Rob Ryan teaches young dogs new tricks for the New Orleans Saints

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The New Orleans Saints’ defense had one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history from the 2012 season to 2013 with Rob Ryan taking over in the latter year. In 2012, the Saints were 31st (out of 32) in points given up and 32nd in yards allowed — which also happened to be the most any team in NFL history had ever given up (the defense Ryan left behind in Dallas mysteriously eclipsed that mark just one year later).

In 2013, the Saints ranked fourth in both categories. It really was the greatest turnaround ever. It’s easy to blame Steve Spagnuolo for the enormous failure in 2012. Likewise, it’s really easy to give Rob Ryan an inordinate amount of credit for the turnaround.

In each case, both are deserving of whichever is given, but other factors were at play too. In 2012, the Saints’ defense was quite aged.

In 2013, the unit was forced to play a much younger core. The 4-3 scheme employed by Spagnuolo in 2012 had an average age of 27.6 years, according to pro-football-reference.com. The 2013 version averaged 26.6 years. In other words, they were a whole year younger on the whole.

The age of the starting core (based on the players who started the most games at a particular position) doesn’t guarantee the unit was altogether younger. Nor does youth guarantee anything other than a younger core. There isn’t much that can be inherently gained from this number.

But the number is telling in at least one regard. The Saints’ defense played faster and seemingly with more enthusiasm in 2013, despite going to a scheme that supposedly relies more on “thumpers” than quick and agile players.

Though the defenses’ greatest improvement — in terms of quality of play — came in the secondary, it was the solidifying of the linebacker corps — especially the outside linebacker spot — which played a crucial role in the units’ overall improvement.

The 2012 version was not solid at outside linebacker. For what it’s worth, Joe Vitt’s baby performed admirably that season. But the unit was a hot mess limited in talent.

Enter Rob Ryan, who supposedly brought with him a 3-4 alignment.

By necessity — which was the plethora of injuries that felled the unit — Ryan adapted and played mostly a 4-3 alignment while still employing 3-4 principles. As a result, the Saints really started David Hawthorne — a career 4-3 middle linebacker — at one outside linebacker spot. At the other, Parys Haralson started eight of 16 games. Haralson came to New Orleans at the end of the preseason from San Francisco — a team which played a hybrid 3-4.

Haralson was much more of a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker than Hawthorne. Junior Galette — a career 4-3 defensive end — ended up starting again at defensive end, but really played outside linebacker. As I said, it was a 4-3 with 3-4 principles.

That was the genius of Ryan’s defense in 2013. It looked much different than what it actually was. It often lined up as a 4-3, but was played with Hawthorne as an inside linebacker to make it a 3-4. Of course I’ve been working in generalizations so far.

But compare Ryan’s defense in 2012 — his final season in Dallas — to his first version with the Saints in 2013. You’ll see somewhat of a stark contrast just in snap counts among his outside linebackers.

Snap Chart

The Dallas version saw his two starting outside linebackers dominate snaps, according to Football Outsiders. DeMarcus Ware started all 16 games in 2012, playing 864 defensive snaps (84.2%). Despite only playing (and starting) in 14 games, fellow starting outside linebacker Anthony Spencer played 842 defensive snaps (82.1%). Current Saint Victor Butler started one game (but played in all 16) yet still only played in 290 defensive snaps (28.1%).

Now look at the 2013 Saints outside linebacker corps. There is a greater variation. Junior Galette dominated snaps — playing 85-percent of them. But David Hawthorne started 15 of 16 games, yet still only played 680 snaps (69.8%). Parys Haralson started eight of 16 games, but only played 37-percent of all the Saints’ defensive snaps. A few other players — Martez Wilson and Will Herring — took snaps at the outside linebacker spot.

Call the 2013 Saints defense whatever you want to call it. The last-ranked defense in 2012, though, transformed to the fourth-best with only a few changes in personnel. But it was the way Ryan employed his players. By and large, they still lined up in a 4-3 scheme, but he used each player in a 3-4 manner.

It’s hard to explain further without film study. But a question stems from this that immediately leaps to the front of my mind. Is this the same scheme we’ll see in 2014?

Another way to ask that question is this: will Ryan employ the same personnel, or at least same kind of personnel, in a similar manner in 2014?

To answer that question, we need to look at who the Saints have on the current roster. Listening to coach speak this time of year does almost no good. Coaches are in full-blown B.S. mode right now, playing coy because there’s still this thing called a draft. To give away too many secrets would be roster-building suicide.

Thus, the current roster is the best evaluation tool to use. Looking at the roster, we see that Galette is still there. Of course, he is. He registered a career high in sacks in 2013, coming up just half a sack shy of team leader Cameron Jordan. Victor Butler is still on the roster. If he returns to his expected form prior to his season-ending ACL tear last offseason, it is not unreasonable to think he and Galette will play a majority of the snaps at outside linebacker in a more traditional 3-4 alignment.

Hawthorne is a traditional inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Again, if the two above are assigned to align outside in a more traditional 3-4, Hawthorne will smoothly rotate back into the middle — his more natural spot. Parys Haralson remains a free agent, who the Saints by all accounts would bring back at the right cost.

Haralson did not provide much as a pass-rusher, but was invaluable in helping the defense improve as a run defense by setting the edge. Without even looking at specific positional alignment snap counts, we can make an intelligent guess that Haralson was primarily used on base downs, then substituted on passing downs, which is when the Saints would regularly align in a 4-2-5 (three safeties). In that alignment, Hawthorne would move back inside to join Lofton in the middle, while Galette would slide down to the DE spot where he’d rush the passer with his hand in the ground.

This all leads to another question: could Anthony Spencer come to New Orleans as a third outside linebacker? Most expect Spencer to return to Dallas on an incentive-laden deal in 2014. But that would see him playing 4-3 defensive end, something he has little experience doing in the NFL (though he played that spot at Purdue).

His greatest success in the NFL came under Ryan as a 3-4 rush end (outside linebacker). He is thick, which is the same quality Haralson brings. He provides a dimension that Haralson did not last year — tremendous pass-rushing ability. His edge-setting ability as a run defender may not be as advanced as Haralson’s, but it is more than adequate.

Besides, he’ll likely play primarily with his hand in the ground on passing downs anyway (if the Saints acquire him, they’d likely play him in nickel situations where Cam Jordan slides inside and Butler, Galette and Spencer rotate along the line).

He could also be used as a “starter”, playing on base downs as a run defender, but as one who provides tremendous pass-rushing potential. Then again, if that’s the role this “third” outside linebacker plays, Haralson probably makes more sense.

There is a third alternative, though. The 2014 NFL is not devoid of potential 3-4 defensive ends. Many draft analysts have aligned that potential need with a rising prospect, Dee Ford of Auburn. Ford is undoubtedly an ideal fit as a 3-4 rush end. But he is small for the spot, meaning he would not be the ideal fit as a base down player. Right now, that is the spot the Saints most need to fill. They have their pass rushers — Galette, Butler and Jordan. While Ford, or another player of his type, could fill the void, logic and reason seem to point to another player becoming the ideal fit.

Again, the genius of Ryan’s work in 2013 was really a combination of taking a bunch of younger players, mixed them with a few veterans who fit the general scheme, but overall played each player in an unconventional manner.

Thus, we really have no idea what Ryan’s defense will look like in 2014. And that’s a good thing.

Neither will opposing offenses.

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