The announcement came during Mardi Gras weekend, so it was given short shrift — but the New Orleans Saints did indeed hire Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator. It's an interesting hire, as no Ryan-led defenses have ever made the playoffs, but that's probably because the offenses in Cleveland and Oakland, the two clubs where he was defensive coordinator, weren't very good.
"I did a lot of research on [Ryan] and spoke to almost everybody that I know that's ever been with him and a ton of other people with different organizations," Saints head coach Sean Payton said last week in an interview with Sirius/XM NFL Radio. "I know he's passionate about the game. I know he's very intelligent, and players love playing for him. He's a very loyal guy. All the coaches I've spoken to that he's worked with have all said he's done a great job of putting together defenses and understanding strengths and weaknesses of his team."
So what kind of defense will the Saints have in 2013? That's the big question — but we can take a look at the roster and perhaps get an idea of how Payton and Ryan will try to build up the team's new 3-4 defense.
Ryan has a few building blocks. Defensive end Cam Jordan led the Saints last season with eight sacks, and he played in a 3-4 defense in college. Akiem Hicks, a 6-foot-5 324-pound player, improved the more time he got on the field — and a man of his size could cause problems for quarterbacks. Linebacker Curtis Lofton led the team in tackles. Cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer led in interceptions with three each (not a high number) and Robinson led the Black and Gold in pass defenses with 18. Both will benefit from any kind of a pass rush. The Saints could do worse.
Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Turk McBride, corner Elbert Mack and linebackers Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas and Ramon Humber are unrestricted free agents. Ellis, a former first-round draft pick, likely will want more money than either the Saints or Who Dats believe he is worth — in two seasons, he has totaled just 22 solo tackles and half a sack. When Casillas, 25, is healthy (staying that way is his biggest challenge), he's athletic and physical. Restricted free agent defensive end Junior Galette is a fan favorite and could play outside linebacker in the new defense.
Will big-money guys like defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma return? Smith is set to make $10.2 million with $14 million counting toward the cap. Vilma is scheduled to earn $4.8 million in base salary, but he'll cost nearly twice as much toward the cap when bonuses are included. Payton said he envisions Vilma having a role in the new defense, and when Vilma returned to the field he was productive, with 37 total tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss, two pass defenses and an interception returned for a touchdown. Paired with Lofton as the weakside linebacker, Vilma could work.
Perhaps the biggest thing going for Ryan is the Saints' offense. Quarterback Drew Brees passed for 5,177 yards and led the NFL with 43 touchdown passes as the team finished first in the league in passing — but 25th in rushing. Payton vows to improve the running game, so Ryan likely will have an offense that can give his squad a lead — or, at the very least, some room to be more aggressive.
Ryan has a chance to be a good hire. Last season, the Saints were statistically the worst defense in NFL history, having given up 7,042 yards. Ryan also has players eager to regain pride. The Dallas Cowboys finished 19th overall in defense. The Saints won the Super Bowl with a defense ranked 24th overall. Bottom line: If Ryan can make the Saints defense a middle-of-the-pack bunch, the team could win — and win big.
Then there's the other Ryan factor. Pictures of the coach in mid-yell (or shirtless on a beach holding a beer) give hints about his personality. And it certainly could be one embraced by Who Dats, who can be loud and shirtless themselves while enjoying a few cold ones.
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