With the 61st overall selection in the NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints made an executive decision to get a guy who could potentially change their defense. They traded up with the New England Patriots for the third time in the Sean Payton era to get Vonn Bell, a free safety from Ohio State. The move was generally well received by analysts and fans alike, but not seen as a home run in most circles. He was properly rated, not a “steal” by any means. But Bell could be the missing piece to the Saints returning to relevancy on the defensive side of the ball.
It was just two seasons ago the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL belonged to the Saints. They’ve since followed up with historically bad defenses.
The band that links these two drastically different teams is defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
In 2013, Rob Ryan was hired as the next defensive coordinator of the Saints after a tumultuous 2012 campaign full of suspensions and lots and lots of yards given to opposing offenses. The move drew the ire of many skeptics, as Ryan had yet to separate himself from the other, more accomplished defensive coordinators in the NFL.
Which is weird, because all Ryan seemed to do was distinguish himself from others.
Ryan was advertised as a sort of “mad bomber” blitzer, who in his 3-4 defense (One the Saints never quite committed to) liked to deploy a lot of three safety sets. In the words of the man himself in an article by the Wall Street Journal: “I’m always ready to get weird”.
“I’m always ready to get weird” – Former Saints Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan
There are lots of reasons the 2013 defense worked. They were a defense with many great duos. It was Cameron Jordan’s best year, as he posted 12 and a half sacks, while On the other side of the line Junior Galette was a terror off the edge before he became a terror off the field. Keenan Lewis looked like the steal of free agency, locking down opposing wide receivers with tested veteran Jabari Greer opposite him.
But the real story was not a dynamic duo, but an even more dynamic trio.
The Saints first round pick in 2013 was the safety out of Texas, Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro played with his hair on fire from the jump, and stole every Saints fans heart as he had a game sealing tip on the interception to knock off the Falcons in the home opener. Against the Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, no less. The Saints used him as a Swiss Army Knife, spending plenty of time in the box, as well as a nickel corner. He was dynamite and electric as a rookie, adding some much-needed teeth and tenacity to a historically soft defense. As a rookie, he played 81 percent of the snaps.
Malcolm Jenkins, before being reincarnated as a Pro Bowl safety who takes good angles to the ball and absorbs contact in Philadelphia, was a somewhat middling safety who put it all together in his contract year. He often playing the center fielder role as the high free safety, playing 84 percent of the defensive snaps. (Bell, like Jenkins, both went to Ohio State and possessed great corner skills akin to a cornerback)
But a third safety found his way onto the field for 52 percent of the snaps. That was Rafael Bush. Bush, like Vaccaro was a very versatile defender. So if you’re keeping score, three safeties are playing more than half the snaps leaves Curtis Lofton and
David Hawthorne as the only off-the-line linebackers to play truly significant time.
Before 2013 had ended, Jabari Greer suffered a devastating injury that he would retire in the wake of. You can trace the fall of the Saints defense to that exact moment, as they have yet to have a secure number two corner since Greer went down. Jenkins left for Philly, but the Saints landed the crown jewel (At the time) of free agency, free safety Jairus Byrd. With the Byrd signing, many felt he would create the turnovers that were missing from an otherwise amazing 2013 defensive campaign. Losing Jenkins for Byrd felt like a great tradeoff.
NFL Spin Zone
In 2014, the Saints set records for ineptitude on defense with largely the same defense personnel. Cam Jordan and Junior Galette still manufactured the pass rush, Lofton and Hawthorne manned the middle, and Keenan Lewis, though hobbled, was still in place.
There are many theories about the cliff the Saints fell off. Vaccaro, though impressive in his rookie year, was being graded on a curve for being a rookie. It was assumed he’d get better (Which he eventually did)
Before Jairus Byrd was lost for the year after just four games, he was playing as deep as 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and often not able to get involved in the play. The Saints eliminated the home run threat by opting for death by a thousand paper cuts. And before they could figure out what exactly to do with Byrd, he was placed on injured, with only 267 snaps under his belt.
In 2015, the Saints were expected to get a second chance at their three safety sets. It did not last long, however, as Rafael Bush was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in the first game.
Two years in a row the Saints have been robbed of the ability to play three safeties in their base defense. One less safety means one more linebacker, a position that has been devoid of consistency for years in New Orleans.
Two years ago when the Saints defense was dominant, their third safety played around 52 percent of the snaps.
Last year? Kenny Phillips might have been the closest thing, and he only played 14 percent of the defensive snaps and spent more time on the transaction wire than on the field.
And the Saints couldn’t exactly jam a square peg into a round hole either. Playing three safeties requires a decent amount of versatility. A guy like Jamarca Sanford, who was the team’s third safety down the stretch, couldn’t flourish in this system because of his one-dimensional style of play, a problem Byrd, Vaccaro, Bush, and Malcolm Jenkins never really had.
With that versatility, you never have to worry about putting one of them in coverage or close to the line to stack the box, or rush the passer. And that, in turn allows you to disguise a lot on defense. When Byrd went down in 2014, and Bush a year later, the Saints wings were clipped.
In 2015 we also saw the jettisoning of Rob Ryan in favor of Dennis Allen, another proprietor of three safety sets. Allen coached the secondary for New Orleans on their Super Bowl run, and performed the same role as an assistant in 2015 before taking over as defensive coordinator this offseason.
With the loss of Bush in free agency, it appeared as if the Saints had lost yet another chance to play three competent safeties at the same time. It looked like the Saints would move away from their three safety philosophy.
That is, until the Saints took Bell in the draft.
A lot of people maintained that he is just going to fill in for Byrd should the team decide to release him and prevent further cap struggles at the end of this year. And that may be the plan, but for this year, the Saints will try to turn back the clock to years past and play three safeties in their base defense.
Bell had a great nose for the football at Ohio State, snagging 9 interceptions in three years. Though he remained at safety full-time in his senior year, he has shown an ability to cover wide receivers pretty well. It’s this blend of cornerback and safety that will allow the Saints plenty of flexibility this year.
In their base defense, expect James Laurinaitis and Anthony to be the every down backers, while Byrd will be responsible for his usual “center fielder” role. Bell’s weaknesses were mostly physical. He’s on the smaller side, without a penitent for physicality. In this scheme, he will be asked to rely on his cover skills first, disguising his most glaring weakness in theory.
And perhaps best of all, Bell’s addition allows Vaccaro to return to his role as a rover, moving all around the defense. Vaccaro has excelled in his role as a box safety and has shown the ability to rush the passer, screaming around the edge. Playing close to the line while two other capable safeties defend downfield maximizes the talent of all three of the Saints starters while protecting their weaknesses.
In 2013, the Saints were described as having “The blueprint to the future of NFL defenses”. While a cringe worthy statement in hindsight, I feel the loss of those three safety sets for two straight years was an incredibly underrated storyline. Should the Saints avoid the injury bug and the development of the Saints second year players, I could see a return to respectability on defense.