After playing half of his eight-year NFL career for Rex Ryan, safety Jim Leonhard couldn’t say no when he had a chance to join the New Orleans Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan this spring.
Getting to play for Rex Ryan’s twin brother was pretty much a no-brainer for Leonhard, who had met Rob Ryan a few times when he was with the New York Jets.
He just didn’t know how similar they were — until he got into the meeting room with Rob Ryan for the first time last month.
“Personality-wise, they’re very similar,” a smiling Leonhard said Thursday after the Saints’ third OTA of the spring. “It’s scary.”
Scary in a good way.
“It’s a lot of fun playing for them because they keep things interesting,” Leonhard said. “They make football fun; that’s their biggest thing. Rex always said that it’s a game for kids, and Rob uses the same kind of (motivational) stuff.
“They say that you’re very fortunate to be playing, so you should have fun doing it.”
While two of his new teammates — defensive end Kenyon Coleman and linebacker Victor Butler — have experience playing for Rob Ryan the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, Leonhard already feels like he’s been with him a while, too.
The Ryans learned at the hand of their dad, former NFL defensive coordinator and head coach Buddy Ryan, taking his philosophy of an aggressive, attacking style and adding a few wrinkles to it.
“The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree with those guys,” said Leonhard, who played 56 games for Rex Ryan when he was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens before taking the Jets job in 2009.
Leonhard said it was obvious from the start that Rob Ryan — who was hired by Sean Payton to install a 3-4 scheme after his old 4-3 was pounded for an NFL single-season record 7,042 total yards last season — is intent on making an instant impact with his new team.
With an offense that has finished no lower than sixth since Payton took over in 2006, Ryan knows his group just has to show any kind of improvement to give the Saints a chance.
“Absolutely, he knows what we have to do, and he’s been very blunt and very in your face about it,” Leonhard said. “There are going to be expectations of the defense, so he laid it out there on Day 1.
“There are no secrets. There’s a lot of open communication with him, and the players really respect that. All you want is to feel like you’re part of the equation and can provide your input.”
Cornerback Keenan Lewis, another newcomer who played the past four seasons for Pittsburgh Steelers defensive guru Dick LeBeau, also likes what he’s seen of Ryan.
“Rob approaches his job with great energy,” Lewis said. “When you have a guy like that, you’ve got to have energy no matter what. Even on the days when you feel you don’t want to do it, he makes you feel like you’re ready to go. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Free safety Malcolm Jenkins said he sees some of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Ryan, which is only natural because Williams was a protégé of Buddy Ryan.
“They’re cut from the same cloth, in that they know that players and matchups are what defense is all about,” Jenkins said. “They’re aggressive with the play-calling. They’re from the same school, the Buddy Ryan defense.
“There are a lot of similarities between what Gregg was running and what Rob is bringing, but Rob has a few more wrinkles with the 3-4, and I think we’re going to have fun playing.”
After last season, they’d better.
“There’s a bunch of guys in here with a bad taste in their mouth,” Leonhard said. “They know what winning feels like, and they want to get back to that. It has to be real. It can’t be faked.”