New Orleans has always felt like home to Dennis Allen.
After getting his start in Atlanta, he left the Saints after five seasons as an assistant to become defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos and then head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Through it all, a piece of his heart remained in New Orleans.
“I’ve always said that I started out in the National Football League in Atlanta, but I really grew up here in New Orleans — and I really feel that way,” Allen said. “I’m excited to be back.”
Allen returned to New Orleans this offseason in a somewhat undefined role. He’s listed as a defensive assistant and from all accounts is serving as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s top lieutenant. On a more micro level, the majority of his time has been spent working with the secondary, specifically the safeties.
Many players have described Allen as the guy who teaches the details within Ryan’s grand plans. In other words, Ryan whips together the compositions, and Allen simplifies things and teaches the players how to do it.
So far, it’s working out for both Allen and the Saints. The early reviews of Allen from members of the defense, which finished 31st in the league last year in terms of yards allowed, have been all positive. The players said they feel like they have a better understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing within the defensive scheme.
That’s a good thing. One of the big issues last year was that players on defense, particularly in the secondary, were not always assignment-sound and gave up too many big plays because of broken coverage. The defensive playbook already has been simplified this offseason, which should help alleviate those issues, and Allen can help Ryan clean up the rest.
Allen’s role could continue to evolve. Head coach Sean Payton said Allen’s role is still being defined, and he expects to make some changes to how the staff operates over the next few months.
“He was a real good acquisition for us,” Payton said. “He and Rob have done a great job being a part of putting what we are doing together. There are some things that we will tinker with when we get to training camp, but it’s easier when you have a background with a player or when you have the background I have with a coach like that.”
Allen wasn’t around last season to experience the Saints defense falling from one of the best units in the NFL to one of its worst. So, when asked about the improvements he has seen this offseason, he admittedly lacks the same level of insight as, say, Ryan, who was here to experience it.
But Allen feels like he has a pretty good grasp of what needs to improve. He has watched all the film, noticed all the tendencies and seen what the team did and didn’t do well last season.
He believes he has seen improvement in fundamentals and technique, as well as players getting a better understanding of how offenses are trying to attack them. Allen believes that growth will help the team perform better under pressure next season.
“I like the work we’ve gotten done this offseason,” Allen said. “The hope is that we get back in training camp and we can pick up where we left off and don’t have to go back to (the beginning).”
Although he has been encouraged by what he saw during the offseason program, is Allen satisfied with the work that has been done?
“I don’t like to ever use the term ‘satisfied,’ because the term ‘satisfied’ means you’re complacent with where you’re at,” he said. “But I like the group, I like what we have and I like their work ethic and the way they’re competing.”
When training camp opens, the goal is to keep that competition level up. The coaching staff has worked to create an atmosphere where no one feels like they have an inside lane for a job. That has been accomplished by rotating players through positions and trying out various lineups in the offseason program.
This could be seen at the nickelback position throughout organized team activities and minicamp. During practices that were open to the media, Kyle Wilson, Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams and Damian Swann all got turns playing with the first-team defense. There also was some shuffling throughout the front seven.
At this early juncture, Allen said it’s best to make sure no one feels like they’ve earned something.
“When you start handing out jobs to people, it’s human nature to relax,” Allen said.
That’s also likely why there has been reluctance throughout the team to voice anything resembling confidence about where this defense is headed. They did that last year, and everything fell apart. The carrot needs to stay out of reach this season.
The Saints believe they’ll get there. They just aren’t going to talk about it until the process is finished.
For now, with training camp more than a month away, Allen can enjoy being in the place that has become home to him.
“I love this place,” Allen said. “I love the people here — both in the city and in this building. I like this team. Mickey (Loomis) and Sean have been great to me.”
Now the members of the defense hope Allen will be great for them.