By Justin Henry (@jrhwriting)
Cold Hard Football Facts' Dr. Death
The 7-9 New Orleans Saints fielded the worst run defense in the NFL last year: they surrendered 5.17 Yards Per Attempt.
That dismal performance put them on the short list of worst run defenses in NFL history, as we highlighted earlier this offseason.
One of the biggest stories of the 2012 offseason had been Commissioner Roger Goodell's clash with the New Orleans Saints. The spats were in regards to an alleged incentive program that encouraged Saints defenders to try and injure opposing players.
Although head coach Sean Payton was forced to serve a year-long suspension for what was believed to be for his role in the scandal, four suspended players would be absolved by an arbitrator.
Among those players were two still-employed Saints in defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Although Vilma gleefully tweeted, "Victory is mine!" in the aftermath, it'd be one of few such wins that the Saints defense would have last year.
The Saints ranked third in points scored, averaging 28.8 PPG. They would need every one of those points from Drew Brees, as the defense completely caved in. Their 28.4 PPG allowed was 31st in the NFL.
Worse than that, the Saints became the first team in NFL history to allow 7,000 yards of offense, giving up 7,042. That beat the previous record of 6,793, given up by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
Only four opponents were held under 400 yards of offense last season. While the pass defense suffered mightily enough (the Saints were 31st in passing yards allowed), the run defense allowed 2,361 yards. That's an average of 147.56 yards a game.
Incredibly, only six individual running backs enjoyed a 100-yard day on the Saints. Two of them, however, topped the bicentennial mark: Kansas City's Jamaal Charles with 233, and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams with 210.
In 12 games, the Saints allowed 13 different 80-yard rushers. A pair of Broncos, Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman, enjoyed days of 122 and 86 yards respectively on the Saints D.
The Saints were 4-8 when an opposing running back topped 80+ yards. Their only loss in which they didn't allow an 80-yard rusher was Week 2 at Carolina. It wasn't an individual effort, though: Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart rushed for 71, 69, and 51 yards each respectively, which adds up to 191 yards. They combined for 38 attempts, averaging 5.03 YPA.
Steve Spagnuolo's defense generated a lukewarm pass rush (25th with just 30 sacks; 28th in Negative Pass Play%) and forced only 11 fumbles. So opposing offenses were able to pick apart New Orleans at will.
If you believe an anonymous Saints player, much of the defenses issues lay at the feet of Spagnuolo. Under disgraced coordinator Gregg Williams, the players had freedom to play aggressively unhinged, sayeth the tipster.
Comparitively speaking, Spagnuolo apparently was stuck in a rigid mindset, with no wiggle room, and couldn't adjust when prompted. The player also spoke ill of Spagnuolo's people skills, calling it a drastic change from Williams.
Rectifying the Issue
After Sean Payton was reinstated as Saints head coach, Spagnuolo got the boot. Shortly thereafter, boistrous Rob Ryan was hired to serve as defensive coodinator for his fourth team in 10 seasons.
Ryan spent five tumultuous years with the Raiders (lone bright spot: the team ranked third in total defense in 2006) before coordinating two years in Cleveland, where he peaked in 2010, allowing 20.8 PPG (13th in the league).
After that, Ryan spent the last two seasons with the Cowboys. The 2011 season was a so-so year (16th in points, 14th in yards) before things went south last season. As the likes of Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Barry Church succumbed to injuries, Dallas fell to 24th in points (25 PPG) and 19th in yards.
Point being, Ryan's never commanded a dominant defense the way his brother Rex has. Oakland and Cleveland were inept organizations during his runs through both, and his time in Dallas seemed promising until the injury-gutted 2012 season.
Even his tenure with the Saints has begun inauspiciously. Linebacker Victor Butler, a tagalong from Dallas with Ryan, tore his ACL during June camp. Butler, a situational player with only three career starts, would have aided the Saints' pass-rush resurrection. As of now, he remains on the PUP list, and could be a late season reactivation.
Here's a look at how Ryan's defenses have fared at forcing Negative Pass Plays (percentage of plays that end with a sack or pick):
Generally, a quality defense should force a sack or an interception once every 10 pass plays or so. Ryan's defenses have done so once, while going over 9.5 percent three times. Ryan vastly improved the Raiders defense in his third year, before the firing of Art Shell/hiring of Lane Kiffin/drafting of JaMarcus Russell undid a lot of team progress.
While Ryan can get defenses to wallop foes in the passing game, how does he do against the run?
The only point Ryan's defenses have shown vast improvement was in Cleveland from his first year to his second. In Oakland, the run defense mostly held up at a high level until the Kiffin era began (ironic that Ryan's successor in Dallas is Kiffin's father).
Dallas last season could hardly be blamed on Ryan; several linebackers he was dependent on were lost for the season.
With the new 3-4 scheme in New Orleans, Brodrick Bunkley is being counted on to take over the nose tackle role, which he's been unfamiliar with to this point. Cameron Jordan (eight sacks last season) works one defensive end spot, while 2012 draft pick Akiem Hicks will be leaned on to start the other. Hicks played in fourteen games last season, starting none.
On paper, the linebacking corps is loaded with star power. In execution will be a different story. Vilma and Smith had a full offseason without red-tape, but Smith is now out for the year with a torn ACL sustained in preseason. 2011 draft pick Martez Wilson (four sacks and one career start) is now pressed into action.
Curtis Lofton, one of few consistencies on defense last season, occupies the middle with Vilma (who played out of position at weakside last year). Fourth year man Junior Galette seems likely to start at outside left, despite having only two career starts. This is where Butler would assuredly be if healthy. David Hawthorne, gifted on the Seahawks, disappointed in his first year with the Saints, and will likely come off the bench.
Jabari Greer returns to start at corner, along with former Steeler Keenan Lewis. Lewis joins on a five year deal, coming off a season with 69 tackles in 16 starts. Lewis is especially stout against the run, and a welcome addition to the D.
Veterans Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper remain starters at safety for now, while combative first round pick Kenny Vacarro develops deep on the chart. Vaccaro's had trouble in Texas against the run, letting his aggression take him out of plays against patient runners.
Breaking it Down
The Saints seem to have the most stable front office that Rob Ryan has known as a defensive coordinator. Seven of his nine seasons leading defenses have come under the impatient eyes of Al Davis and Jerry Jones. With Tom Benson and Mickey Loomis as his superiors, Ryan won't be roadblocked by their hubris.
In other words, there'll be patience. If something doesn't work, Ryan's bosses won't take drastic measures to "fix" the problem. The Saints aren't a team that makes sweeping changes at the first sign of trouble. Ryan will have time to build a fortress, without micromanagement up his considerable backside.
What Ryan brings to the Saints that Spagnuolo didn't bring is flexibility. For the acrimony surrounding Spagnuolo and his hasty exit from the Bayou, the players are reportedly embracing Ryan.
This seems to be a familiar trend: Eagles defenders bolted in free agency after father Buddy was canned in 1990. Outside of LaDainian Tomlinson and Greg McElroy, you rarely hear a Jet have a bad word to say about Rex, or the way he runs his team.
A Ryan-coached defense is usually a united one, priding itself on being disruptive nuisances, fueled by their coach's encouragement of such havoc. Ryans are brash, but Ryans are like proud fathers. And their 'kids' love to enflame that pride.
With this caustic paternalism, the Saints are in a better place psychologically. But what about from a physical standpoint?
A 3-4 may be better equipped to stop the run. Of the eight teams who held opponents under 4.0 YPA in 2012, half of them were 3-4 based: San Francisco, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Baltimore. As the league moves more toward 3-4 bases at large, it makes sense for a run-deficient team like New Orleans to try it.
But it won't be easy. Sure, adding a run-stopping corner like Keenan Lewis is a step in the right direction, but it takes more than an offseason to perfect it. There will be growing pains and, realistically, players that Ryan and Sean Payton will want to weed out come spring 2014.
The Saints run defense will vastly improve in 2013. Fortunately for Saints fans, they have management patient enough to let those improvements continue further down the line.