Things looked different during each glimpse provided to outside eyes during the New Orleans Saints’ three organized team activities open to the media during the past month.
One safety, two safeties, three safeties. The defensive line going from four men to three and back again. The defense was doing all kinds of different things, never once settling into something that provided a sure glimpse of how things will look this season.
Maybe that’s the point. The team tried a lot of different things last year during OTAs, and it wasn’t until training camp that it became clear the Saints were going to be predominantly a single-high-safety team.
But it also doesn’t sound like Dennis Allen, in his first full season as defensive coordinator after taking over for Rob Ryan midway through last year, wants to be classified as being any one thing. He wants to be considered multiple.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in, ‘Are you going to be 4-3, 3-4?’ ” Allen said. “We’re going to be multiple. We’re going to have some 4-3 defenses. We’re going to have some 3-4 defenses. What we do best, that’s what we’re going to major in.”
All of that was true during OTAs. During the first two sessions open to the media, the Saints predominately operated with a four-man front. Then, during the third session, they ran a package with three down defensive linemen and six defensive backs.
If things go as planned, this is how the defense will operate throughout the season. It wants to be able to throw all kinds of different looks and make it difficult for the offense to identify what is happening.
Some of this started happening last season. Allen historically has been an aggressive blitzer who likes to disguise things. He could only get so far last season, but his stamp started showing as soon as he took over.
There were a lot of instances when the Saints made it look like pressure was coming from one side, only to bring it from somewhere else.
Another thing the team did was hide its coverages right up until the ball was snapped. One way they did that was by using an inverted Cover 2, where the safeties come down and pick up the receiver at the line of scrimmage and the cornerback drops back into a deep zone.
It can be complicated to follow at times. That’s by design. Allen is trying to create a defense that is hard to follow but easy to execute.
“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.”
While the defense might line up in different ways or with different players, a lot of the execution remains the same. The core concepts for the plays often remain the same, but they’re executed with varying personnel packages or with little wrinkles designed to make them appear different.
The players are still trying to learn Allen’s defense and hammer down all the details. The team is going through the growing pains that come whenever a new system is installed. But once they get there, they believe the defense will be easy to execute.
“It’s difficult now because we haven’t mastered it yet,” cornerback Delvin Breaux said. “But once we master it, it’s simple. The defense is the same, but it’s just different personnel packages. Once everybody knows who is on the field, who’s knowing what to do, it’s going to be great. To be honest, it’s pretty much easier. It’s simpler. We can just go out there and play now instead of having to think and react.”
Is it possible to have all of these packages and different looks yet still keep the defense simple enough that the players can go out and just play? Being too complicated was one of the things that led to Ryan’s demise, despite efforts to simplify things.
That’s what the Saints hope happens.
It’s paramount to their success.
“That’s the $6 million question,” head coach Sean Payton said. “The art of teaching is repetition and knowing what to do. In today’s game, you have to have enough (complexity) to where, offensively, they just cannot hone in one, two or three things, and yet you have to be able to function, execute, get aligned and do some of the fundamental things and play with confidence.”
After finishing last season with one of the worst defenses in the NFL, the Saints are betting this is the way up.