When Curtis Lofton gets his game plan each week, the New Orleans Saints’ inside linebacker and leading tackler never knows what to expect.
And that’s as good a place as any to begin in examining just what has happened to the Saints’ defense in its first season under coordinator Rob Ryan.
“Rob is always going to have something exotic,” Lofton said during a conference-call interview Tuesday, when the Saints began preparing for their divisional playoff game against the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Saturday afternoon. “It’s fun for us as players because I feel it causes other teams to have to worry about, you never what (defense) we’re going to be in.”
Last season, the Saints yielded more yards than any defense in the 94-season history of the NFL – 7,042, to be exact, or a staggering average of 440.1 yards per game. That broke a 32-year-old record of 6,793 yards allowed that had been set by the Baltimore Colts.
In Sunday’s wild-card game in Philadelphia, the Saints held an Eagles offense that ranked No. 2 in the league during the regular season (417.3) behind the record-setting Denver Broncos to 122 yards in the first half and 256 for the game.
“There’s been a culture shift of accountability and what it takes to be successful in our defensive room,” now-injured cornerback Jabari Greer told USA Today earlier this season. “And it’s been much needed.”
As Lofton put it, “Rob’s personality fits more with the group that we have now. He instills confidence in us, and that’s been the biggest thing for us. We’re a confident bunch. We feel like we can play with anybody.”
That’s why Saints coach Sean Payton sought out Ryan, the son of former NFL coach Buddy Ryan and twin brother of New York Jets coach Rex Ryan.
“I didn’t know Rob, and really hadn’t met him. It was after talking with a handful of people,” Payton said during a conference-call interview of what led him to Ryan. “His passion for the game, it’s contagious with the players. He works great with the rest of the staff. All those things that you value as a head coach. And I think the process was a good one for us.
“You learn a little bit more when you start researching someone like that and it ended up working out great for us.”
The average passing yards allowed improved from 31st in the league last season to No. 2 this season (194.1), again behind only the Seahawks (172.0). The Saints’ sacks also were up (to 49, from 30 last season).
It’s a statistical turnaround that’s so radical it prompted Don Banks to offer in his wild-card weekend “Snap Judgments” at SI.com: “Hard to underestimate the return of Sean Payton in the Saints' success this season, but as I've thought since the offseason, the hiring of Rob Ryan as the defensive coordinator is the even bigger factor in New Orleans' renewed prominence. Even with Payton back calling the plays and the shots for that high-powered offense, the Saints couldn't have won this season if nothing had changed on what was a historically bad defense.”
Dan Morgan was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Panthers before becoming the Seahawks’ assistant director of pro personnel. So he has studied the Saints’ defense in depth, and knows what he’s studying.
“They’re an aggressive defense, and he just does a good job of mixing things up and moving guys around,” Morgan said. “Just like the offense, they do a really good job of creating mismatches on defense. Different guys will be in different spots. They will try to trick you that way.
“So they’re a tricky defense at times, but he’s done a good job of getting them together and they’re playing good football. They’ve got really good schemes, they’ve got good players and they’re just doing a good job.”
Case in point: The last time the Saints played the Seahawks, in Week 13 at CenturyLink Field; and the last game they played, Sunday against the Eagles.
Flash forward five weeks, and Ryan pressured less and dropped more defenders into coverage against the Eagles. LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,607 yards during the regular season, had 77 on 21 carries. DeSean Jackson, who caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns for the NFC East champions, did not catch a pass until there were 3 minutes left in the third quarter.
Which Saints’ defense are the Seahawks supposed to prepare for?
“I don’t think you do know,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “What we focus on is what we do and how we’re going to do it. Obviously there’s going to be tendencies and all that. Who their players are and what they like to play. They can change it up at any moment. We have to be ready for the specific looks that they like to do and we’ll see if we hit that play versus that coverage, and we’ll be ready to go.”
Against a Rob Ryan-coordinated defense that has returned the defensive whoa to the Big Easy.