Vargas: On the road again, Saints defense could set the tone

For the second time in a little more than a month, Rob Ryan spent a week preparing his men to play a team that at some point said it would rather not employ the Saints’ defensive coordinator.

Dallas, which fired Ryan in January, limped to its fewest net yards of offense since 2008 (193) and failed to notch more than nine first downs for the first time since 2003. Monte Kiffin, the man who replaced Ryan, saw his defense surrender a franchise-worst 625 yards in a 49-17 shellacking Nov. 10 that earned Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones a new round of derision for his personnel decisions.

In St. Louis on Sunday, Ryan could land the first playoff berth of his 10-year career as an NFL coordinator against a Rams squad that he reportedly said he’d work for — until, amid concerns about the scheme the team would run, he decided to join New Orleans instead.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has said the way things worked out benefited both sides. But St. Louis is 5-8 behind a defense that headed into Week 15 ranked 19th in the league.

Ryan’s crew is 13 spots better and — to borrow a favorite line from the Saints coordinator — more than a little, tiny part of his team’s success. At 10-3, the Saints lead the NFC South, a game ahead of the Carolina Panthers (9-4), whom they beat last week.

That narrative has been wholly satisfying for Saints supporters, who love Ryan because of his portly frame; his wild, flowing, silver locks; and his habit of celebrating home wins at dive bars such as Ms. Mae’s.

But Ryan’s tale could be even better — and it must be if the Saints don’t want their dream of a second Super Bowl title to shatter somewhere outdoors on the road.

It’s no secret that the Saints have been a much more ordinary team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. New Orleans’ offense scores about 15 fewer points and gets about 99 fewer yards per outing on the road.

Coach Sean Payton seethes whenever a reporter asks about any effects the weather has on his team; he’ll allude to the fact that the Saints are 24-13 on the road in the past four years and have the NFL’s best road winning percentage during that time span (.649).

Yet earlier this year, he admitted that wind does hamper a team’s ability to effectively pass, and there’s no doubt that’s the Saints’ most reliable way to move the ball. Quickly, though, Payton added that weather should have no bearing on how other parts of a team work. Partially, he said “a good defense travels well.”

Ryan’s defense is definitely good. It’s allowing the NFL’s sixth-fewest yards (313.6) and fifth-fewest points (18.7) per game. Defensive end Cameron Jordan is tied for fourth in the league in sacks with a career-high 11.5, and teammate Junior Galette is tied for 13th with a career-high nine.

But Ryan’s defense has not traveled well, especially not outdoors and not as of late. The Saints are 1-3 away from home since winning their first two road games. In that stretch, they’re allowing 374.5 yards and 25.8 points per game; to contrast, they’re permitting 267.4 yards and 15.4 points at the Superdome.

Of the 10 passes the Saints have picked off this year, only two have been away, and the most recent one was in a loss to New England on Oct. 13. Three of their seven fumble recoveries have been on the road, but two were in the first two away games. The third wasn’t until Nov. 21 at Atlanta.

That Falcons game is the only one of the past four road games that the Saints have won, and it’s the lone away contest that has been played indoors.

Ryan, who turned 51 on Friday, said, “Trust me: This defense is playing well, but we know we can play better.”

Added Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton: “Great teams are able to play well at home and also on the road. So for us, we can’t be in the comfort of the (Superdome) all the time, so when we do go on the road, we have to prepare and do all the things to execute like we’re at home. It’s about going out and proving to everyone we can play with anybody, anywhere at any time.”

The elements won’t be a factor Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome in snowy St. Louis. If the Saints can triumph against the Rams and avoid letting the outdoors become a factor when they drop in on Carolina (9-3) for their final road game of the regular season next Sunday, they’ll wrap up their division, at least the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

That’d give Ryan and his charges extra time to figure out how to make their dominance at the Superdome portable, should they find themselves needing to book a trip out of town — say, to Seattle? — to play for a conference championship.