Saints' defense keeps evolving, thriving

METAIRIE, La. -- Rob Ryan has always been known for his inventiveness and his versatility. He has been described by at least one former player as a “mad scientist” who stays up late into the night devising schemes to combat each specific opponent.

Never was that more on display than this past Sunday, when the New Orleans Saints' defense came up with a huge performance in a 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

The Saints started the game in a package that included three linemen, five linebackers and just three defensive backs. It was a new package they implemented for the first time this past week as a way to combat the 49ers’ unique style of “scheme runs,” as well as the possibility that San Francisco might run some read-option (which the 49ers didn’t feature much).

“We were ready for everything today,” cornerback Chris Carr said after the game. “It’s like the equivalent of being in college and facing Air Force.”

“We had to stop the run. That was the game plan. … We didn’t want another [Chris] Ivory highlight reel on us,” said outside linebacker Junior Galette, referencing the Saints’ struggles against the New York Jets running back two weeks earlier.

It worked well, as the Saints held San Francisco to a total of 196 yards and 81 rushing yards (both of the 49ers’ touchdowns came via short fields after turnovers).

The Saints used a lot of that 3-5 formation (or was it a 5-3?) throughout Sunday’s game. But that wasn’t their only wrinkle.

On their third play of the game, a third-and-long, they switched to six defensive backs. Later in the game, the Saints had just two true defensive linemen on the field at one point -- with outside linebacker Parys Haralson and end Keyunta Dawson lining up as defensive tackles.

We may see more of that run-specific package -- or more new wrinkles -- when the Saints face the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers twice down the stretch.

“Most defensive coordinators, you have your base stuff, and maybe you put one or two new calls in, just contingent on what the other team is playing. But with Rob, he’ll make up a totally new scheme, totally new defenses,” said Carr, who also played under Ryan with the Oakland Raiders in the past. “And he has confidence in us that we’ll be able to figure it out, practice it. The most important thing is if you are gonna have a defense like this, where you’re gonna put in new defenses and new schemes, new fronts, that you have guys that are smart football players and that really care about learning the game and buying in.

“And we’ve had a lot of that this season, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been successful, and hopefully we can just keep it up. And now it’s part of the season where all this stuff we’ve been doing is kind of like our base package. It’s not foreign to us anymore.”

Ryan’s approach could obviously backfire under the wrong circumstances. He drew criticism from some observers when he was with the Dallas Cowboys for throwing too much volume at his players and sacrificing discipline in the process. Perhaps that was even the main reason he was fired after last season by owner Jerry Jones, who wanted to simplify things.

But clearly Ryan has that “buy-in” from his players this year in New Orleans. They’ve embraced the way Ryan tailors his defense to suit their specific strengths and weaknesses -- especially compared to the way they felt last year’s coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was too set in his ways.

Players like Galette, ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks and safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Malcolm Jenkins are thriving because they’re being used in versatile roles that change depending on the package and the game situation.

"That's the great thing about Rob. He's not set in stone,” said Jordan, who is having a breakout year as a hybrid 3-4/4-3 end. “He's always willing and able to change and adapt to different situations.”

Meanwhile, the entire Saints defense has gone from setting a NFL record for yards allowed last year (440.1 per game) to ranking fourth in the league this year (305.4 per game).

Talk about mixing things up. They’re practically unrecognizable.