There seems to be a lot of finger-pointing recently with regards to the Saints defenses of the past two years. Former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan blamed head coach Sean Payton for being too involved in the play calling and Payton called it ludicrous to think Ryan wasn’t in full control. So, it begs the question, who should take the blame for the porous New Orleans Saints defense?
The 2013 version of the Saints defense welcomed rambunctious and unfiltered defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He took over a defense that ranked second to last in points allowed and dead last in total yards allowed. During the 2013 season, Ryan was yukking it up at famed New Orleans watering hole, Ms. Maes, as the defense would finish out the season ranked in the top 10 in multiple categories.
New Orleans was finally back to Super Bowl form with an attacking defense that specialized in chasing down quarterbacks. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette combined for 24.5 sacks in 2013. It seemed a match made in heaven.
The 2014 and 2015 seasons, however, would be a disaster for Rob Ryan and the New Orleans Saints defense. The defense would finish each season ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category. Especially egregious would be the number of penalties enforced resulting in a first down during the 2015 season.
Rob Ryan would eventually admit that he felt the defense was no longer his own. He told MMQB writer Jenny Vrentas:
"There are two years that don’t have my signature on them, and it’s the last two years in New Orleans. And that’s just the truth."
By Week 10 of the 2015 season, the Saints and Rob Ryan parted ways, and Dennis Allen took full control of the defense. The play improved, but not enough to make anyone excited about the future of the defense.
the Saints front office would spend the 2014 offseason throwing money at then-free agent safety Jairus Byrd.
How did this happen? How does a group go from top 10 to bottom five in one year?
The answer is not simple. A lot of people had their hands in making the Saints defense historically bad. Rob Ryan, for all his claims, couldn’t get the correct personnel on the field and when they did get on the field the players looked confused and were unable to line up correctly.
It did not help that in 2015 a rookie, Stephone Anthony, took over duties at the middle linebacker position. He was given the unenviable task, for a first year starter, of getting players to where they need to be as well as recognizing what the offense is doing and reacting to it. He played well considering he was a rookie, but the confusion on the field allowed for big plays.
Head coach Sean Payton should also take some of the blame for the lack of Saints defensive effectiveness. After two devastating losses to a physical Seattle Seahawks defense in 2013, the Saints front office would spend the 2014 offseason throwing money at, then free agent safety, Jairus Byrd in the hopes they could replicate the Seahawks defensive backfield. At the same time they would use a second round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on tall but inexperienced cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the success the Seattle Seahawks had enjoyed with their legion of boom defense.
New defensive coordinator, Denis Allen, is not blameless in the downfall of the Saints defense either. He was hired as ‘senior defensive assistant’ in 2015. Allen was suppose to be the Jekyll to Rob Ryan’s Hyde. As a serious and focused former head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Allen was the exact opposite of Ryan’s boisterous ‘devil-may-care’ attitude on the sidelines. It was a strange relationship, as it was clear that Allen had been signed to eventually take over for Ryan as Saints defensive coordinator.
Allen should not have taken the position. He should have fought to be the lone defensive voice along the sideline or wait until Ryan was actually fired. The relationship did not work. The writing was on the wall for Rob Ryan and he would have to look over his shoulder until his eventual firing after an especially poor display against the Washington Redskins.
The biggest change happened when safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins were released in 2014. They went on to find success with new teams, the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. While the two safeties may not have been perennial pro bowlers they were key to the success of the New Orleans Saints defense in the past.
Which leads to the biggest reason in the decline of the Saints defense, and what should make Saints fans feel optimistic for the 2016 season, a lack of leadership. After shipping off Malcolm Jenkins the Saints defense needed a new vocal leader. They turned to sack master Junior Galette and it was a disaster. Reports of late arrivals to team meetings and missing pre game flights surfaced as well as Galette’s alleged violence toward women. The team had gone from a close-knit locker room to a rag-tag group of ‘me first’ individuals.
In 2015 Junior Galette would be released, his contract still on the books as a reminder of the disaster that was the 2014-15 season. His departure made way for new leaders among the Saints defensive personnel.
This offseason the Saints did a complete introspective review of themselves as a defense. They released oft-penalized cornerback Brandon Browner, who then made disparaging comments toward the team. The Saints front office went on to draft Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and Ohio State free safety Vonn Bell in the 2016 NFL Draft, not to mention 2015 standout draft picks: Linebacker Stephone Anthony, EDGE rusher Hau’oli Kikaha, and cornerbacks Damian Swann and P.J. Williams.
So, with all the finger pointing and blame game posturing, it is evident that the true perpetrators of the downfall of the New Orleans Saints defense were every single person in the Saints organization. A changing of the guard in New Orleans has officially been completed for the 2016 season. Here’s hoping this season is at least an improvement.