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Scheme vs Talent: The Demise of Defense in New Orleans

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Rob Ryan's firing was an inevitability heading into the Saints' bye week. Ryan made the Saints the 4th ranked defense in the NFL in his debut with them in 2013, before putting up league worst numbers in 2014 and going the same route in 2015. However, how much of this digression was talent, and how much of it was Ryan himself? This line is always one that front offices are forced to walk, and Ryan's young core of players didn't help his cause.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Rob Ryan had to be fired.  There is no mistaking this.  His defense was simply not performing after a promising 2013 debut.  When things go wrong for a particular unit, everyone wants to blame the coach.  "He isn't picking the right guys for his scheme," "he isn't scheming around the players he has," and "he's just calling the wrong plays" are the most common complaints about a coach.  Players should be held accountable as well, but blaming coordinators has become the go to reaction to an underperforming offense/defense/special teams unit.

Yes, Rob Ryan needed to go, this still isn't being disputed.  But how is it that he can come in, put out a #4 ranked defense, and then underwhelm as thoroughly as he did in the following 2 years?  Is it a talent change?  Is it a lack of tape in the initial year?  But if Ryan has been around for multiple teams, is he better at catering talent than we think?

This is strictly anecdotal, but to me the answer is none of the above.  Ryan is a motivating coach.  By all accounts, players loved him.  Rafael Bush recently shouldered some of the blame for Ryan's failure.  Being a boisterous loud mouth works with players . . . for a time.  Again, this is purely speculative, but players truly want to play for Rob Ryan.  So they do, until the honeymoon period fizzles, and they fall back into their old habits.

But, to get back into tangible facts, there are few things that need to be considered about the Rob Ryan defense, and whether it was a lack of discipline, a lack of talent, or a misunderstanding of scheme that made the Saints' defense freefall so quickly from one year to another.

The Myth

The thing that everyone seems to talk about with Rob Ryan is his "exotic blitzing."  In reality, this isn't Rob Ryan's tactic.  Rob Ryan uses a multiple front defense to create the illusion of pressure, before dropping back into a zone coverage.  The only thing truly exotic about Rob Ryan is his zone scheming, which requires a great deal of dragging players across formations and bringing down high safeties while isolating one man in single high.  The idea is to bait quarterbacks into throwing a receiver open, when in reality a corner is coming across the formation to make a play.  The outside corners generally play a Cover 3 with the single high safety.

In 2013, the Saints were 21st in the league in sending more than 5 players on dropbacks.  On 637 passing plays, they brought more than 5 180 times, putting them at ~28%.  They moved Junior Galette around the formation often to create different looks, while generally keeping Cameron Jordan as the strong side DE.  The defense worked because of coverage sacks.  By sending less than 5 players, the Saints had between 6 & 7 players in coverage.  Galette and Jordan both had double digit sacks in 2013.  A lot of coordinators can succeed with that kind of production at the line.

In 2014, there was a sharp uptake in blitzing.  The Saints jumped up to ~32% (194/605), putting them tied for 10th in the league.  There are a lot of factors that can lend themselves to this spike, and that goes into the next section of the Rob Ryan era.

The Personnel

2013 and 2014 had a lot of similar faces on the field, whereas 2015 was significantly greener.  Here's a table of the starters at the beginning of the season.  Keep in mind that Ryan doesn't marry himself to positions, but rather he moves players around as he sees fit.  Also remember that the Saints do a lot of rotation, and some of the people on this table left midseason.

Position/Year DE DE2 Sam Mike Will Jack CB CB2 SS FS NT
2013 Cameron Jordan Glenn Foster Ramon Humber Curtis Lofton Will Herring Junior Galette Jabari Greer Keenan Lewis Kenny Vaccaro Malcolm Jenkins Brodrick Bunkley
2014 Cameron Jordan Akiem Hicks Parys Haralson Curtis Lofton David Hawthorne Junior Galette Keenan Lewis Patrick Robinson Kenny Vaccaro Jairus Byrd Brodrick Bunkley
2015 Cameron Jordan Bobby Richardson/Tyeler Davison Dannell Ellerbe Stephone Anthony David Hawthorne Hau'oli Kikaha Delvin Breaux Brandon Browner Kenny Vaccaro Jairus Byrd John Jenkins

It's a bit of a mess up there due to the inconsistency of a modern NFL defense, but the most notable shuffling going on is in the secondary year to year and at linebacker from 2014-2015.  Obviously the Saints had a bit of a Renaissance at linebacker due to their 1.2 and 2nd round draft picks (Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha).  Both have impressed, but both are still young.  Meanwhile, Delvin Breaux was added to cornerback.  To the aforementioned point about increased blitzing from 2013-2014, it is possible that Ryan was trying to compensate for losing Jabari Greer.  In 2014, Keenan Lewis was exclusively trailing #1s while Patrick Robinson or Corey White were getting burned on the other side.  The Saints had Greer up until Week 11 in 2013, before he would suffer what would ultimately be a career ending, horrific leg injury against the 49ers that perhaps directly, perhaps indirectly led to his retirement.

The Scheme

Rob Ryan likes to do a few strange things in his schemes.  First of all, he likes to either give a 0 Deep look but stacking everyone at the line and then bailing at the snap, or a 1 Hella Deep look in which he lines up a safety 35 yards off the ball.  The former is more common, the latter is more puzzling.  With that in mind, Ryan's schemes are contingent upon confusing the QB pre snap.  He likes to have people standing and moving around almost like Dick LeBeau's famous Predator defense.

Apologies for this looking like a total mess, but here's the gist.  Rob Ryan is running a Cover 3 defense with a single safety high.  He has 5 at the line.  Dallas is running a clearout HB Wheel, hoping to get DeMarco Murray running free down the sideline.  The Saints' OLB is in a standing pass rushing stance.  Dallas has the field spread out in hopes to exploit the zone.

A few things jump out as Romo drops back.  The strong side of the field is clearly where Romo wants to go, but Jabari Greer has Terrence Williams covered and Dwayne Harris is locked up off the line. The topside corner plays this play very poorly.  He should be outside the receiver, trying to force him to his safety help in the middle of the field.  By not doing this, he's become a man corner on this play.  The OLB freezes, trying to find Murray out of the backfield.  With the corner now out of the play, the HB is now his responsibility for the duration of the play.  Had Dallas run a Flood play, this would have ended catastrophically, but instead New Orleans accidentally had Dallas play right into their hands.

As the topside receiver starts his cut inside, the corner is underneath him.  The OLB recognizes that his zone is now voided, and he must stay with Murray.  The interior pressure begins to collapse the pocket around Romo, as he is now reaching his hot read.  There is no separation anywhere on the field for Dallas receivers, as Romo is forced to abandon the pocket.

The play is now a footrace, but Romo has no time to put the ball where he wants to.  With the corner undercutting the topside receiver and the safety over the top, that throw is out, so Romo is forced to try to exploit the only apparent mismatch: the running back on the linebacker.  In a shortened field, however, that mismatch is nullified, as the back can't pick up speed down the field.

The play ultimately culminates with Romo throwing the ball away down the sideline.

This play is important because it shows tremendous discipline by the OLB.  Despite an apparent mistake up top, he adjusts and makes a play on the fly.  This play could have easily been a blown coverage, but the LB doesn't allow the running back to reach the point of no return.

And what a difference a year makes.

In 2014, lack of discipline caught up to the Saints.  This play is a fake swing leading in to a screen to Fozzy Whitaker.  The Saints are running a single high 3-4 "Over" front, that is to say, their fourth pass rushing linebacker is lined up over the strong side of the ball.

If there's such a thing as being overzealous to make a play, that's what happened here.  All but two Saints are drawn out of position by the fake while the OL pulls away from the swing.  The entire Saints' defense turns upfield, looking to stop the pump fake in its tracks.

Whitaker makes an easy split as two pursuers try to overcorrect, and they're engaged quickly.  Meanwhile, the rest of the Saints' defense tries to recover from the fake.

They aren't able to in time, and Whitaker takes the ball to the house in what would end up being part of an absolute route against the Saints.  The Panthers exploit the over excited Saints' defense, and score on a gimmicky screen call.

Screens were an Achilles Heel for the Saints over the course of the last 2-3 seasons, just look at the Washington game that led to Ryan's firing.  The Saints simply got caught up in pursuit and couldn't adjust.  That's a lack of discipline.  Whether the coordinator should be responsible for the discipline of certain positional coaches is another debate, and that depends on the philosophy of who's talking.

The Verdict

All in all, Ryan's firing was a "healthy" mix of a lack of discipline, an unnecessarily complicated style, and, yes, a raw influx of talent.  Ryan had rookies in his final year, and they all have a long way to go before they're what's expected of them.  Whether the discipline is on Ryan or someone else is another conversation, but the Saints' defense's issues ranged far further than discipline.  Ryan got a bit of a raw deal towards the end, and some blame may have been unduly based on his shoulders, but it's almost more alarming to see a guy go from heading the 4th ranked defense in the league to dead last in just a year.  Something happened that couldn't be helped.  Ryan will get a job somewhere else, perhaps even as a positional coach, and he may succeed.  In the meantime, however, it's time to see what the Saints have with Dennis Allen.