Nature or nurture?
Is the Saints’ dramatic defensive turnaround mainly a product of young talent coming into its own and an influx of newcomers or primarily the work of first-year coordinator Rob Ryan?
The answer, of course, is C — a combination of all three.
“It’s everybody and everything,” safety Jabari Greer said. “We’ve got coaches who really love the game and are showing us how to have fun. And we’ve got new guys who have done a terrific job of embracing the culture. And then there’s the rest of us who have met the challenge of stepping up.”
Stepping up indeed.
Going into Sunday’s game at New England, the 5-0 Saints have turned a defense that was — all together, again — historically the worst in NFL history in 2012 and returned 10 of its 11 primary starters into one that ranks in the top half of the league in total defense (11th). More importantly, it’s fourth in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) with only seven touchdowns allowed.
And that has been accomplished with seven veteran front-line players (Will Smith, Kenyon Coleman, Brodrick Bunkley, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler, Patrick Robinson and Roman Harper) missing all or part of the season with injuries. That’s 58 years of combined NFL experience on the sideline.
Sunday’s 11 defensive starters — two of them rookies — have an average of 3.6 years in the league under their belts.
“We’ve lost some key players who are really good,” Ryan said. “And when that happens, you try to play to the strengths of the guys who are in there the best you can. Most of our success in the past has been trying to play the things they can play rather than trying just to fit anybody in any old system. We do what’s best at what we do.”
That’s a marked contrast from last year under Steve Spagnuolo. The players will tell you that, while they liked Spags personally, his “my way or the highway” schemes led to frustration, especially among younger players who were being asked to read and react rather than just be aggressive.
“It’s not nearly as complicated as we thought it would be,” third-year linebacker Junior Galette said. “Rob was supposed to be all about blitzing, but he had the faith in our front four and put guys like Glenn Foster and Cam Jordan in position to let the guys on the back side do their jobs. Then last week (against Chicago), we come out blitzing, and (the Bears) aren’t ready for it.”
Giving the players, especially the ones back from last year, a healthy dose of confidence also helps. During OTAs, Galette said, Ryan told his players they were some of the best he’d ever seen.
“We knew we were bad last year,” Galette said. “But Rob made us believe we weren’t.”
Ryan has continued to demonstrate his solidarity with the players. Last week, when head coach Sean Payton told everyone to wear some unsightly long cleats, Ryan and secondary coach Wesley McGriff did so as well.
“Coach said, ‘We’re going to wear these cleats; I don’t care who you are,’ ” Ryan said. “Me and Crime Dog, thought, ‘Well, we’re kind of new here,’ so we thought he meant us, too.”
Of such little gestures, bonds are strengthened even more.
Ryan’s well-known brashness may have been tempered a bit because of Payton’s experience with Gregg Williams. Ex-Saint Darren Sharper, now with the NFL Network, described Ryan as “Gregg without the arrogance.”
“Rob can be cocky,” he said, “but it translates to the players wanting to go out there and play for him.”
ESPN analyst Eric Allen, another ex-Saint, said Ryan’s approach is much of what he saw when he was with the Eagles and Buddy Ryan, Rob’s father, was the coach.
“Buddy had a way of instilling pride in you because you believed everything in his system was designed to take full advantage of your abilities,” he said. “I can see that in Rob. He’s a highly energetic guy, and the players are buying into him. He’s got those guys playing at a very high level, especially the secondary.”
Of course, it did help that the cupboard wasn’t as bare as last year’s results suggested. Players like Galette, Jordan, Martez Wilson and Akiem Hicks were ready to move into more prominent roles and have done so perhaps ahead of schedule due to injuries.
“You have to have a ‘next man up’ mentality,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “Even if we hadn’t had these injuries, our younger guys would have been pushing for playing time. That’s why we haven’t missed a step.”
Neither does it seem that there were many, if any, malcontents.
“When I came here, people thought I was going to have to be a leader, but there were already great leaders on this team,” said safety Keenan Lewis, the most prominent free agent acquisition. “It’s a lot like the guys I played with at Pittsburgh. I just had to come in and play my role.”
So where does it end? Greer said it’s too early for this defense to be compared to the 2009 Super Bowl one, although the Saints actually were better the two following years than they were when they won it all.
Ryan emphasizes that success belongs to everyone.
“It’s been well-documented how everybody was down on us as coaches, players and everything,” he said. “I think we had a lot to prove, and we still do.
“But we know who we are, and we know what people think of us. We’re just trying to be a tiny part of this success.”