When people talk about Rob Ryan, among the first things brought up are his "exotic blitzing packages." Ryan is known for confusing quarterbacks through multiple front looks and bringing more pressure than most quarterbacks can handle.
Only half of this reputation is warranted. While he does use multiple fronts frequently in order to confuse opposing quarterbacks, Ryan’s defenses are generally in the bottom half of the league in terms of frequency of blitzes. Under Gregg Williams in 2010, the Saints blitzed on 46% of opposing passing plays. The following year, they raised this percentage to 51.8%. Meanwhile, in 2011, the Ryan led Cowboys blitzed 36% of opposing drop-backs. In his next and final year (2012), this percentage again decreased, dropping to 27.2%.
Flash forward to 2013.
Last season, the Saints blitzed on 28.26% of passing plays (180/637 drop-backs), good for 21st in the NFL. The other thing that they did, however, was get base front four pressure. The Saints were 8th in the league in Pro Football Focus’s Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) without blitzing. On 457 drop-backs, they got 33 sacks, 36 hits, and 90 hurries, leading to a PRP of 27.9.
It’s what the Saints do out of this base pass rush that is so effective. Under Williams, the Saints blitzed so frequently that it was boom or bust. They gave up big plays, but they made plays of their own as well. In Ryan’s case, he prefers a very steady approach. In 2011, the leading sack man for the Saints was Strong Safety Roman Harper, at 7.5. In 2013, DL/LB hybrids Cam Jordan and Junior Galette both had over 10 sacks for the season (12.5 and 12.0, respectively). Ryan’s defense didn’t create a ton of turnovers, but they still catapulted from dead last in the league in terms of yards allowed in 2012 to 4th in only one season. This approach has caused the Saints front office to change focus in the 2014 offseason, as they look to improve the defense.
What is it about Ryan’s multiple fronts defense that is so effective? For starters, it’s extremely difficult for a quarterback to get a read on who is actually rushing. One of the luxuries of a 3-4 defense is the ability to keep the back seven amoebic in nature. This makes it far more difficult for quarterbacks to assign the proper protections.
A good example of the confusion that these fronts can cause came against the Arizona Cardinals. Take the stills below as an example.
In this image, the Cardinals are in a basic single man set on 1st and 10. The Saints have seven men in the box in a 3-4 under. The reason that this is an "under" 3-4 is because the down linemen are shading the weak side. They’re also showing blitz from the edge, indicating secondary pressure. Palmer sees this and checks to a play action, hoping to catch the defense out of position.
As the play develops, it becomes perfectly clear that the Saints had no intention of bringing extra heat. Four of the eight potential pass rushers immediately bail, and Palmer realizes that he misread the coverage before the snap. This leads to an easy sack for Junior Galette from the outside, their first of the game.
Later in the half, Ryan shows a base four man front, but only one linebacker. Chris Carr and Roman Harper are brought on as support for the play.
As the play develops, however, Cam Jordan stunts inside, ruining the initial protection of the play. 3.5 seconds in the play, it looks like this:
Jordan has rushed to the inside and has the offensive guard tailing him. The pocket has collapsed backwards, forwards, to the right and to the left, and Palmer is forced to take the hit from Jordan, losing nine yards in the process.
Later in the same half, Arizona is trying to build some momentum. With 1:19 left in the half, the Saints come out in a similar formation to the previous one that Jordan got a sack on (4-1-6).
The Saints on this play are going to show blitz with Lofton, but at the snap he, again, promptly bails into coverage.
Every player wearing white and gold above was a red circle in the previous picture. This play relies on no stunts or blitzers, simply four bull rushers that immediately collapse the pocket. Palmer is sacked in 4.21 seconds on this play due to excellent coverage down the field.
In order to get a better understanding of what Ryan does to be successful, it’s important to revisit these plays and look at the coverage used downfield.
On the first sack, Ryan uses a base 3-4 under defense with an edge rusher, as previously noted.
What the Saints are running here is press bail Cover 2 defense. Every defender has his eyes locked on the quarterback. The two outside corners are pressuring their receivers, and the far-side man has already released his receiver to be picked up by the corner that was initially showing blitz. This nifty little bit of deception forces Palmer to freeze, thus giving up the sack.
On sack number two, the Saints are running a 4-1-6 defense. That is, they have four down linemen, one linebacker, and six defensive backs.
It doesn’t necessarily take a bunch of illustrations to show what’s happening on this play. The Saints are running a two-deep zone defense with a basic four man pass rush. Lofton’s (the player standing at the Arizona 45) responsibility is to take out the check-down man, whereas the rest of the defense is playing a basic zone defense. It’s a Cover 2, but it’s one of Ryan’s patented hybrids.
The zone that Ryan runs is effective because it relies on extremely efficient thinking from his corners. They stay with a receiver in a certain area, before "passing the receiver off" to another player in another zone. He also likes to rotate safeties down and bring in a third man in order to take away the deep ball over the top. This is especially effective against pass-heavy offenses such as the Cardinals.
The reason that the Saints were so good last year defensively was due to pressure in their base defenses. Rob Ryan runs a 3-4 only in name. He may run a 3-4/4-3 hybrid, a nickel, a dime, he may even bring in 6 safeties. It’s the variation in looks that makes him effective as a defensive coordinator. When a quarterback can’t tell where the pressure is coming from, he also can’t tell who is going to be open on any given play.
Ryan also uses a great deal of man-zone hybrid schemes. He loves to drop 7-8 men back into coverage, with one corner shadowing a top threat receiver and the rest of the secondary facing the quarterback. This forces quarterbacks to think twice before making throws. The zone schemes force him to hold onto the ball still longer, allowing the simple pass rushes that the Saints employ to reach the quarterback. The secondary of the Saints made the pass rush look excellent in 2013, contrary to popular belief.
This philosophy has extended to the Saints offseason.
They signed Jairus Byrd, re-signed Rafael Bush and also picked up Champ Bailey. These moves will give Ryan even more freedom in packages and looks. In addition to the beefed up secondary, Victor Butler will also be returning from injured reserve and Parys Haralson has been re-signed for 2014 after a very solid 2013 campaign rushing the quarterback. Expect the Saints defensive line to put up even bigger numbers with the type of variation that Ryan can use with names like that in the defensive backfield and in the trenches. The Saints should absolutely be striving to become the best defense in the land in 2014.
They have the personnel and they have the scheme. Just look where it got the Seahawks last season.