Rob Ryan, players embracing new vision for defense

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Rob Ryan must have cringed at least a little bit at the idea of simplifying the New Orleans Saints defense this year. “Simple” is a four-letter word in Ryan's vast and versatile playbook.

“Yeah, but I like stopping people. And I didn’t like last year,” said Ryan, who insisted that he’s on board with the change, which is intended to cut down on the assignment and alignment errors that plagued the Saints defense last year as they collapsed to 31st in the NFL in yards allowed and dead last in efficiency, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Coach Sean Payton decided to keep Ryan on as his defensive coordinator, but he demanded changes -- including the simpler scheme and the addition of senior defensive assistant Dennis Allen.

From what we’ve been able to gather so far this summer, the Saints are playing a lot of man coverage with a single high safety in their base defense. And they don’t plan to do many checks and adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

“We have a great vision. Sean lays the blueprint out. We went through it all spring and really right after the season of exactly how we want to do things,” Ryan said. “I think when I first got hired there was a different vision than the one we have now. But it’s exciting to have that direction and everyone pointing in the same direction.

“I’m also the guy who worked for Al Davis for five years [with the Oakland Raiders], and all we did was play post-safety defense. So that’s the vision of the team, and no one’s gonna advance that vision – I’ll speak for myself, in my opinion – better than I will.”

Ryan cracked that he has coached every style of football from 3-4 to 4-3 to “7-2, which I don’t know what that is.” And he credited the rest of the Saints’ defensive coaching staff for being just as versatile and experienced with different styles of play.

“We’ve got this beautiful vision here, we’ve got the players to do it, and we’re excited,” Ryan said.

That defensive staff now includes Allen, who was brought in to complement Ryan while working primarily with the defensive backs.

Allen, who coached the Saints’ secondary during their 2009 Super Bowl run, spent the past four years as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos and head coach of the Raiders. Though he could be perceived as a replacement-in-waiting for Ryan if the defense falters again, the two have insisted that it has been a great pairing. And I wrote a detailed feature this summer on how players envision them as a good “Odd Couple” match – with Ryan the mad scientist schemer whom players love to rally behind and Allen the detail-oriented teacher and calming influence who can better translate the defensive vision to players.

So far, all of the changes seem to be working well enough.

The idea is for players to play faster since they don’t have to do as much thinking. And we’ve seen that from the defensive backs, in particular.

Starters such as Keenan Lewis, Brandon Browner and Kenny Vaccaro have consistently been rejecting passes throughout the first three days of training camp.

“We saw a few mistakes [Saturday]. And hell, they might be the first ones we’ve had in [three] days of camp,” Ryan said. “So that’s exciting. You don’t like to make those mental mistakes, but usually they come a hell of a lot faster than Day [3].

“Especially going against a Sean Payton [offense], I mean hell, you’ve got everything to stop. … I really like the progress we’re making.”

The press-coverage approach definitely suits Browner and Lewis. The imposing Browner (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) was specifically targeted in free agency because he’s one of the most physical jammers in the NFL. Lewis (6-1, 208) also has the size and length for that style.

Meanwhile, coaches and players have pointed out how the simplified playbook benefits younger players like second-year backup Stanley Jean-Baptiste, a developmental project who basically redshirted last year. Newly-signed Canadian Football League transplant Delvin Breaux also has made a quick transition as he has thrived this summer.

“We make some checks, but it isn't too many. You don’t have three or four guys making checks, usually just one in the front and one in the back, so that makes it easier,” Lewis said. “When you simplify the playbook, you give players an opportunity to play faster. So that’s what we’re doing.

“Coaches feel like we have the pieces to the puzzle to simplify. So when you do that, guys can just be themselves.”

Vaccaro stressed, however, that fixing the defense isn’t as simple as just simplifying the scheme.

“You could say that. But at the same time, my rookie year we were ranked 4 [in yards allowed] and we did everything. So it’s not exactly that,” said Vaccaro, who fell victim to a sophomore slump in 2014 and talked about his desire to improve in all areas from his tackling to his conditioning to his mastery of the playbook to the area that was out of his control last year -- health.

“I think we need to be mentally and physically tougher as a team," Vaccaro said. "I think when you’re highly conditioned, those mental errors don’t come.”