ON THE seventh day of training camp, the routine was starting to get stale. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, however, knew just the right call to make.
While reviewing his blitz package, Ryan got to a particular blitz called "Mannie Fresh," named after the New Orleans--based rapper and producer who happens to be a huge Saints fan. Ryan kept harping on the defense's inability to get the blitz down correctly.
"He's grilling us on it, and then he turns around and pulls up this video of Mannie Fresh rapping," says linebacker Curtis Lofton. "Rob turns up the music and he's up there dancing and guys are laughing. But then, in comes Mannie Fresh, and the place just went crazy."
Part coach, part entertainer, Ryan has quickly captured the attention and respect of his players. Who could blame him for trying to bring smiles to the faces of his defenders after they lived through the bounty-scandal-scarred 2012 season?
Abysmal only begins to describe the Saints' D last year. New Orleans gave up the most yardage in NFL history (7,042), obliterating the mark set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts (6,793). Under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the unit finished last in the NFL against the run (147.6 yards per game, a franchise low), second to last against the pass (292.6), second to last in points allowed (28.4), and last in average rush (5.2), another franchise worst. The 2012 Saints gave up more than 500 yards in a game four times, and those breakdowns weren't all tilted toward the front half of the schedule, when the defense was depleted by bounty-related suspensions: In Week 17 a ho-hum Panthers offense rolled over the Saints for 530 yards in the Superdome.
That's the defense Ryan, 50, inherited when he was hired by New Orleans, after Jerry Jones fired him as Dallas's coordinator. (His Cowboys finished 19th in total defense last year.) But Ryan dismisses the Saints' performance in 2012 as an anomaly. "It's not fair to look at that team given the circumstances it was put through," he says.
Still miffed about losing his job with the Cowboys, Ryan says he and the Saints are a perfect fit. "I want to prove something, and everyone on our defense wants to prove something," he says.
While Ryan doesn't entirely mirror disgraced former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams—the architect of the team's Super Bowl XLIV--winning defense, but also of its infamous bounty program—he brings a similar attacking mentality, he loves to dial up a complex array of blitzes, and he's known for his swagger and salty language. Ryan brings in his own 3--4 defense, replacing the 4--3 that Williams predominantly played, but recall: Both men learned early defensive lessons from Buddy Ryan, Rob's father, with whom Williams coached on the Houston Oilers staff of the early 1990s. Rob Ryan's lean-in philosophy on defense will help the Saints, who too often played back on their heels under Spagnuolo.
"He's the right guy for this team," says Bobby Hebert, an ex-Saints QB turned New Orleans radio host. "I'm not saying he's the second coming of Gregg Williams, but [the fans and the players] embrace the Gregg Williams mentality—setting the tone, dictating tempo, being aggressive, creating turnovers. They won a Super Bowl that way on D."
But does Ryan have the necessary parts to do that with his 3--4? His D relies heavily on the pass rush, and that means outside linebackers Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson have to create pressure, along with ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. The preseason results were encouraging, with Smith, an end for nine seasons, warming to his new role at linebacker, and both Galette and Jordan flashing in pass-rush situations.
With coach Sean Payton's return to the sideline after a yearlong suspension, the Drew Brees--led offense is expected to be even stronger; last season New Orleans ranked No. 3 in scoring. If Ryan can rebuild his unit's confidence and find enough pass rush to make his pressure-at-all-costs defense work, fans will forget 2012 ever happened.
"He's got a swagger and a presence," says Brees, "and that's when we play our best, on both sides of the ball—when we have that aggressive mentality. That's how we've won here."
THE CASE FOR...
Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro
It hasn't taken long for Vaccaro to make a sizable impact in a Saints secondary looking to rebound from a terrible 2012: The feisty and energetic first-round pick from Texas spent the preseason hitting everyone in sight, opponents and slightly perturbed teammates alike. New Orleans fans are going to love his intrepid playing style, and opponents are going to learn to keep track of him when they venture into his area. The 6' 1", 214-pound Vaccaro plays as if he's spring-loaded, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan comparing him with a young Rodney Harrison. New Saints CB Keenan Lewis, late of the Steelers, likens his fearlessness to that of Troy Polamalu. "I nicknamed him Tasmanian Devil," says Lewis. "He flies around and chews things up. And we don't want him toning that down." The Saints may move Vaccaro all around in coverage, as a slot defender or back in the secondary where he packs a punch in run defense and has promising centerfield coverage skills. But he'll be out there somewhere, waiting to line up his next big hit and bring a little moxie to a New Orleans D that's in search of a substantial rebound.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
(N) NEW ACQUISITION
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OLB WILL SMITH
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