WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS. W.Va. — One of the first things guard Tim Lelito noticed when the New Orleans Saints stepped on the field for their first practice: There was a better flow.
Last summer, the tide crashed into dam after dam, creating a choppy current. The defense would get lined up. A whistle would blow. A coach would yell, and the defense would get lined up again.
It was constant. Confusion reigned. But that's no longer the case: The walls are down, and the players are just playing.
"They're getting aligned faster. Everyone knows the assignments," Lelito said. "Compared to last year, there's hardly any (missed assignments) this year on the defensive side of the ball. We're stopping practice a lot less. Coach isn't blowing the whistle: 'Hey, line up here. What are you doing over there?' It's better for us, because we're getting more reps in and getting better as a team."
It's the Dennis Allen effect. Realistically, there's only so much difference a coach can make on a team. He can design the perfect scheme and teach all of its nuances, but the players have to go out and execute.
But a coach can put his players in a better position to succeed and make sure they aren't shooting themselves in the foot with mindless mistakes or as the result of poor teaching. At that, Allen already has made a noticeable difference.
It helps that he took over for Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator midway through last season, which allowed the defense to continue building on some of the things Allen introduced late last season.
Even though Ryan spent three seasons here, there wasn't a lot of continuity. The team often switched schemes and philosophies, sometimes making big changes between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp. So the early days of camp were spent installing and working on a new scheme.
This year, by the time the first meeting was over, the defense was going over the base installation for the third or fourth time. It has made a difference.
"It's big. Keeping things the same, it allows people to cut out that split second of indecision," safety Jairus Byrd said. "Having that helps a lot. Players are playing faster and know where they need to be."
Everything that happens this time of year has to come with the caveat that it's early and the narrative could change quickly. Every training camp starts with players talking about how they are going to play faster with a simplified scheme. But the early results for these Saints don't seem to be lip service.
For starters, the secondary is making plays and getting its hands on a lot of balls. According to The Advocate's charting, quarterback Drew Brees in last year's camp threw more than 180 passes during team drills before he had an interception. Rookie safety Vonn Bell got him during the first practice this year. Three passes were broken up by the cornerbacks during team drills Saturday.
“I like the mindset of the defense,” Allen said. “I like the way we have gone out and competed. Make no mistake about it: We go against one of the best offenses in the league every day when we go out here. It’s great competition for us. That’s what we’re looking for."
Any progress probably is the result of several factors. But having the players in a position where they know how, where and when to line up is a big factor behind the early success.
It might sound easy or a simplistic thing to get a handle on, but it was a problem that plagued this defense for the better part of two seasons. These kind of issues are part of the reason why Ryan is no longer part of the organization.
The issues are now being alleviated. Head coach Sean Payton has noticed the same difference as Lelito, but he's not surprised. He said it starts behind the scenes, and Allen has excelled there.
“I would say one of his strengths is his organizational skills," Payton said. "He’s extremely detailed in the meetings, not only with the players but also with his staff when they are meeting defensively. He’s very thorough with regards to the explanation and communication of each scheme."
Now the Saints are organized on the field, too. If nothing else, that counts as one step out of the basement for the defense.