Ralph Malbrough / Contributing Writer
'If the New Orleans Saints can just be a top 20 ranked defense they'll be a legit Super Bowl contender.'
We've heard it 9000 times this summer from all the experts. I've said it, you've said it and my pizza delivery guy said it Friday when he dropped off my pizza right before kickoff.
I'm not even joking. He literally said, 'If you guys fix your defense watch out!'
The thing is nobody ever takes the time to ponder what the Saints being a top 20 defense really involves.
My friend and Saints blogger, Andrew Juge is a film and stat junkie, and we were trying to figure out a way to measure the Saints defense in 2013 to see if it improves. The thing is we don't just want to look at NFL defensive rankings and say the Saints defense gave up X number of yards in 2012 and in 2013 they are giving up y number of yards so they are better or worse.
Dear God, don't let them be worse.
What we were searching for is way to measure the defense week-to-week in some key stats which could tell us if they are getting better against things like play action or a team throwing deep on 3rd and short.
Problem is we aren't coaches, don't have hours to break down film, or pour over tons of statistical data from football analytics websites like Football Outsiders. Then I stumbled on to a book excerpt from 'Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories' by Bill Connelly.
In the book Connelly mentions how former Alabama coach Gene Stallings used a chart called 'Defensive Quality Control.' He learned it from Tom Landry and Connelly explains the point of it this way; 'For Stallings, the goal was not to figure out how good your run or pass defense was from a 20,000-foot view. It was to keep minute track of cracks, breakdowns and trends.'
In other words, Stallings didn't want to know where Alabama ranked in run defense or third down percentage. Why would he care if they are no. 1 in either category? Stallings had specific goals set for his defense and he wanted to know if they were achieving the goals in certain situations every week because how they did in those situations determined if they won games. The chart would tell him for example if his team was struggling against the run on first down and then he could go about solving the problem.
So Andrew and I decided to copy some of the chart, apply to it to Rob Ryan's defense, and track the Saints defense on a micro-level as best we can.
Once you start diving into individual statistics it becomes apparent how bad the 2012 Saints defense was and how much better they need to get just to rank 20th in the NFL.
Here are the stats we will be tracking every week to see if the Saints defense is getting better. If you think we are asking a lot remember most of these goals we set just get them to slightly below mediocre. We call it Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun.
1. Yards per rushing attempt on 1st down
Even though the NFL has morphed into a pass happy semi-arena football game I'd argue this stat might be the key for the 2013 Saints. Don't believe me? Against the Raiders last Friday Oakland averaged 2.63 yards rushing on first down so they were constantly in second and third in long situations. The Saints then got to tee off on a bad Raider offensive line and make Matt Flynn understand why Oakland is where quarterbacks go to die. It was only preseason, but I'm guessing the Saints don't collect seven sacks if the Raiders were running for five yards a pop on first down.
The Saints ranked last in allowing 5.2 yards per rush in 2012. In order to rank 20th they need to average 4.3 yards. That's a 17-percent improvement. Andrew and I decided the goal has to be to allow less than four yards a rush on first down so the goal is 3.9 yards per rush or whopping 25 percent better than 2012.
From worst defense in history to mediocre is a steep climb my friends.
2. Third Down Defense
All we want is a top 20-ranked defense so how hard could it be?
The Saints already ranked middle of the pack defending third-down conversions in 2012 at 39 percent. If they can get to 36 percent, it would rank 9th. That's 7.5 percent better.
If you don't think 7.5 percent is a huge increase, just think of wherever you work and if you got profits up 7.5 percent? You'd get a raise and a nice office with a view. Trust me 7.5 percent is huge.
If the Saints are going to go deep in the playoffs, the defense has to be really good at something right? In 2009, it was creating turnovers. The problem is predicting turnovers is nearly impossible. Being a top 10 defense against third downs isn't a crazy pipe dream; it's possible.
We also set defensive goals for 3rd down and more than 7 yards (25 percent) and 3rd and less than 4 yards (50 percent).
3. Giving up big plays in running and passing situation
I've already documented how bad this defense was in 2012 at defending against play action, so this help will track that. Do the Saints consistently get torched in 2nd and 4? Or maybe they give up a ton of huge pass plays on 3rd and long?
Against the Raiders the Saints forced Oakland into 19 different situations of 2nd and 3rd and long. The Raiders only converted three of them into plays of 10 yards or more. In the five situations where the Raiders had 2nd and 3rd down with less than four yards to go, they created three plays of 10 yards or more including Matt Flynn's only touchdown pass.
Even good quarterbacks struggle in second and third and long if you put them in the situation enough times. Put a bad quarterback in obvious passing situations and fun things like sacks and turnovers start popping up like magic. Funny how one stat connects to another huh?
This stat will be decided directly by if the Saints can figure out how to stop the run on first down. The good news is John Jenkins, Brodrick Bunkley, Cameron Jordan, and Akiem Hicks seem up to it.
Interesting the run defense is the one area where Rob Ryan really sort of threw Steve Spagnuolo under the bus. In mini-camps he mentioned scheme and run fits that were terrible in 2012.
I'll translate for you; Ryan thinks he can fix the run defense because in 2012 the coaching for it was awful. He'd better because if he doesn't expect things to look a lot like 2012.
4. Sacks, Points and Turnovers
These stats we will track week-to-week but won't take any special effort to get because any box score on the Internet will have them. It will however take a special effort for the Saints to be mediocre or good in any of them.
For the Saints to rank 20th in points per game on defense they need to go from 28.4 to 23 or 19 percent better.
In 2012 the Saints had 26 sacks so to rank 20th they need 33 or an increase of 27 percent. Also for the record the Saints haven't recorded more than 35 sacks in season since 2006.
In 2012 the Saints defense created 26 turnovers. In order to rank in the top five of the NFC they need to create 31 or a 16 percent increase.
Points obviously are the key one here but we'll be tracking on if they do these week in and week out. So for example, how many weeks they allow 23 points or less is more important than the average points allowed per game.
The last three weeks in 2012 the Saints defense gave up an average of 25 points. That's pretty close to our target of 23 points right? It is but one of those three games included a shutout against the Bucs while in the other two they gave up 31 and 44 points. In our charting system the Saints fail two out of three weeks.
Each week the Saints will get a pass-fail grade on the Rob Ryan's Big Chart of Fun. If they hit 6 of 9 goals they pass, and if they don't I assume Rob Ryan will yell at them a lot.
Now don't be thinking my column is going to turn into some sort of mathematical equation. I'll still be making jokes about fat players, ranting at coaches and laughing at the Falcons. This is just a couple different ways to watch the defense and also to make you realize it might not seem a long way for the Saints to go to be a top 20 defense but the stats say otherwise.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.