Sean Payton returning to the New Orleans Saints was one of the most important factors in the Saints’ turnaround from a season ago. However, the hiring of Rob Ryan might have been the most dynamic additions to this Saints’ team. Ryan managed to take a defense that was the worst in NFL history and turn it into a top five defense. What made this feat even more impressive was the fact that it was done with largely the same cast from last year; and also, that same cast suffered many an injury to players like Will Smith, Jabari Greer, free agent Victor Butler, etc. Similar to the piece about the offense, we will have some bullet points to summarize the defense.
It is hard to say that one player meant more to this defense than another because of the team aspect of the defensive side of the ball. Arguments can be made for rookie Kenny Vaccaro, whose versatility allowed for Ryan to play his complex schemes, or Keenan Lewis who played like a shutdown corner for the entire season.
The guy one cannot ignore, however, and is the MVP is Cameron Jordan. The third year defensive end had a breakout season recording 12.5 sacks, 4 pass deflections, and two forced fumbles. He has been the most consistent piece from start to finish providing relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He was recognized with a Pro Bowl selection this season, the only Saints’ defensive player to receive one. Jordan’s versatility in Ryan’s scheme will allow him to be a cornerstone of this defense for years to come.
The defense played outstanding seemingly every game this season, so it was hard to single out one game. The game I have chosen, however, is the smashing of the Dallas Cowboys. Ryan, though he won’t say it, was itching to get a shot against the team that scapegoated him last year, and his defense didn’t disappoint.
They held one of the league’s most prolific passers, Tony Romo, to 128 yards passing and one of the best receivers in the game, Dez Bryant, to one 44 yard catch. In addition, they sacked Romo three times and held a normally potent offense to 9 first downs and NO 3rd down conversions. It was an all-around great performance by the defense and I am sure that Rob Ryan enjoyed embarrassing his former team on national television.
There weren’t many, but one sticks out like a sore thumb; and that was the debacle against the New York Jets where Rob Ryan faced his twin brother Rex Ryan for the first time. The Jets’ offense was one of the more inept offenses in the league and the Saints’ defense essentially got punched in the mouth. Former Saint Chris Ivory went for 139 yards, while the entire Jets’ team amassed close to 200 yards rushing.
The Jets’ offense didn’t pass for much, but they didn’t have to as they were able to get what they needed on the ground. What makes the performance bad was the fact that the Jets and Saints knew they only chance they had to move the ball was on the ground and they still were not able to stop that ground attack.
With all the well-deserved hype surrounding the young talent, David Hawthorne slipped through the cracks a little bit. The veteran inside linebacker was brought in last season to start and make an impact, but was slowed by injuries. However, with Jonathan Vilma injured and the linebacker core being spread thin, Hawthorne stepped and was second on the team in tackles and was solid against the run.
He and Curtis Lofton were a solid veteran tandem that complimented all the young players on the team. And their ability to make the right checks and audible in Ryan’s complex scheme was one the main reasons the Saints defense was able to thrive week in and week out.
The future is bright. Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Keenan Lewis, Kenny Vaccaro, Akiem Hicks, and John Jenkins are all young players and provide a solid core for this team going forward. In addition, the Saints will see the return of talented linebacker Victor Butler. Some decisions will be made on veterans like Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, and Will Smith, but nonetheless one has to love the young talent on this defense. The key to sustained success to not settling and continuing to add pieces.