From 2013 to 2014, the Saints’ defense has had the dubious honor of being the unit with one of the greatest digressions in football. The 4th ranked defense last season is now flirting with the basement in many statistical categories. Of course, a decline like the one that the Saints’ D has seen has any number of factors contributing to it, but there are several that are more notable than others.
First of all, the core of the Saints’ defense is gone. The departures of Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, and Jonathan Vilma was met with a thank you and a hand wave by many Saints’ fans. What wasn’t considered was that these players were being replaced by youth. Furthermore, Malcolm Jenkins, by all accounts the vocal leader of the Saints’ secondary was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints’ core group now consisted of Keenan Lewis & Jairus Byrd, two players that were top at their position but were extremely quiet about it, and Kenny Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson, two players that still had a lot to prove coming into the season due to their relative inexperience.
However, all of these moves are easy to look at in hindsight. The offseason is over, and we are now well into the next year. And the problems that the Saints are facing are far, far more tangible than those that involve departed vets and young talent. The problem ranges from the bottom up.
These two plays are on similar third down situations for the Falcons. The one on the left is week one of the 2013 season, whereas the one on the right is week one of 2014. The Saints’ formations are the first things that can be noticed. In 2013, the Saints line up with a single high safety while the strong safety moves down into the slot. In 2014, the Saints have 6 man front (a zone blitz look) with no linebackers on the second level. The most notable thing about the formations is the safety(ies). In 2013, the single high man is about 13 yards off the line of scrimmage. In 2014, however, the two deep safeties are closer to 20 yards off the line.
Safety play is a huge part of what defines today’s NFL. The Saints run their single high man back in 2013. He drops back until he’s about 22 yards off of the line. This allows him to survey the entire field, while keeping his fluidity intact. In 2014, the two safeties are largely stationary after a 2 yard drop, since they’re being asked to keep the play in front of them, but no one is getting down the field quickly enough. This eventually leads to the safeties developing lead feet, and it ruins their ability to quickly react to a play. It also leaves the midfield wide open for receivers coming over the middle, as they can’t close on the ball quickly enough to make any type of play.
Matt Ryan is easily able to look off the New Orleans’ zone, while Patrick Robinson is left isolated 1v1 with Devin Hester. The Saints’ defense is caught off guard, and the result of the play is a first down. In the 2013 play, the Saints played a far more aggressive man to man zone hybrid, and this allowed them to create pressure and make a play on the ball, whereas they’re complacent in the 2014 play, and therefore allow the third down conversion.
Which actually leads me into the next point: The Saints’ complete and total inability to create pressure. In order to see the disparity there, the dichotomy the Saints games against the Dallas Cowboys should prove to be useful.
Here, we see the Saints’ looks against the Dallas Cowboys in 2013 vs. 2014, only this time it comes in the red zone. The Saints line up without linebackers in both of these scenarios, however in 2013 (once again, on the left) they’re relegated elsewhere, whereas in 2014 they’re all coming on a blitz. There are no safeties high against Dallas in 2014, and the Saints are playing man to man across the board.
What we see here are the ideal (2013) and inversions of what you want (2014). In both of these situations, Tony Romo finds himself with a pocket, but every receiver is engaged off of the line, with the exception of the one running a fly on the bottom of the screen. Meanwhile, neither receiver on the bottom are engaged is 2014, and the corner on top actually engages the man running the fly, allowing him room for separation.
This is the pocket cam 3 seconds into each play. In 2013, The Saints have managed to collapse Romo’s pocket, and they’ve forced him to scramble. In 2014, however, Romo has had time to survey the defense, wind up his throw, and he still has a perfectly pocket to throw out of. Giving Tony Romo, or any quarterback, this much time in the pocket will yield horrible results. In 2013, this play goes for an incompletion on a 4 man rush. In 2014, Romo completes a touchdown pass to Terrance Williams against an 8 man blitz.
This shows that the problem is two-fold. Rob Ryan is trying to compensate for the talent that he has, but with so much turnover he doesn’t know what he has yet. He’s digging deeper into his bag of tricks to create pressure, due to down years from Cameron Jordan & Junior Galette so far, and in doing so he’s sacrificing the second ranked passing defense from last year.
The Saints need better execution from their players to make it so that Ryan doesn’t have to step so far out of his comfort zone to compensate for their inability to execute. Ryan, however, cannot be absolved of all blame. The Saints struggles defensively are occurring up and down the board. Ryan isn’t calling schemes that work for his players, and his players aren’t executing the schemes that are being called. For this reason, the Saints are going to be forced to do things that they wouldn’t normally do (like blitz 8 guys at the opponents’ 25 yard line). Now, with the loss of Byrd, the Saints will find themselves even thinner in the secondary, and certainly less talented.
If the Saints are going to salvage their season, it needs to start with the defense. The NFC South is trying its very hardest to make sure that it’s competitive this season, and for that reason the Saints still have a shot. However, with what the Saints have shown so far, it’s going to be an uphill battle. An inability to hold zones, an inability to create pressure and some very questionable alignment choices by Ryan are reparable, but someone needs to swallow their pride for it to work.