the offensive lineman instead of playing head-up, but the principle remained a part of the defense.
Now that Allen’s in full control of the defense, those days are over.
“We’re not going to be two-gapping anything,” Young said.
For that reason, deploying big, hulking players on the line is less important than it was in Ryan’s defense. New Orleans has a quartet of young pass rushers — Edebali, Obum Gwacham, Davis Tull and an injured Hau’oli Kikaha — who were often seen as ‘tweeners last season; Kikaha, Tull and even Edebali were asked to play linebacker at times.
Under Allen, all four are defensive ends.
“It used to be that way, with all the two-back runs and those kinds of things, your ends were a lot bigger, but nowadays. ... the game is much more spread out now and a lot faster,” Young said. “I don’t care about the weight as much as I care about: Can a guy set an edge, can he knock a block back? I don’t care if he’s 220 (pounds) or 280, if he can do those two things, it doesn’t matter.”
New Orleans also put a premium on finding interior players with the quickness to beat offensive lineman off the ball. First-round pick Sheldon Rankins was considered undersized by some analysts in the draft, but he’s an expert penetrator who has impressive explosion for a 300-pounder. Veteran Nick Fairley played at 280 pounds for Williams with the Rams last season, but he’s built his career around getting into the backfield, even when he was paired with Ndamukong Suh in Detroit or Aaron Donald in St. Louis.
For anybody who’s played under Williams, the Saints’ new direction on the defensive line feels eerily familiar.
“It’s still so familiar to the defense of Gregg Williams, so it’s nothing that I’m not comfortable with,” Jordan said. “I just have to reach back into the memory banks.”
Allen’s approach to the warfare in the trenches mirrors what he wants the rest of the defense to do behind them.
If Allen has his way, the defense will leave the game of wits up to middle linebacker James Laurinaitis before the snap and fire off the ball hell-bent on blowing up the offense’s plans, rather than countering them.
“We want to be an attacking and aggressive style of defense,” Allen said. “We want to try to dictate the tempo to the offense, as opposed to them being able to dictate the tempo to us. We want to play hard and we want to play fast.”