METAIRIE, La. -- Clearly, Rob Ryan's honeymoon period with the New Orleans Saints has passed. But whether the relationship could possibly end in divorce is harder to predict.
I haven't gotten any indication from anyone on or off the record whether Ryan’s job could be in danger or that there is any friction between coach Sean Payton and Ryan. (Yes, cameras have caught Payton rebuking Ryan twice on the sidelines now -- but that’s a typical reaction from a fiery Payton when players aren’t lined up correctly, like we saw this past week when the Saints had only 10 men on the field).
Payton actually complimented Ryan this week, saying his focus, his passion and his resolve are all "huge strengths."
And players swear by Ryan, saying they are the ones letting him down. As safety Kenny Vaccaro said, "you’ve never heard a story of how he’s lost his players."
Cornerback Keenan Lewis made a passionate defense of Ryan in the locker room Thursday, actually stepping in when another player was being asked about Ryan, according to WWLTV.com.
"All these fans and all these people want to know. It's not my coach, so you all lay off of him," Lewis said. "I'm very hot. I'm hot. Tell them I'm steamed up about that."
Ultimately, though, the question will be whether Payton can get past the stunning flop he’s seeing from those defensive players on the field this season.
Believe it or not, according to ESPN Stats and Information’s defensive efficiency formula, the Saints are even worse this season than they were in 2012 -- when they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season. That year, they averaged minus-7.0 "expected points" per game. This year it’s minus-8.6, the worst in the league.
The Saints rank "only" 27th in the league in yards allowed this season (377.1 per game). But they are dead last in third-down efficiency (47.9 percent) and 29th in takeaways (one per game).
Injuries have been part of the problem, with touted free agent safety Jairus Byrd and his replacement Rafael Bush winding up on IR. And they let a lot of former veteran leaders go in the offseason (though most had played lesser roles last season). Mostly the Saints just aren’t getting the same level of production from some of the young stars who made them the fourth-ranked defense in the NFL last season (namely ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, Vaccaro and every cornerback other than Lewis).
"I think they’re completely shell-shocked. I don’t think they realized internally the issues they have on defense,” said ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who pulled no punches this week on the "SVP & Russillo" show on ESPN Radio after watching the Saints’ worst defensive performance to date firsthand during Monday night’s 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Dilfer described New Orleans’ defense as a "junk-ball defense" and called it a "garbage defense" after the way they couldn’t stop the run or get off the field on third down against Baltimore.
I don't completely agree with Dilfer’s assessment that the Saints’ problems stem from the Saints "always having to move people around and stunt, slant and disguise and have exotic blitzes." Though that has long been Ryan’s reputation, I think he’s done less of that this season as he’s realized his young secondary hasn’t handled that well.
And that always depends on perspective. When Ryan was criticized for his struggles in previous stops at Dallas, Cleveland and Oakland, his schemes were always "too complex." But when he thrived in New Orleans last season, he was lauded for his creativity and the way he got the most out of each individual’s talents by using them in various ways -- especially Vaccaro, whom he moved all over the field in various positions.
This season, Vaccaro has been used as a traditional strong safety, and that is not working either.
Nothing that Ryan has tried has worked this season. Before Monday night, the Saints were getting torched repeatedly on third-and-long when they weren’t getting any pressure on quarterbacks with just a four-man rush. So Monday they tried heavy blitzes in those situations -- and they continued to get torched.
The run defense hasn’t been a constant problem all season. But the secondary is obviously a major concern. No matter what scheme Ryan chooses to run, it will always require trust in his cornerbacks to cover receivers. I always felt like that was the secret to Gregg Williams’ success in New Orleans in 2009 when he blitzed so often.
As Dilfer pointed out, when the Ravens converted their first third-and-long pass on Monday night, the Saints blitzed, and the secondary left receiver Steve Smith completely uncovered (it appeared to be the assignment of newly signed rookie safety Pierre Warren).
"I don’t think it’s ever on the D-coordinator," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "I feel like going into each game that we’ve been going into, that we’ve had a solid plan. And we haven’t executed as players. ... We haven’t been holding up our part of the deal."
"I mean, he takes heat (from outside the organization). But at the same time, you all watch tape, there’s a lot of player stuff on there, man," Vaccaro said. "When he puts the defense in, he puts it in to win. Each defense he plays, it might not be the best call necessarily for what they’re doing, but it still can work. Everything’s sound.
"A DB has to stay on top of their man. A guy has to stay in his (gap). He’s not teaching guys to get out their gaps and not cover receivers. So at the end of the day, it’s our job as players to execute. You’ve gotta lay off Rob, man. He’s a great guy. I’ve never seen somebody so committed to their players. And no matter what happens this season, he’ll never throw us under the bus. He’ll always blame himself. ...
“It’s tough on me because he’s my first coordinator. He trusted me my rookie year, put me in a lot of positions that a lot of guys just wouldn’t do. He just, he believes in me more than I believe in myself at times. And I think he’s like that with everybody. ... So I hope he’s here."
Veteran linebacker David Hawthorne, who has played for five different coordinators with the Saints and Seattle Seahawks, used those exact same words while praising Ryan -- "Rob believes in us sometimes more than you believe in yourself. And you love that kind of coach."