When the Atlanta Falcons enter the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to face the New Orleans Saints this Sunday, one man will feel more pressure than any of the other 72,000-plus there: defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
No doubt quarterback Drew Brees will be looking to lead his Saints back to winning football and silence some of the doubts that crept up last season—along with his interception rate.
Of course, the entire Saints franchise, their fans and city of New Orleans will open their home schedule against the Falcons for the first time since 2006. That emotional demolition of the Falcons inside the rebuilt Superdome was such a powerful symbol of the recovery of the team and city from Hurricane Katrina that a huge bronze statue, "Rebirth," stands outside the stadium in commemoration.
Ryan still has the most riding on his performance in this game.
After being fired by the Dallas Cowboys, Ryan twisted in the wind for much longer than the "five minutes" he predicted to ESPNDallas.com's Tim McMahon. The rest of Ryan's career as a top-level NFL coach depends on his success this season; his "success" this season will be largely judged on his defense's performance in this game.
Even if Ryan's unit is subpar, the Saints will still be competitive. Payton and Brees can be counted on to put points on the board. The Saints' third-best scoring offense outpaced the seventh-ranked Falcons by an average of 2.6 points per game—without Payton.
The Falcons, though, had the fifth-best scoring defense in football last season, compared to the Saints' second-worst. The Saints, on average, allowed a whopping 9.7 more points per game than the Falcons in 2012.
Given the importance of the rivalry, and the likelihood this game could determine which of these two teams advances out of the hyper-competitive NFC South, it's not much of a stretch to say Ryan was hired to stop these Falcons and win this game.
How can he pull it off?
Rob Ryan in a Vacuum
Ryan is creative, using multiple sets and alignments with lots of pre-snap motion. His base uses a 3-4 front, meaning three down linemen and four linebackers, like this:
Ryan, like his brother (New York Jets head coach) Rex, have reputations as aggressive blitzers. Rob Ryan rarely sends more than five rushers, though. His "aggressiveness" comes from which four or five blitzers he sends and how he sends them.
Typically, a 3-4 defense like this uses a lot of "fire zone," where five defenders blitz as six drop back in coverage, three shallow and three deep:
By switching up which defenders drop into which zones, which defenders rush and which gaps in the offensive line those defenders rush through, defenses can be unpredictable while playing it relatively safe.
Ryan uses some fire zone, but he prefers to mix this from-everywhere blitzing with tight man-to-man coverage on the outside and two (or three) safeties playing deep zone behind them. Ryan has his defenders bluff different looks, running up to blitz, dropping back, switching sides, showing several different possibilities for which defender is about to do what.
Ryan also likes to get away from the 3-4, using two, four, one or even zero down linemen to keep quarterbacks guessing. The downside of all this multiplicity? Sometimes Ryan's defenses are so confusing they confuse his defenders.
All of these multiple alignments, looks and bluffs put huge pressure on the defense to know all of their assignments cold and constantly communicate.
In fact, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told Rainer Sabin of the The Dallas Morning News Ryan was fired partly because he tried to implement "too many schemes."
In Dallas last season, Ryan's defense didn't accomplish many, if any, of its goals. Ranked 24th in the NFL, allowing 25.0 points per game, the Cowboys were especially weak against the pass. Per Pro Football Reference, the Cowboys allowed opposing quarterbacks a sixth-worst 7.6 yards per attempt.
Then again, the New Orleans Saints allowed 8.1 yards per attempt—dead last in the NFL.
Even Ryan at his worst should be an improvement for the Saints.
Rob Ryan vs. Matt Schaub and the Falcons
Last season, Ryan's Cowboys faced the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys bottled them up, holding quarterback Matt Ryan and that 26.2-points-per-game offense to just six points in the first three quarters.
The Cowboys lost, 19-13, but Ryan and the defense did their job. How?
Here's an obvious passing situation, a 2nd-and-9 where the Falcons deployed five wide receivers and an empty backfield:
We see the Cowboys in a base nickel alignment (3-3-5), with two safeties in deep zones and the cornerbacks playing man coverage. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, as usual, is lined up very close to the line of scrimmage, ready to blitz.
Matt Ryan calls an audible, and the Cowboys call out adjustments. Finally, Ryan takes the snap:
We see Ware and the three linemen fire off, with two linebackers behind in intermediate zones and three cornerbacks in man coverage. At this instant in time, it looks more like a 4-2-5 nickel:
The key is No. 97, Jason Hatcher, lined up at defensive end. After firing off, he stops, backpedals and plays a shallow zone, apparently spying Ryan. This leaves just a three-man pass rush:
Ryan looks to his right, but the coverage is tight. Nothing is open at the intermediate depth, and both safeties continue to drop deeper:
The three-man rush eventually collapses the pocket, and Ryan flushes to his left. That's when Hatcher gives chase, making sure Ryan can't scramble for easy yards. After stumbling, Ryan throws it away.
Normally, that would have brought up 3rd-and-9, but the coverage was a little too tight: Linebacker Bruce Carter was flagged for illegal contact (highlighted in penalty-flag yellow above). The Falcons got a new set of downs, and Ryan dialed up something a little trickier:
Again, this looks like a vanilla 3-4 set. Both outside linebackers are tight to the line of scrimmage, and both inside linebackers look ready to cover intermediate routes.
The Falcons are in an offset I formation, with a fullback lined up on the strong side. Then, tight end Tony Gonzalez goes in motion, and safety Gerald Sensabaugh sneaks up to show blitz:
The outside and inside linebackers switch themselves around, Sensabaugh retreats, and suddenly, this looks like a base 4-3, save for DeMarcus Ware on the far (left) side of the defensive line not putting his hand down. Ware looks ready to rush:
That's not what happens, though. At the snap, Ware plays tight man coverage on Gonzalez, leaving just the three linemen to apply heat on the quarterback:
Now, the Cowboys are dropped back into a Cover 1 look, with Sensabaugh floating over Gonzalez and both covers playing soft man on the wide receivers. The three linebackers play intermediate zones, and again, Ryan has nowhere to go with the football. He pumps as if to throw to Gonzalez, but Ware's coverage is too good.
Ryan dumps off to notoriously stone-handed running back Michael Turner...
...with predictable results.
This became a common theme throughout the game: Ryan sending three- and four-man rushes, dropping eight or seven into a mix of man and zone coverages. This kept a lid on the Falcons offense, forcing them to drop it off underneath.
The Falcons offensive line had a hard time keeping track of the blitzers, as Ware and others sometimes came through unblocked:
Ryan, graded the ninth-most accurate quarterback under pressure last season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), was more disrupted by blanketing coverage than fierce pass rush.
Ryan and the Falcons started to unlock the zone coverages just before halftime, though, with the help of one of the best-ever weapons against soft zones: Tony Gonzalez. Ryan hit Gonzalez down the seam, right between the intermediate and deep-zone levels:
The Falcons started using Gonzalez, Jones and White on more seam and deep-in routes, attacking the space between the second and third levels of defenders.
In the second half, Jones and White continued to pressure the cornerbacks and safeties deep. Sometimes, communication broke down. On other times, such as these two plays from Orlando Scandrick, the defensive backs simply failed:
The Falcons started moving the ball in sporadic chunks, but couldn't consistently drive to (or through) the red zone. Poor Falcons kicker Matt Bryant had to be sent out for six field goals, missing two.
Other than a 43-yard rumble late in the third quarter, for which running back Michael Turner should have bought White a steak, the Cowboys had no problem bottling up the Falcons' run game. Turner, that long run aside, gained only 59 yards on 19 carries (a 3.1 yards per carry average).
Part of this was due to the excellent run blitzes Ryan dialed up, but also the physical dominance of the Cowboys front seven. Do the Saints have the personnel to do the same?
Rob Ryan's New Orleans Saints
Up front, it looks like the answer is "yes." Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Glenn Foster combined for 14 tackles and six sacks, per NFL.com, which are huge numbers for just a few snippets of preseason action.
Rotating in was huge third-rounder John Jenkins, a true nose tackle with the talent to start sooner rather than later. Jenkins had 11 total tackles and two sacks this preseason, and he's got enough strength and athleticism in his 359-pound frame to collapse both running lanes and pockets.
The losses of outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler to ACL injuries are crushing, as these are the players who correspond to DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in Ryan's offense.
That said, the Saints love what they have in young pass-rusher Junior Galette, according to Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune. "This sucker's gonna be great," Triplett quoted Ryan as saying, comparing him to Derrick Burgess, who led the NFL with 16 sacks under Ryan in 2005.
If Galette can step up against the Falcons, the Saints just might be able to slow the Falcons down.
Can they stop the Falcons? That will depend heavily on the Saints' rebuilt secondary. Jabari Greer and former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis will be asked to hold Jones and White down on the outside, with safety Malcom Jenkins still partnering with Roman Harper in the base defense.
First-round pick Kenny Vaccaro, however, will come on the field in all nickel and dime situations, according to Jeff Duncan of The Times-Picayune. Vaccaro can play slot cornerback or "centerfielder" when the Saints go to Cover 1 or Cover 3.
Vaccaro's confidence with the adjustments and schemes could be the tipping point in this game: Either he's the lid Ryan clamps down on the Falcons' passing offense or a sieve that lets points past him.
Ryan had better be right about Galette and Vaccaro; after all, his career is at stake.