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Monday, 04 August 2014 17:40

New Orleans Saints, NFL defenses finding safeties in numbers?

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It’s amazing how much you can learn about the local team by reading out of town sources. Did you know the Saints’ defense was cutting edge and on the verge of setting a new standard among NFL ball-hawkers and pigskin pilferers? Neither did I until I read a story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal titled “The Future of Defense in the NFL." With offensive output, as measured by total yards gained, increasing steadily the past three years, something had to be done to curb the trend of offensive domination. And that something is about to hatch in Who Dat Nation.

As the Journal declared: “Those inside the league say the New Orleans Saints are quietly crafting an unorthodox defense that could change the game and become the shape of defenses to come.” The local wipe, which comes to you in print form three days per week, too often sacrifices the quality of analysis for the quantity of minutiae that would fill the Slidell phone book. Readers are served glowing features on the stars and newcomers along with lite servings of such appetizers as the “pillow menu” that allows players to order late-night room service or the facilities at the Greenbrier Resort that provides such recreational diversions as skeet shooting. This is sweet and chatty, but football fans eventually want to read about football.
Speaking of which, the Journal anointed the resident defensive teddy bear, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, as architect of the NFL’s defensive revolution. The key to this change sounds simple but is a dramatic shift from NFL practices and tradition. Basically, the Saints want to play the best eleven players they can find. Ryan was forced into this revelation after injuries depleted his corps of linebackers in 2013. That left him with two options: play bad linebackers or get creative with positions. Ryan went the latter route and stressed the safety position, playing as many as four safeties at once and playing three at a time in his default defensive package.
In the NFL, some teams play as few as one safety and almost no team ever employs more than two. Safeties are bigger than cornerbacks, who typically cover wide receivers, but faster than linebackers, who are built to stop a running back and take on offensive linemen. They can be 60 pounds lighter than some linebackers but 20 pounds heavier than some corners. They can cover the athletic tight ends now in the NFL and take on the league's rising group of tall receivers all while giving up only a little bit of speed from a cornerback. A bonus in Ryan's mad-scientist scheme is that he can position the safety anywhere from 20 yards away from the quarterback to right on the line of scrimmage, rushing the quarterback off the edge. The result? The Saints improved from last in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012 to fourth last season, Ryan's first with the team.
During the offseason, they bet plenty of money that the safety was a big reason, signing Jairus Byrd, one of the top free agents in the market, to a six-year, $56 million deal, despite having plenty of safety depth and less than plenty of salary-cap space. A month later, the team brought back safety Rafael Bush by unexpectedly matching an offer from the Falcons. A month after that, they took Alabama's starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, in the draft. New Orleans spent last year's top pick on a safety, too—Kenny Vaccaro. Since camp opened at the Greenbrier Resort, free agent rookie Pierre Warren has inserted himself into the mix with some sterling play.
The endgame, said Ryan: "The three-safety package comes in a lot more than it's ever done in football. We have five really talented safeties on the roster and we plan on playing them all because they are really good players." The rise in offenses with just one back in the backfield, and no fullback, has made it easier for the Saints to experiment since they don't have to worry much about big beefy blockers colliding with the safeties, who are considered small when it comes to the run game. "Our three-safety deal is because the game is changing. You have to have more guys who can cover, run can do all these different things," Ryan said.
Thanks to the Journal for that insight, which is important to Saints fans no matter where it comes from. I just wish the Times Pickonyou would devote more space to the “why” rather than the “who, what, where and when” of the journalistic mantra. This is not a new phenomenon that we can blame on a reduced print publication schedule, and forgive me, but I still do not believe most fans get their news online! I will never forget a visit to New Orleans in the late 1980’s by the late, great sports columnist, Will McDonough of the Boston Globe. As we sat watching practice, he was thumbing through the local sports page when he told me: “If I tried to get some of this crap past my desk, they’d throw it back in my face.” Maybe so, but they’d love you in New Orleans!


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