Small step to 25th is giant leap for Saints' defense, Dennis Allen

METAIRIE, La. – If Dennis Allen keeps this up, there’s a good chance he could become the first New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator to last more than three seasons under Sean Payton.

Allen hasn’t exactly worked miracles in his first full year as the Saints’ DC. But he absolutely has the much-maligned unit pointed in the right direction.

The Saints (7-8) rank 25th in the league in yards allowed (369.4 per game). That may not seem like much, but it’s a vast improvement over their 31st-place ranking in each of the past two years. They also ranked 31st through the first six weeks of this season.

But they’re 10th in the NFL over the past seven weeks (324.7 yards per game).

“Well, first off structurally and from an organizational standpoint, clearly it’s night and day. That’s been a positive,” Payton said of how Allen has put his stamp on the unit since replacing the fired Rob Ryan last November.

Payton made the move because he couldn’t tolerate all the alignment, assignment and communication errors that piled up under Ryan’s direction.

The move seemed almost inevitable after Payton hired Allen last year as a “senior defensive assistant” to help Ryan clean up those types of issues. Payton joked last year that they were like the “Odd Couple,” with Allen as the neat, organized one.

Payton already had a close relationship with Allen because Allen had worked under him as an assistant coach from 2006-2010. Allen then became a DC with the Denver Broncos and head coach of the Oakland Raiders before returning to New Orleans.

“Secondly, I would say we’ve been better probably since the bye a little more situationally,” Payton continued. “We’ve defended the run better. We went through a good stretch of playing good red zone defense, and then depending on the game, maybe weren’t as consistent. But considering the injuries we’ve had, [Allen] has done a real good job of putting a plan in place that I think suits our players. And I think from a communication standpoint and a teaching standpoint, all of those things have been improved.”

One area where that has shown itself is penalties. Last year, the Saints had 62 defensive penalties. This year, they’ve had 38.

There are some other glaring statistical improvements, as well, according to ESPN Stats and Information’s data.

Last year the Saints shattered NFL records by allowing 45 touchdown passes and an opponents’ passer rating of 116.1. This year, they have allowed only 23 TD passes and a passer rating of 95.3.

Last year, the Saints ranked 31st in run defense (129.4 yards per game). This year, they’re 12th (98.9 per game). And since Week 4, they’re third (86.3).

They haven’t been perfect. But their improvement is one of the biggest reasons that players and coaches are so optimistic about the future – especially considering the Saints have spent most of the year without their top five projected cornerbacks from this summer (Delvin Breaux, Keenan Lewis, P.J. Williams, Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson).

“I’d say obviously Dennis is really detailed. And I think that he does a good job of making sure guys are just kind of eliminating the white noise, so to speak, as he talks about,” said veteran Saints safety Jairus Byrd, who has finally started to make an impact over the past two months after his first two years in New Orleans were marred by a major knee injury and some inconsistent play. “[The idea is] ‘just don’t give guys too much. Just give them what they need to know and let them go out and play fast.’ And I think that’s what he’s done and kind of put his staple on, is just don’t overload guys with a bunch of this, what ifs. Just tell them, ‘If you see this, this is what they’re going to do, this is what they like to do, and just go out there and play fast and have fun.’”

The Saints were also without their top draft pick, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, for the first half of the season because of a broken fibula. And they made a switch at the middle linebacker/signal-caller role from James Laurinaitis to Craig Robertson early in the season.

Byrd credited Allen for the way he has adapted throughout the year.

“It’s been throughout the whole season, and he’s done a great job using what he’s had and putting together game plans and stuff like that,” Byrd said. “So he’s definitely done a good job with that and made the best of it.”