METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' defense is operating out of a base 3-4 scheme this year. But it’s been hard to tell that by watching them.
For one thing, the Saints have spent most of this season in nickel and dime packages (five or more defensive backs). So they’re rarely in a seven-man front anyway, whether it be a 3-4 or a 4-3.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have lined up in a nickel or dime personnel grouping on 128 out of 165 snaps this season (77.5 percent). Pro Football Focus has a slightly lower figure (124 out of 165 snaps).
When it comes to how many players have actually lined up on the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus, the Saints have used a four-man front on 113 snaps and a three-man front on 52 snaps. (There have been 10 other snaps where the Saints have used less or more).
It’s a subtle difference, though. It mostly depends on where outside linebacker/defensive end Junior Galette lines up. But he’s essentially used in the same role regardless, primarily as a pass-rusher.
“I think 4-3 or 3-4, they all add up to seven, I think,” cracked Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. “We’re just a multiple group. We’ve got some guys who can play end and outside 'backer. So we kind of move ‘em around.
“But we pride ourselves on being multiple, giving some different looks. So however we’re typed as a 3-4 team or a 4-3 team, at the end of the day we just want to play hard and fast and get better every week.”
It would stand to reason that the Saints have adapted their defense this summer in the wake of all the injuries they suffered at the outside linebacker and defensive line positions.
But Ryan said they “absolutely” would have been using a heavy dose of nickel and dime packages regardless. Even before the injuries started to occur during summer practices, the Saints were installing multiple packages with three and four safeties on the field together.
“We’re playing a lot of sub defense, but that’s how the game is played now,” Ryan said, pointing out some of the two-tailback and four-receiver looks they’ve seen from offenses this season. “So our thing is whatever they put out, it’s not the position of ‘em, it’s the disposition.”
It certainly helps that no matter what alignment the Saints have been in, they’ve been getting consistent production from a pretty traditional four-man pass rush (with Galette and end Cameron Jordan lining up on the edges).
Both Jordan and Galette have repeatedly said they don’t have any problem mixing up their alignments. They both pride themselves on being versatile enough to produce out of any front.
“Jack linebacker, defensive end, all that,” Galette said. “Whatever position they put me in to get to the quarterback.”
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was also known for being multiple and versatile, so Ryan’s approach is familiar in that sense. But Williams felt like he had to depend heavily on blitzing to generate a pass rush with the Saints’ personnel, which limited his options somewhat.
Ryan hasn’t needed to blitz nearly as much this year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have sent five or more pass-rushers on only 36 snaps this year, which ranks 23rd in the NFL.
But the season is still young, and there’s no doubt Ryan and his new defense will continue to evolve.