The Future of Defense in the NFL
Why the Saints May Have the Blueprint for Defenses to Come By Kevin Clark
Updated July 31, 2014 2:14 p.m. ET
Safeties, such as Kenny Vaccaro, left, and Rafael Bush, are the key to the New Orleans Saints’ unusual defensive approach. Associated Press
White Sulfur Springs, W.Va.
The private truth about the NFL’s defensive coaches is they need a hug and maybe a pillow to cry into. They have been victimized by offenses that have relentlessly innovated their schemes, collected athletic freaks and benefited from rule changes limiting excessive contact.
Last year, NFL defense hit a new low: The 697 total yards earned in an average game was the most in league history. The previous high was set in 2012. And that replaced 2011’s mark. You get the picture.
But one team is fighting back. Those inside the league say the New Orleans Saints are quietly crafting an unorthodox defense that could change the game and become the shape of defenses to come.
“I’m always ready to get weird,” said Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
The key to this change sounds simple but is a dramatic shift from NFL norms. Basically, the Saints want to play the best 11 players they can find. Size and position are of lesser importance. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, now an analyst at the NFL Network, calls the Saints’ plan “the most fascinating” scheme of the 2014 season.
This isn’t the normal lip service about playing the best players. This is a team betting big on the idea of football positions changing, and soon.
The idea was hatched by accident last year, when injuries to linebackers gave Ryan a dilemma: play bad linebackers or get creative with positions. Ryan went the latter route and stressed the safety position, playing as many as four safeties at once and playing three at a time in his default defensive package. In the NFL, some teams play as few as one safety and almost no team ever employs more than two.
Safeties are bigger than cornerbacks, who typically cover wide receivers, but faster than linebackers, who are built to stop a running back and take on offensive linemen. They can be 60 pounds lighter than some linebackers but 20 pounds heavier than some corners. They can cover the insanely athletic crop of tight ends now in the NFL and take on the league’s rising group of tall receivers all while giving up only a little bit of speed from a cornerback.
A bonus in Ryan’s mad-scientist scheme is that he can position the safety anywhere from 20 yards away from the quarterback to right on the line of scrimmage, rushing the quarterback off the edge.
The idea is clear: Find as many players who can do everything and let them do it.
The result? The Saints improved from last in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012 to fourth last season, Ryan’s first with the team. In the months leading up to their training camp in West Virginia, they bet plenty of money that the safety was a big reason.
The Saints’ Rafael Bush last season against the Miami Dolphins Getty Images
The Saints shocked the football world in signing Jairus Byrd, one of the top free agents in the market, to a six-year, $56 million deal, despite having plenty of safety depth and less than plenty of salary-cap space. A month later, the team brought back safety Rafael Bush by unexpectedly matching an offer from the Atlanta Falcons. A month after that, they took Alabama’s starting safety, Vinnie Sunseri, in the draft. New Orleans spent last year’s top pick on a safety, too—Kenny Vaccaro.
The endgame, said Ryan: “The three-safety package comes in a lot more than it’s ever done in football. We have five really talented safeties on the roster and we plan on playing them all because they are really good players.”
Wesley McGriff, the Saints’ defensive-backs coach, said playing so many safeties has one benefit aside from having big, tall guys who can run and tackle. He said offenses can’t change calls at the line effectively because they don’t know what position a safety is playing on any given down, when there are so many on the field.
No one is used in more different ways than Vaccaro, who was one of two safeties in the NFL last season to play more than 70% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. (Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu was the other.) The rise in offenses with just one back in the backfield, and no fullback, has made it easier for the Saints to experiment, McGriff said, since they don’t have to worry much about big beefy blockers colliding with the safeties, who are considered small when it comes to the run game.
“Our three-safety deal is because the game is changing. You have to have more guys who can cover, run can do all these different things,” Ryan said.
The experiment doesn’t surprise Jeremiah, a former Baltimore Ravens scout who was in the room during the 2006 NFL draft when something odd happened. Rob Ryan’s brother Rex—the New York Jets coach who was then a Ravens assistant—begged the front office to draft a third safety, Michael Huff. He went into detail about how he would use him, how the game was changing, how safeties were the wave of the future.
“We would find a way to use it,” Rex Ryan said this week about asking for a third safety on that day.
The Ravens didn’t draft Huff. Ever since, three-safety packages have mostly been an oddity in the NFL, until now.