Since leaving the Saints the first time, Dennis Allen has very quietly built up an impressive resume as a defensive coach in the NFL. Not only has Allen produced some solid units, but more importantly he has shown an ability to find talent and build up a unit over time to become a cohesive whole. Allen is judged by many on the surface of his firing in Oakland, but the Raiders rise to one of the up-and-coming teams in the AFC is directly attributable to Dennis Allen and his approach.
With the firings of Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson, and Greg McMahon, Sean Payton has finally done away with the old guard, and Allen is now the last remaining coach outside of Payton himself from the team’s Super Bowl team, and it needs to stay that way.
Before we take a look at what Allen has accomplished here, we first need to take a look at what he did at his last two stops.
2011 Broncos: 24th overall defense, 8th in scoring
On the surface, this Broncos unit doesn’t seem all that great. After all, they gave up a lot of yards, but being 8th in scoring is FAR more important. But, as is often the case in life, the raw numbers only tell a small part of the story. In 2011, the Broncos defense was far better than most would believe it was, and the unit’s penchant for giving up yards had a lot to do with them being on the field a lot. If you remember, those Broncos were quarterbacked by a young man by the name of Tim Tebow, and Tebow’s offense was to put it mildly...abysmal.
Allen’s unit was charged with somehow keeping the game close even though they knew that they would be on the field an extraordinary amount of the time. When you take that into account, the job he did was impressive. He was able to construct and call a defense that was able to be both dynamic and durable. That performance is what vaulted him to the top of the head coaching search for the Oakland Raiders in 2012.
2012-2014 Raiders: 8-32 under Dennis Allen
The purpose of this article is to show that the Saints should KEEP Dennis Allen, not fire him, so why am I bringing up his tenure as the coach for the Oakland Raiders where he only won 20 percent of his games? Because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a lot more that goes into evaluating the value of a coach or a player than just the raw numbers. The context is just as important as the results, and in this case I’m looking at Dennis Allen’s ability to build up a group and unify them, not his ability to win games as the head coach.
The Raiders team Allen inherited was more than 20 million dollars over the cap and didn’t have even a single player worth mentioning. Over the next three seasons, Allen acquired the players who would go on to become the core for the Raiders revival. More than that though, he instilled a sense of togetherness in the team. They lacked anything even remotely close to the talent needed to be competitive, and their record showed that. And to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want Allen as a head coach.
However, the hallmark of those teams wasn’t only how poor the talent was, but also how hard they played. There is a reason that both times Allen has left a unit they performed even better within the next two years, and it isn’t just because the guy replacing him is better. Allen understands how to build a unit, an identity, and a group that is on the same page. That takes time, but its also how you build up to something better.
As we all know, Dennis Allen came in last year as a defensive assistant and what was essentially a ‘co-defense coordinator’ to Rob Ryan. The most notable things about Ryan’s unit during that time were that they were totally disorganized and the players were often confused by Ryan’s convoluted and overly complex schemes. The same players would also mention how much they loved having Dennis Allen there because he had a knack for simplifying the concepts Ryan was trying to convey, and giving it to them in a digestible form.
When Ryan was eventually fired, Allen would take over, and while he didn’t miraculously fix all that ails the defense, there was noticeable improvement right from the start. What really started to show the change though was this season where Allen did what was as good of a job as could ever reasonably be expected of him.
Dennis Allen runs a highly aggressive scheme that is designed to be multiple, always on the attack, but simple enough that his players are always able to execute. Nick Underhill of The Advocate wrote this article about how Allen’s scheme allows him to be aggressive without sacrificing sound defense. We saw a lot of those concepts come into play this season, and that is despite the Saints going from what was supposed to be a deep secondary to an ICU in a matter of weeks. By the end of the second week of the season, the Saints had already lost their top five cornerbacks going into the year, and their 1st round pick Sheldon Rankins who was supposed to help improve the pass rush.
Allen’s unit fought through that adversity, and while at times the results were exactly what you would expect when you are playing a bunch of guys either past their prime, or who never had one at all, improvement was shown. The Saints went from one of the worst teams in the league at defending against the run to an above average one this season under Allen. And while the defense moved only from awful to mediocre, that is still a major improvement.
The reality is that Dennis Allen is still lacking some key pieces to run his scheme right, which is why he should not only be given the time to bring in those pieces, but also has earned that right. Allen was able to bring out significant improvement in the defense with a bunch of mismatched (and often misfit) toys to play with. There was a black hole opposite Cameron Jordan all season long, he never had a healthy group of NFL quality cornerbacks after the first half against the Raiders, and his linebacking unit was poor at best.
Craig Robertson was the lone bright spot for the unit throughout the year, and on the macro level he was still only mediocre. Of course, considering Saints linebacker play since Jonathan Vilma retired that is still high praise. What Allen’s defense truly needs is three things:
- Corners who belong on the NFL field, which means either Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams stay healthy, or you draft/sign a couple more (preferably both).
- A true EDGE rusher opposite Cameron Jordan to both provide a pass rush, and draw attention so that Jordan’s stats will reflect his phenomenal play (meaning more sacks).
- Speed in the front 7. Kenny Vaccaro and Dannell Ellerbe are the only guys with anything remotely close to closing speed on the team, and neither are really THAT fast. One thing that Allen desperately needs for his defense is to add a linebacker who has the ability to play zone coverage (Allen runs a LOT of it in what is a hybrid version of a Tampa 2), and the speed to be able to go sideline to sideline. Stephone Anthony has one of those, but he is simply not a zone linebacker and I doubt he ever will be.
If given the pieces he needs to run his scheme, I firmly believe that Dennis Allen can bring this defense from mediocrity and into the realm of being actually good. Something they haven’t really been since the early 2000s. He has them playing hard, he has them playing together, now give him players who can actually play and maybe just maybe the Saints can finally have a defense again.