METAIRIE, La. -- Rob Ryan joked about all of the support he’s been getting from his players this week who are "steamed up" that he’s getting the blame for the New Orleans Saints' failures on defense.
"Well, that’s outstanding to know. I mean, hell, it’s all their fault," Ryan cracked. "No, that’s not it. I mean, we gotta get better. We’re a group, we like to function as a group. ... And right now we gotta hold up our end, and we haven’t done it. But it doesn’t mean we’re not gonna work like hell to get it fixed, and we are."
As I examined at length Friday morning, the Saints’ downturn on defense this season has been as stunning as their rise was last season when Ryan first arrived.
Last season, it seemed like Ryan had finally found the right fit after nine seasons without a winning record as defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. Not only did he make the playoffs for the first time as a coordinator, his defense had gone from 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed before he arrived to fourth.
But this season, it’s the exact opposite. According to ESPN Stats and Information’s defensive efficiency formula, the Saints are actually worse this season than they were in 2012 -- when they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
When asked what kind of toll the struggles have been taking on him this season, Ryan said, "I mean, hell, I’m not quitting."
"Every year’s different, and every game’s different. So that’s what you keep battling for," Ryan said. "We’ve got a great room there to work with. We’ve got great coaches, and we need to fix it.
"Because right now we’re hurting our team, and that’s not what I was hired to do."
There have been numerous issues for the Saints' defense this season -- from missed tackles to blown coverages to a lack of a consistent pass rush to a porous run defense to an inability to force turnovers. It was closer to all of the above last week in a 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
But the one issue above all others has been the Saints’ inability to get off the field on third downs. They rank dead last in the NFL in that category, with opponents converting 47.9 percent of the time.
"You’re not gonna beat anybody, even as great as Drew Brees and our offense is, if we can’t get off the field on third down. It makes it almost impossible to win a game. So obviously, we put a huge emphasis on it," said Ryan, who tried mixing things up last week with more blitzes on third-and-long after he hadn’t previously blitzed much in those situations -- to no avail.
"At the end of the day, we have to execute better, and I’ve got to call a better third down," Ryan said. "If you have an alignment issue, that’s a problem. If you get a call in late, let’s say, that’s on me. If we don’t execute or have a matchup that’s not ideal, every little thing like that gets exposed in this league. And it always has, and it always will. So we have to be as close as perfect as you can be to get out of this funk."
Later Friday, Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette also added to that chorus of defensive players who stood up for Ryan. And in doing so, Galette took a few shots at Spagnuolo and his scheme in the process.
"That is crazy to me," Galette said of the criticism Ryan has been getting. "I mean, the guy just came in, we was the worst defense (in 2012). And I played on that worst defensive team in the history of football. He comes in, and we go finish top five. And people are blaming him?
"We’re running the same scheme (as last season). Impossible, you can’t blame him. It’s the players. And we have to get things corrected, and we have to be way more disciplined. Every single person on defense has had their hand in that jar of making mistakes. Some more than others, but it doesn’t matter. That’s not what counts here. You’re part of the reason, including myself."
When asked what was different in 2012, Galette said, "The problem was clearly the scheme in 2012. It was a scheme thing."
Though Galette didn’t mention Spagnuolo by name, he was clearly referencing him when he continued: "And Rob is a lot more lenient to listen to (assistant coaches) Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson, their ideas, as opposed to, 'My way or the highway.' The NFL changes. You can’t just stick to one thing because you won in 2006 or 2007 or whatever."