The hire of Rob Ryan through 5 weeks seems like a huge overwhelming success. The Saints have yet to give up 20 or more points in five straight games and they are doing that with mostly the same players they had last year (add John Jenkins, Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis). The Saints are currently 11th overall in defense, plenty good enough when you consider the other side of the ball. Case in point, they are 5-0. The Saints are 7th in sacks, 3rd in interceptions, 9th in fumble recoveries, and 4th in points allowed. So I guess the removal of Steve Spagnuolo, addition of Rob Ryan, a new scheme and a few players was all that was needed to make a defense go from the worst in league history to around the top 10 in quality? Obviously Ryan adds a different dimension, tenacity and edge to this defense that Spags just didn't bring. The players love him. But how much of it is the change to a 3-4? Remember, the decision to change the Saints' base defense was made before Rob Ryan was hired. Is that tweak all that was needed to transform the unit's play?
Well, it turns out, the Saints don't really run a 3-4. At least, not enough to be truly considered a 3-4 defense. The Saints run what I like to call a "confusing" defense. They are in nickel base by far the most. The most used formation by the Saints by far this season has been a 4-2-5 of sorts, with four down linemen rushing, two "middle" linebackers, and five defensive backs in coverage. You have two corners and two safeties in that 5 DB lineup, and then one "rover". I don't call him a nickel back because he moves too much and isn't always lined up in the slot. That is why I hesitate to call this 4-2-5 a "nickel" defense, which you would think is the standard formation for a nickel defense. In terms of personnel, it's a nickel defense, of course. In terms of execution and how they run it, it's innovative. You could almost call it a 3-1-2-1-4. The rover is, of course, Kenny Vaccaro more times than not. One of those four down linemen is Junior Galette, so he will drop in coverage sometimes and let one of the two middle linebackers blitz, and Ryan will mix in a lot of exotic blitzes to keep it from being vanilla (aka predictable). The addition of Vaccaro has basically made him hybrid nickel/safety and his responsibilities and duties change with each opponent and play call. Was this Ryan's design all along? Or is he reverting to this more often because this defense suits the skills of Kenny Vaccaro and Roman Harper better? I lean towards the latter. There is no question those two safeties operate better in this scheme based on their talents than a straight up 4-3 defense (or even a straight up 3-4). The beauty of this defense is that it's both complex and it's not. But because most offenses are very pass heavy these days, the Saints' most common used defensive formation (4-2-5, or "nickel") is very much a pass defense friendly scheme.
So why all the 3-4 talk? Well, the Saints will show their 3-4 base when a team has a traditional package (1 FB, 1 TE, 2 WR). The Saints are seeing that most often on 1st and 10. The traditional formation is pretty rare these days, but when the Saints see it, you will see them in a traditional 3-4.
So anyway, what makes a good defense? We've talked about this many times before on the podcast. Stop the run on 1st down to less than 4 yards. Then you've forced the opposition into an obvious passing down. Now that the play book is shrinking and they are more one dimensional, rush the passer well. It's that simple. Stop the run on 1st and 10, then rush the passer well. So we know the Saints are 7th in the NFL in sacks, so they are getting to the quarterback, but how are they stopping the run on 1st and 10 to force teams into passing situations?
Atlanta ran the ball 7 times vs. the Saints on 1st and 10 for 16 yards. That's 2.29 yards per carry.
Tampa ran the ball 19 times vs. the Saints on 1st and 10 for 72 yards. That's 3.79 yard per carry.
Arizona ran the ball 7 times vs. the Saints on 1st and 10 for 51 yards. That's 7.29 yards per carry.
Miami ran the ball 10 times vs. the Saints on 1st and 10 for 48 yards. That's 4.80 yards per carry.
Chicage ran the ball 10 times vs. the Saints on 1st and 10 for 23 yards. That's 2.30 yards per carry.
If you combined all five of these games together, teams have gained 210 yards in 5 games against the Saints running on 1st and 10 at an average of 3.96 per carry. Not all world by any means, but decent. Decent enough to make teams throw at a higher percentage on 2nd down. So teams are seeing on average just worse than 2nd and 6 against the Saints when they run the ball on 1st and 10. The Saints are dead last in the NFL giving up 5.4 yards per carry overall, believe it or not, which means they are stopping the run much better on 1st and 10 than in other situations. So why is that?
Well, the Saints are using the 3-4 on 1st and 10 when teams are in base packages to limit the run to under 4 yards. Check. After that, they go into their basic "shell" coverage package of the 4-2-5. That makes for a very light box, especially considering the Saints' specified version, and when teams are running against it they are gashing the Saints. It seems easy to expose, but when you're facing 2nd and more than 6, most NFL teams don't have the discipline to run. The only team through five games that has committed to the run AT ALL against the Saints was Tampa. Let's face it, it is a passing league and this defense has adjusted to that.
So the attitude of this defense from what I can tell is this: we're going in a 3-4 on 1st and 10 if you have a traditional run formation in the game. We'll do a decent job of stopping the run in that situation. Other than that, we're running the pass defense formation of the hybrid 4-2-5 and we're going to do a good job of creating turnovers and rushing the passer. If you want to run on us in that formation you'll probably get huge yardage, so be it. And in the modern day NFL this defense is obviously working, at least for now.
But this is the NFL and it's all about adjustments. Teams are watching tape, and they are seeing what the Saints are doing. Pretty soon, you'll see more runs on 2nd and 8 against the Saints despite the fact that offenses will be in pass looking formations. They believe they'll be able to run the ball out of a pass formation against this Saints version 4-2-5 because the box is so soft. Then, it'll be on Ryan to make the necessary adjustments to stop it. But for right now, it's ok that the Saints are horrific in yards per carry given up (worst in the league) because they are still doing ok against the run on 1st and 10 which is forcing a higher percentage of passes. When teams are passing, the Saints are getting pressure and turnovers. Result? 11th defense overall in the league, and five straight games not giving up 20 points. So what they give up is monster runs out of pass looking formations the few times teams are patient enough to do it. And again, that's smart when you consider what the NFL game has become and how much NFL teams in general ignore the option to run the football. It also helps that the Saints are putting pressure on teams to pass because they are so potent offensively.
If I'm an offense game planning against the Saints, I'm throwing at a higher % on 1st and 10 out of a base formation against the Saints' 3-4 (if you can get Galette or Lofton in coverage on a receiving back or tight end), and I'm running at a higher % on 2nd and 3rd down out of pass formations. i don't see the Patriots and Tom Brady having that kind of discipline. Until someone starts to do that, expect this defense to continue to thrive.