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Schemed to Death: Rob Ryan's Defense

In our 'Schemed to Death' series, I provide a detailed look at schemes that deviate from the norm, which in turn could provide a slow death for opposing NFL offenses and defenses alike. Get'cha popcorn ready!


The Ryan brothers - Rob (Saints defensive coordinator) and Rex (current Jets head coach) have fallen on a little bit of hard luck the past couple of seasons. Once thought of as the wave of the future for NFL defense, the Ryans are often met with laughter and perceived as fodder for myriad things, most of which have nothing to do with football.

Rob Ryan's defense is a 3-4 in name only

I believe that Rob is just what the doctor ordered defensively for an elite franchise the likes of the New Orleans Saints. His scheme is versatile, the personnel is plentiful, and the offense will most certainly do it's part. I will do my best to convey the manner in which Rob Ryan operates such a unique scheme that will undoubtedly lay plenty of NFL offenses to rest.

Being the son of famed, brash, NFL coach Buddy Ryan has done wonders for Rob Ryan in a multitude of ways. It's allowed him a direct entryway into some serious defensive philosophy, while instilling a great deal of self-confidence, that has allowed him to smile in the face of adversity. His ostentatious disposition is reminiscent of jettisoned defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose attacking style defense forced a great deal of turnovers all the way to a Super Bowl victory in 2009-10. With a philosophy built off the back of the blitz, the 2013 Saints defense will be a compelling watch. Especially schematically!

Rob Ryan has cut his teeth under a couple of the more prominent names in NFL lore. In addition to his father, being able to work under future hall-of-fame coach Bill Belichick (LB's coach from 2000-2003) allowed him to be a part of a few championship defenses that were multiple in scheme. It's very apparent in film study that he's taken bits and pieces from each of his stops in the NFL. He's coordinated 4-3 based defenses (Raiders 2004-2008), 3-4 based alignments (Browns & Cowboys 2009-10 and 2011-12 respectively) and has integrated his father's famed "46" defense along the way.

Ryan has yet to replicate the success of his father, whose defense was as revolutionary as it was effective. The 1985 Bears defense stifled offenses on it's way to a Super Bowl victory, while leaving behind a blueprint for future defensive success. The "46" (named after the jersey number of former Bears safety Doug Plank) saw linemen lined up in different alignment techniques while defensive backs were crept closer to the line of scrimmage. The backs served as linebackers in this scheme, allowing the defense to get quicker players on the field who could tackle and cover better than the standard linebacker.

Rob's brother, Rex, has enjoyed some recent success as well. Since his inception as the Jets head coach in 2009, Rex has fielded a couple of top five defenses on the way to two AFC Championship appearances. His defense is built in similar fashion as his fathers while having elements that are exclusive to himself. The most important part of Rex's defense is strong defensive back play. His overload blitz schemes, run out of a 3-4 based alignment as well as the 46, is a very unique way of operating defensively. He blitzes safeties and corners as much as he does guys in the front seven. He has possibly the best scheme in all of football. Not to be outdone, Rob is not too far behind.

Rob Ryan runs a multiple scheme that is complex in nature, and heavy on personnel groupings. A lot of his scheme is built around front seven play. He wants stout coverage on the outside, superb tackling throughout, and versatility amongst his defensive front. His defense is a base 3-4, but for teams that are heavy on the pass - he morphs into his fathers 46. He likes to play three safeties at once, which should work well with the Saints trio of Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, and Kenny Vaccaro.

The corners have to be adept in man-to-man coverage to allow for the blitz packages to run it's course. Earlier I profiled how Keenan Lewis may be the key to the back half of the defense, but incumbent starter Patrick Robinson and veteran stalwart Jabari Greer will have to elevate their respective levels of play for this defense to have a chance. I'm interested in seeing if second year corner Corey White can improve his play enough to warrant significant playing time. At 6-1, 205 pounds, White has the size Rob Ryan likes and covets.

The outside linebackers must have a pass rusher that is a major backfield disruptor. This particular guy always plays to the open end of the formation (opposite the tight end). In addition, the other outside backers need to be able to defend the run and cover tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs alike. The Saints were counting on former Cowboy Victor Butler being the key pass rusher until a torn ACL this off-season promptly ended his season. I honestly don't see anyone else on the roster who fits the bill.

Longtime pass rush specialist (as a 4-3 defensive end) Will Smith, has been moved to outside linebacker, but it remains to be seen if he has the athleticism to mimic what Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and the aforementioned Victor Butler did for Ryan in Dallas the past two seasons. All three of these guys are freakish athletes who are quicker, undersized players. Smith is almost 285 pounds, and seems like he would be more of a fit at 5-technique defensive end in the base scheme, which calls for bigger more powerful players.

Players like Junior Galette, Martez Wilson and Rufus Johnson will also attempt to replace Butler. I've lobbied for the best pass rusher the NFC South has known, who can play the position and would be extremely motivated against the rival Atlanta Falcons...but I digress. Do the right thing, New Orleans Saints!

The inside linebackers must be able to cover the pass along with being stout run defenders. In run situations, this scheme does a great job at covering up the inside backers, allowing them less trash to sift through on the way to the ball carrier. The combination of Curtis Lofton, Jonathan Vilma, and David Hawthorne should be able to fill those roles accordingly.

The line front has to be full of men that are athletic and don't lack for size. Defensive end Cameron Jordan will be a nightmare for opposing offenses in the Ryan scheme. His athleticism, intensity, and size make for the perfect match at 5-technique defensive end in this defense. Look for him to play all over the line in an attempt to create matchup problems. I believe he's a superstar in the making with similar talent to All-World Houston Texans 5-technique defensive end J.J. Watt.

Without a clear pass rushing threat at outside linebacker, Jordan may very well lead the team in sacks for a second consecutive year. First year man John Jenkins will team up with Akiem Hicks to provide some serious beef at the nose tackle position on base downs. In short down and distances look for both of them to be in the game together. The combination of Brodrick Bunkley, Kenyon Coleman and a host of other capable veterans round out the defense. Rob Ryan, for the most part, has the kind of roster that makes his defense pop.

Now let's hit the film room to further illustrate...

Rob Ryan's Base defense illustrated.
Rob Ryan's Base defense illustrated.

Depending on the offensive scheme you may or may not see the base defense all that much. The 0-technique nose, with two 5-technique defensive ends is designed with the run in mind. The alignment makes it so that each gap is accounted for in the run game. Ryan likes to bring in run specialist for base down and distances. These are guys that are usually bigger in size that eat up more space. So guys like Akiem Hicks (5), John Jenkins (0), and Cameron Jordan (5), should fill these three roles.

As you can see the primary pass rusher plays the opposite side of the tight end, commonly referred to as the open side of the formation. This brings down his coverage responsibilities and insures he's rushing the passer on most downs. I'd have to think that Will Smith should fill this role, since he would be a major liability covering tight ends and slot receivers. Victor Butler's role was on the other side, where he would routinely play man defense on tight ends as well as drop into zone coverage on numerous occasions. Martez Wilson and Junior Galette should reprise Butler's role.

The corners are man-to-man pretty much most of time as I mentioned earlier. If I were Rob Ryan, I'd play Vaccaro at the safety position closest to the line of scrimmage. He does well in man coverage and can assist in the run game as well. Harper can spell him from time to time. Malcolm Jenkins can play the single-high safety. Both positions are interchangeable. Ultimately you want Vaccaro and Jenkins to man the base defense safety spots.

4-6 1
Ryan version of the "46" defense

Here is a look Saints fans better get familiar with. Once Ryan identifies his four best pass rushers, he will get them all on the field at once. This creates chaos and confusion. He lines them up at different "techniques" and has them all stand up. Expect a lot of line stunts out of this formation. In addition, he puts seven DB's on the field. So you have all at once, the most athletic version of a defense in the league. Only one of the front four are lineman, but even he's the most athletic of them all - the 5-technique. Amazing!

4-6 2

Here is another way he uses that 46 look. Because of the down and distance, he plays it conservative on the back end. His theory is that his speedy defensive backs will get to the play, if the front can't generate a sack. I like this look better for the Saints than I did the Cowboys. A lot of the guys on the Cowboys were poor tacklers on the back end. The Saints can trot out three good tackling DB's in Vaccaro, Harper and Jenkins. In addition, corners Lewis and Greer are pretty savvy tacklers in their own right. There is not one inside linebacker in this scheme, so you take out Hawthorne, Vilma and Lofton, and you have Cameron Jordan play where Hatcher is below. Will Smith plays the role of Ware. Martez Wilson plays where Butler is (would've been nice to have Butler play where Butler is *sigh*). And Junior Galette plays where Spencer is. Athleticism galore!

4-6 3

This is a continuation of the above screen grab. Notice the ingenuity of this play. Ryan actually has his better pass rusher Spencer occupying two blocks, which allows 5-technique DE Hatcher to get one on one. This is the reason players like to play for Ryan, his unconventional thinking allows everyone to get involved.

Stunt action perform in the 46 look
Stunt action perform in the 46 look

The reason I say expect this look frequently is for the fact that the NFC South is a division built around the pass. The Falcons, Panthers and Bucs all like to play with 3-4 receiver sets. Ryan will relish that fact, and counter with this type of look. In this diagram, we see a diversionary tactic going on that allows premiere pass rusher Demarcus Ware a one on one opportunity. Spencer and Hatcher do the work while Ware and Butler try to get to the QB. Ironic the team their facing huh?

As you can see, Ryan's defense is a extremely scheme based. Some teams personnel you to death, others like the Ryan brothers rely on their scheme to get the job done. When you have a great, versatile scheme, it's less reliant upon having elite, top-notch players - so it should be a great pairing with the Saints defense.

Due to the Saints possessing the very best offense in the league, the defense doesn't exactly have to be perfect. What's needed more than anything is help in the turnover department. When the Saints were at their best, the defense forced turnovers at key times which allowed Drew Brees and the offense to take even more chances at explosive plays. Run the ball, achieve explosive plays through the air, and make sure the defense helps the team win the turnover battle. With Ryan's defense confusing opposing offenses and bringing swagger back to NOLA, there's no reason the Saints shouldn't be talked about among the elite of the NFL.

In the NFC it's all about quarterback pressure. Rob Ryan specializes in that with his abundance of different blitz packages and line stunts. His whole goal is to attack, and coerce the QB into making quicker decisions. Quicker decisions usually lead to sloppy play. Here's an example of that:

Line stunt performed out of the Rob Ryan scheme
Line stunt performed out of the Rob Ryan scheme

This is a great example of the confusion this scheme will cause. Initially this looks like man to man across the board with OLB Ware in man coverage over the slot. Instead, right before the snap Ware creeps back to the line of scrimmage like he's going to rush the passer. This in itself would cause confusion. Ware is actually performing an end twist and loop off of 5-technique Jason Hatcher.

Ware stunt 2

If the object of the game is getting to the QB, Ryan can scheme you there. The question that has to be answered is: Do the Saints have the athletes up front to execute these type of plays?

Ware stunt 3

Forcing the QB to make quick decisions. The underlying factor in Ryan's scheme.

Rob Ryan's defense is a 3-4 in name only. His scheme truly implements a lot of the theories he's developed while coming up in the coaching ranks. A player knowing they have a chance to contribute creates competition as well as growth. I see a major culture change on the horizon in New Orleans.

Not only will Ryan empty his playbook schematically, but he rotates in an exorbitant amount of players. He has safeties play corner. Corners line up at linebacker. Linebackers playing along the defensive front. All while sending linemen on blitzes and stunts!

With the Saints offense giving a major assist, Rob Ryan's amoeba like defense will undoubtedly scheme these offenses to death.

Class dismissed....

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