As the Saints’ 2012 season crumbled beneath their feet and the defense gave up an NFL-record 7.042 total yards, it was easy to wonder if New Orleans had the wrong players, the wrong coordinator or a combination of the two.
The same players, after all, finished 2011 as the 24th-ranked defense and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was the same coach who devised a scheme that helped the New York Giants shut down the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl for the 2007 season.
Eleven weeks into the 2013 season the answer is obvious, and always should have been.
When New Orleans sent its defense on the field to begin Sunday’s 23-20 win over San Francisco, 16 of 24 players on the defensive roster were around in 2012. And the regular starting unit has eight players back from a season earlier.
With Monday night’s game still to play, the Saints’ defense was up to No. 4 in total defense. They were No. 3 in third-down percentage (32.79 percent) and No. 2 in sacks per pass attempt.
New Orleans has 16 takeaways and 32 sacks, or two more takedowns than it had in all of 2012.
For this, the Saints can thank Rob Ryan, the team’s first-year coordinator. After tough runs in Oakland, Cleveland and Dallas, Ryan appears to have found a home in New Orleans.
He’s figuring out ways to get everyone involved and devising ways to confused quarterbacks. It helps, certainly, to have a defensive front that’s quickly becoming one of the best and most underrated in the game.
But Ryan is appearing to be an expert in how to use the entire defensive portion of the roster.
Against San Francisco, you saw it all. He started the game with five linebackers and three defensive linemen. He shuffled in different alignments from there, including his fame amoeba defense in which nobody puts a hand on the ground.
What Ryan does makes it hard for opponents to game plan and fun for players to play.
“You know, we have our base stuff we can go to but 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,” veteran defensive back Chris Carr said. “But with Rob, he’ll make up a totally new scheme, totally new defenses. And he has confidence in us that we’ll be able to figure it out, practice it.”
The biggest thing, though, may be that the defense shows that it can learn and improve thanks to Ryan.
Just three weeks ago, the Jets’ Chris Ivory gashed the Saints for 139 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. The Jets had runs of 52, 30 and 27 yards.
Sunday, against one of the NFL’s most potent attacks, Frank Gore had only 48 yards on 13 carries. The 49ers finished with just 81 rushing yards, or 60 fewer than their season average. And Gore’s best run was 24 yards, the longest play of the day given up by New Orleans.
“This game just highlights it,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “You look what we’ve done all season, I think the body of work speaks for itself. We’re not going to pat our backs because there’s still a lot of the season left and we’ve got to go out each week and prove we’re a top defense.
“We have to be reckoned with. It’s not just our offense, it’s our defense, too.”
When Ryan was hired, he was compared to former coordinator Gregg Williams, including by me.
But I recognize the folly of that comparison. Ryan’s defenses are complicated but not overly aggressive. He’s not blitzing like Williams, partly because he doesn’t have to, but mostly he knows when to be aggressive and when not to, when to throw in something new and when to stick with the basic formula.
Payton took a chance on hiring Ryan and 10 weeks in, it looks like a genius move.
And because of it, the Saints have a chance now to do something special.