An offseason of change is evident all over the Saints defense.
New faces are at every level of the defense, brought in by way of free agency, the draft, the CFL and anywhere else New Orleans found talent. Dennis Allen’s back to work with the secondary. Old, familiar numbers are nowhere to be found on the practice field.
But the biggest change might be the scheme itself. Rob Ryan, known for the complexity of his schemes in more than a decade as an NFL defensive coordinator, has dialed it down and simplified the system in the Saints organized team activities.
“At this point — two, three weeks in or whatever we are — I know two or three of the base packages we have,” defensive tackle Cameron Jordan said after the first three days of the Saints OTAs last week. “This time last year, we were like 20 schemes in.”
Ryan, who first admitted the defense might be too complicated in September and started dialing back his scheme, wasn’t able to stop a slide that dropped the Saints from fourth in the league to 31st in total defense, from fourth to 28th in scoring defense and from ninth to 31st in the league on third down.
Deploying an exotic, complicated scheme gives offenses a lot to digest from week to week, but the benefit goes both ways. A defender has to process all of that information, too, and he has to be able to adjust to the right look in the time between the offense getting set and the snap of the ball.
A simplified scheme eliminates all of that stress.
“It makes it much easier,” new Saints cornerback Brandon Browner, who has played in fairly simple schemes with both Seattle and New England, said. “It makes you play faster instead of thinking about too many things at one time. Break it down so we can just cut it down and turn it loose.”
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem, either.
Unlike last offseason, when the Saints were flush with rising players and touted as potentially one of the league’s best defensive units — a status that prompted Ryan to say late in the year that he thought the defense “drank the Kool-Aid” — New Orleans has spent the offseason listening to calls for defensive overhaul and watching the renovation happen right in front of them in a flurry of moves by the front office.
Now, the majority of the Saints’ returning defenders are out to prove last season was a fluke, both on a team and personal level.
“Well, I don’t like to focus on last year, but when you’re 31st in the league, a lot of guys were disappointed,” Saints safety Rafael Bush said. “I think guys have come back with that fire in their eyes.”
Ryan is right there with the players.
Not the type to pass the buck, Ryan has taken responsibility for the Saints’ dropoff last season, vowing to turn things around after a front office overhaul designed to upgrade the team’s base of defensive talent. The Saints added free agents like Browner and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, then doubled down by using six of the team’s nine draft picks on the defensive side of the ball.
“When you finish 31st in the league in defense, I’ve got a lot to clean up,” Ryan said. “I’m happy to have a great coach like Dennis with me. And our other coaches, they’re great coaches, so we took that personal last year. It’s been well-documented, it’s my fault, and we’ll see if it happens again. It ain’t going to.”
The New Orleans defense still has plenty of questions to answer before September.
Will Hau’oli Kikaha, Spencer or somebody else upgrade a pass rush that struggled behind Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan last season?
Who will win the star role as the Saints’ fifth defensive back, a position that’s essentially a starter in today’s NFL?
Will newcomers Stephone Anthony and Dannell Ellerbe offer a significant upgrade at inside linebacker?
Can Jairus Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Bush live up to high expectations at safety?
All of those questions will be answered in due time. For the moment, the Saints are focused on making sure the defense looks more like the 2013 version than it did last year.
“We were slapped in the face pretty good on defense,” Ryan said. “It ain’t happening again.”