Saints mailbag: Why Ryan's D is working

Thanks for submitting your questions to me on Twitter this week. I’ll try to make this a regular weekly feature. And at some point, we’ll start having some regular chats as well. Sorry I didn’t get to all of your questions. But I’ll address a couple of the game-specific topics later today in my weekly What To Watch For preview of Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals:

@TrentReker: Why do you think the #Saints are struggling in the red zone, and besides confidence what makes rob ryan’s d legit?

@MikeTriplett: I broke down the Saints’ red zone issues earlier this week. So far it’s been mainly a combination of untimely penalties and the lack of a consistent run game (which has been an issue everywhere on the field). The Saints will make it a huge priority to get fixed, but they’re confident they will since this area has always been a huge strength of theirs. I tend to agree.

As for Ryan, there’s a number of things that make him stand out. For one, I think he does a good job of using players to their individual strengths (and avoiding their weaknesses). And I think his schemes are very unpredictable and hard for opposing offenses to identify. I did an extensive story on Ryan this summer, in which one of his former players, Scott Fujita, described him as a “mad scientist.” Fujita said more than any other coach he’s been around, Ryan stays up all night trying to study opposing offenses and come up with different schemes and packages to throw at them.

Statistically over the years, Ryan has been among the NFL leaders in sending five or more rushers -- and among the NFL leaders in sending three or fewer rushers. A lot of times, he’ll have all 11 defenders standing up in an “amoeba” formation. Obviously all that mixing and matching can lead to mental errors or missed assignments on defense, as well. But at least Ryan’s defenses are being proactive and aggressive, and the players seem to love that. That approach has certainly worked better in New Orleans in recent years with Ryan and former coordinator Gregg Williams than with other coordinators. I’m surprised Ryan hasn’t had more consistent success in past stops.

And as you mentioned, the players are clearly playing with more confidence under Ryan, which I discussed earlier this week.

@BP1708: How big a loss is Evans if so? Surely other than Brees the one guy they can’t do without.

@MikeTriplett: That’s hard to argue with. Jahri Evans has been regarded as the Saints’ second or third best player throughout the past eight years. And the Saints have built their offense around having strong guard play that allows quarterback Drew Brees to step up in the pocket. Plus, Evans’ primary replacement is an unproven, undrafted rookie, Tim Lelito. We probably should be making a bigger deal out of Evans’ injury than we have. Even if he does play, you’d have to assume he’ll be less than 100 percent.

The good news is that the Saints have known all week about Evans’ status, so they’ll be able to game plan accordingly.

@MatthewCutrer: If Ingram can’t go, who’s in Cadet or Robinson?

@MikeTriplett: If Mark Ingram is out, I bet rookie Khiry Robinson will be active on game day for the first time this year. But I wouldn’t expect either Robinson or Travaris Cadet to be used heavily against the Cardinals. I think Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles would just see increased touches -- something they’re both perfectly capable of handling.

@legendonnelly: How has Vaccaro performed so far in your opinion?

@MikeTriplett: Just wrote the other day about how much the Saints are counting on rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro already. He’s played every snap on defense so far in a versatile role that’s similar to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. It’s way too early to predict if Vaccaro can ever become that level of a standout player. But it’s certainly a good sign that the Saints are so high on him at this early stage. And his aggressiveness is something the Saints have needed more of in their defense.

@jbenton: Besides the obvious Jimmy Graham, who do you think should be the team’s No. 1 priority for locking up for the long term?

@MikeTriplett: Good question. Most of their other core players are veterans who are already in long-term deals (Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, among others). The answer might become left tackle Charles Brown if he continues to hold up as well as he has so far this year. Brown is in the last year of his deal. Otherwise I’d probably say third-year defensive end Cameron Jordan, whose deal is up after 2014. I think Jordan and second-year end Akiem Hicks could become a big part of the defense’s foundation going forward.