Maybe the best way to understand Dennis Allen’s defense is to realize he isn’t going to settle for anything.
Even when playing Cover 2, one of football's more passive coverages, the Saints defensive coordinator wants his team to find ways to take the action to the offense. That’s always possible — even if the defense is showing a vanilla, bend-but-don’t-break look at the snap.
Even a look like that can turn into an attack defense. It depends on the cornerbacks. If those guys can evaluate the indicators properly and identify run or pass, Cover 2 can turn into a constricting run defense. It’s up to the cornerbacks to act aggressively. If they read the play correctly, they can pull in and turn a seven-man box into a nine-man box.
And there aren’t many running backs who are going to have success with that many players clogging the middle of the field.
“People think Cover 2, they think seven-man box; you’re not loading it,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “When your corners can really set the force at the numbers, then you pick up an extra defender, so you’re an attacking Cover 2.”
That mentality is a good summation of Allen’s vision for the Saints defense. It’s aggressive, nothing is as it seems and his players have the freedom to make an impact by reading and reacting.
Allen, entering his first full season as coordinator, wants to keep things simple and rely on his players to win games, but he also wants the defense to appear complex. Perhaps the best way to put it: He wants the defense to be multiple but simple.
It’s still a chess match, of course, but instead of trying to outwit his opponents through a long con, he’s going to attack the opponent from the first move and try to box the offense in. His intentions might not always be clear. Some deception will be involved. But if that doesn’t work, he’ll flip the board, knock the pieces to the floor and start over.
He’s going to dictate the action — not the other way around.
The goals for his defense are simple: Attack, make plays and be as nasty as possible. It’s not complicated. Sometimes it might look that way given the way players move around or how looks are disguised within the scheme, but Allen is always trying to occupy the same squares. Many coaches talk about simplifying the defense and making it easier, but Allen is actually doing it.
It’s his belief that the easiest and most effective way to be a fast and nasty defense is to allow his players to play fast and nasty. That means less thinking and more playing. He’s trying to achieve that by simplifying the play calls, getting them into the huddle early and making it easier for the players to line up and evaluate what’s happening.
As Allen often says, the offense will tell a story before every snap. He wants his players reading it as soon as the huddle breaks. So, instead of waiting for a call or thinking about their assignments, Allen wants his guys looking for indicators and whittling down the scope of the opponent's options, so they know what to expect and can make the necessary adjustments.
“We have to make sure we’re reading the book. We have to make sure we understand,” Allen said. “As a corner, there are certain routes that you do not have to cover, based on formation and splits. There are certain things as a safety that give you a run-pass indicator: ‘How tight do I need to be to the line of scrimmage?’ It’s really more about just getting the reps, seeing the formations, seeing the plays and knowing what to expect rather than reacting to them. There’s a little bit more anticipation.”
As for his book, Allen wants it written in hieroglyphics. For his tribe, the code is supposed to be simple and easy to decipher. For everyone else, he’s hoping the pages are filled with gibberish.
What he’s trying to do is create a defense that offers multiple looks but remains simple for his players. That means keeping assignments similar but showing various looks. One of the things he often mentions is that he wants things to “tie in” from one look to another.
That might mean showing a single-high-safety look and then having a cornerback or safety drop back right before the snap to create a two-man shell. It looks different and creates some confusion for the offense but remains the same as any two-high look for the defense.
But sometimes things get more complicated. One of the things Allen did last season after taking over for Rob Ryan was employ inverted Cover 2 looks.
How that works: Right before the snap, the safeties drop down and cover the low zone, while the cornerbacks fall back and play the deep zone. In other words, the quarterback can never feel fully safe reading the coverage. Cover 2 can suddenly become Cover 3 with the shift of a safety as the ball is snapped.
Another thing Allen isn’t afraid to do: Turn a four-man front into a three-man front by having a defensive tackle peel off and drop back to cover a shallow zone at the snap. He did this a few times during the preseason with defensive tackle Nick Fairley.
All of it keeps the offense guessing, and the movement before the snap can sometimes be enough to throw a quarterback off his game.
The defense created success with these techniques during training camp. At times the defense had quarterback Drew Brees confused, and it showed by how often the defense was able to intercept him during camp — after it went more than 180 passes in team drills without picking him off last summer.
The defense is using its success against Brees to fuel its confidence.
“Disguising, moving around, we’re not just lining up and playing. … At the same time, we’re trying to execute,” safety Roman Harper said. “We want to do some different things. We’re not just going to line up and show whatever we’re playing. If we can confuse guys and make plays on these types of quarterbacks, it gives us a chance.”
The key to being able to disguise successfully and not overwhelm the defensive players? Keeping things simple and digestible.
“I think the more comfortable guys feel in the scheme, and the more they understand what their responsibility is, the more freedom they have to disguise and give the offense some different looks,” Allen said. “When the scheme is always changing, guys aren’t really thinking about where they need to be.”
Make no mistake: Allen is aggressive. He wants to get his players into the backfield as quickly and as often as possible.
That starts with having the defensive linemen one-gap more often than they did under Ryan. The linemen will be free to penetrate more quickly in this setup; with a two-gap system, the payers have to read and react to the play.
In a two-gap system, which has its roots in a 3-4 defensive alignment, the goal often is to keep blockers off the linebackers, which means bigger players are needed on the line. In a one-gap system, smaller players can play on the line since the main objective often is to get into the backfield.
“It’s mostly one-gap schemes,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “We got a little of two-gapping in there. Every play you got an opportunity to two-gap if you can. It’s mostly one-gap; this is your gap — A gap or B gap. We’re supposed to attack that gap. It’s easier to penetrate, knock the line of scrimmage back and make more plays.”
Allen likes to blitz — a lot. And many of his blitz packages are created with deception. It’s not uncommon for him to show pressure from one side of the field and then bring it from another. These late shifts sometimes leave his blitzers unaccounted for at the line of scrimmage.
That could be a significant change for the Saints. During Ryan’s tenure, he blitzed on 28 and 32 percent of his snaps during his first two seasons and was at 21 percent at the time of his firing last season.
During three seasons in Denver (as defensive coordinator in 2011) and Oakland (as head coach in 2012 and '13), his teams blitzed on a staggering 44 percent of the snaps. During the final six weeks of last season — before Allen could fully install his defense — New Orleans blitzed on 33 percent of the passing plays it faced.
There’s a tradeoff to this, of course. Aggressively blitzing can create more pressure and opportunities for turnovers, but it also can leave the rest of your defense exposed. The cornerbacks and safeties have to hold their own, or it can backfire quickly.
Allen and his players know this. Allen said he would be smart about when he blitzes or sells out to get to the quarterback. To them, being attacking is more like a mindset.
“We’re going to take the fight to them versus the other way around,” Laurinaitis said. “No matter what call we're in, if we all just play one defense — and obviously we wouldn’t do this — but if you played a handful of defenses all game, we know what we’re doing. So if we line up, we can try to dissect what the offense is doing here. It allows you to process faster as a pack. It's just more simplifying, so we know what we’re doing and take the fight to the offense.”
During the summer, coach Sean Payton was asked whether it was possible to have a scheme that is multiple and yet remains simple enough for the players to understand it easily and play fast. He responded by saying that was the “$6 million question.”
Allen and his players believe they are achieving that. Last year, Ryan often talked about having a beautiful vision for the defense. The problem: It never came together on the field.
With Allen, the Saints have a chance. They have been repping the same defense since midway through last season. The core principles have been installed, and everything else has been building on them. The early signs are good.
But can the defense remain simple for the players?
“That’s the key. The key is to be multiple — at least create multiple looks for the offense — but be simple for us,” Allen said. “That’s what we try to do. We try to tie things in as much as we can and keep as many things the same but give a lot of different looks to the offense.”
That’s not just the key for the Saints defense.
It’s the key for the season.