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Thursday, June 6, 2013
Saints are buying into Rob Ryan

By Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- He is boisterous, daring and, even though he won’t admit it, carrying a huge chip on his shoulder.

Maybe Rob Ryan, complete with his oversized personality, and the New Orleans Saints, an organization that’s carrying a chip of its own, are coming together at the perfect time. If Ryan can instill just a little of himself into the defense, it might be able to stop opponents on occasion -- and that might be enough to get the Saints back into the playoffs, maybe even back to something like the 2009 Super Bowl.

If this union sounds a little like something you’ve heard before, it’s only because you have.

Watch Ryan on the practice field or talk to him for five minutes and you feel almost like you’re watching or listening to Gregg Williams. Forget Bountygate for a minute and think back to when Williams arrived as the defensive coordinator in 2009.

All of a sudden, players were diving for loose balls in practice even after the whistle had blown. All of a sudden, the New Orleans defense had swagger and produced turnovers at a rapid rate. All of a sudden, the Saints had the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

That could happen again. It was easy to see an aggressive attitude from the defense as I watched minicamp practices the past couple of days. You could see innovation with the defense sometimes lining up with six defensive backs and no down linemen.

And you could see and hear the chip on the shoulder from the Saints and from Ryan.

Rob Ryan
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, left, "makes the job fun," one Saints player said. "Everyone buys in."
The Saints have moved beyond Bountygate, but they’re still ticked off that they went 7-9 in 2012. The defense is particularly perturbed after ranking No. 32 last season and turning in one of the worst statistical performances in history.

Then, there’s Ryan’s chip.

"Anybody who has followed me, we were No. 3 in the league for 10 weeks of the season until every single player on the team was hurt and then I got fired," Ryan said. "We should have been No. 1. But that’s OK. I learned [from it]."

Ryan was talking about last season in Dallas, when he was let go as defensive coordinator. When asked if he had a chip on his shoulder because of it, Ryan said, "Not at all."

Yeah, right. Like Williams and a lot of other successful coaches, Ryan has a big ego. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ego can drive and push a coach and help him bring out the best in his players.

The Saints need to bring out the best in their defense. Everyone knows they have a great offense. Even a middle-of-the-pack defense could put them in Super Bowl contention. But Ryan isn’t shooting for the middle of the pack.

He wants an aggressive defense and he wants it to be one of the best in the league. He wants the defense to take on his personality.

"He doesn’t have to really instill it," middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "He just does it by being himself and saying the things he says, like, 'We’re going to be a great defense and you guys are great players.' As a player, that gives you confidence. When you’re a confident player and your coach believes in you, you want to make him right. That’s how he gets the aggressiveness part."

With Ryan, the Saints are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. Much has been made of that, and there were plenty of exotic looks from the defense in minicamp, which should mean there will be even more exotic looks when the regular season gets here. That’s a welcome change from a defense that was bland -- and bad -- under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Ryan’s doing all sorts of innovative things, like moving Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson from defensive end to outside linebacker and putting safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro on the field at the same time.

But Ryan is doing more than installing a scheme. He’s trying to build a new culture on the defense.

"We’re in the attack business," Ryan said. "We say we’re in charge of discipline."

So far, there are plenty of signs the culture is changing.

"The thing I like about Ryan is he’s exactly what he preaches," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "You have to appreciate that."

And what does Ryan preach?

"Hard work," Hicks said. "Hard work and he stays on you."

As last season went down the tubes, several players anonymously complained to the local media that Spagnuolo was unwilling to change and wouldn’t listen to input from players. It doesn’t sound like that will be a problem with Ryan.

"Rob makes the job fun," Lofton said. "He finds ways to lighten things up. He’s very aggressive. In his system, everyone’s going to get some burn, so everyone buys in."

The Saints have plenty of individual talent on defense, but the production hasn’t been very good since the Super Bowl season. But that will change if the defense continues to buy into Ryan.

His personality could give the defense a personality again. If that happens, the Saints could be champions again.