New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Parys Haralson (98) walks away from the pile after denying a Tampa Bay Buccaneers attempt for a first down. Haralson led all Saints linebackers in stop percentage with 70.37% of his tackles coming for loss or no gain. He signed a one-year deal with the Saints to compete for a roster spot with other veterans Victor Butler and Keyunta Dawson. (Photo credit: Bill Haber/Associated Press).
This article is the first of a four-part series looking at a different aspect of the New Orleans Saints defense. The full series of articles cover these topics:
- Part 1: Tackling Efficiency
- Part 2: Transition from Malcolm Jenkins to Jairus Byrd
- Part 3: Coverage Efficiency (Keenan Lewis Feature)
- Part 4: Pass-Rushing Productivity (Junior Galette Feature)
Rob Ryan has not gotten enough credit for the defensive turnaround he created for the Saints in 2013. Under Ryan’s supervision the Saints reversed their fortunes in many categories and on-field performances without much more than a change of coordinator and shuffling of personnel. One of the areas that the Saints most visibly improved was in tackling. Ryan took the Saints back to basics and addressed what playing defense is all about: hitting the offense, and hitting them hard enough to stop them. Hitting them behind the line of scrimmage. Hitting them and bringing them down. Playing real, hard-nosed defense.
The Saints defenders took to this philosophy with gusto, improving from having missed 12.31% of their tackles in 2012 (or 128 misses on 1,039 attempts) to only missing 9.05% in 2013 (or 77 misses on 850 attempts). That’s a huge increase in efficiency, good enough to make the Saints the third-best tackling defense in the NFL in 2013 behind only the New England Patriots (8.56% missed attempts) and Seattle Seahawks (8.84% missed). The difference from 2012 to 2013 was 51 fewer missed tackles across the regular season. But the story doesn’t end there.
The Saints brass recognized the need to improve tackling further this offseason by bringing in Jairus Byrd to replace four-year starter at free safety Malcolm Jenkins. In 2013, Jenkins led the team’s starters in missed tackle percentage at 19.75%, worst among all starting free safeties in the NFL. Byrd was sixth-best in the NFL with a missed tackle percentage of 8.70%, but more on that later. Starting inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne were second and third on the defensive starters in missed tackles at 11.89% and 11.70%. Reserve defensive linemen Tom Johnson, Glenn Foster, and Tyrunn Walker all had missed tackle percentages of 10.00% or greater but that is less concerning because they all also made only five to nine tackles anyway; reserve safety Isa Abdul-Quddus (who is now a Detroit Lion) had an awful rating of 28.57% after playing in place in injured Kenny Vaccaro and that surely played a role in his leaving the team. 2010 first round draft pick Patrick Robinson missed one tackle in three attempts and may find himself on the roster bubble come training camp. But the Saints as a team were very consistent tacklers, and with more solid editions in the offseason they should look to improve on that in 2014.
Second-year New Orleans defensive back Kenny Vaccaro breaks up a pass intended for former Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzales. (Photo credit: David Grunfeld, NOL.com/The Times-Picayune).
Ryan’s defenders were also more effective at making tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in offensive failures at gaining or even holding onto yardage. In 2012, the Saints defense made 37.50% of its tackles at or behind the line – this indicates what was seen in games with linebackers not being active and defensive backs having to make many tackles at the second level or beyond. Of course, Ryan revamped this in 2013 when the Saints’ defense brought down its opponents at or behind the line 47.73% of the time – an increase of 7.12%. This ranked them sixth overall in the NFL, above “bigger” defensive names like the St. Louis Rams (47.57%), Kansas City Chiefs (47.50%), New York Jets (46.34%), San Francisco 49ers (45.44%) and Baltimore Ravens (45.21%).
One of the most important statistics in football is third down conversion percentage. On defense, allowing your opponents to frequently convert third downs into first downs breathes new live into drives, creates scoring opportunities for your opponents, and keeps the football out of your offense’s hands. So the more often you can make a stop on third down and force a punt the better you are. In 2012 when the Steve Spagnuolo-led Saints defense was historically awful, they had the 18th-ranked third down conversion percentage allowed at 38.46%. Ryan turned this around as well in 2013, bettering the Saints’ rating in this category to 32.87%; good for ninth best in the NFL. By combining solid defensive tackling with better play up front and more appropriate scheming, Ryan orchestrated a quality of defensive football not seen in New Orleans since 2009, if not before. And as every Saints fan knows, that was a good year for the Black and Gold, and 2014 is shaping up to possibly be even better.