METAIRIE, La. — Rob Ryan figures his firing in Dallas will only help him relate to a Saints defense humbled by a historically bad season.
“I don’t like getting fired,” Ryan said Thursday during his first meeting with reporters since Sean Payton hired him in February to revamp New Orleans’ last-ranked defense. “I know I got my feelings hurt and so did our players. We’re looking to do something about it.”
The Saints gave up 7,042 yards in 2012, the most ever in a single season in the NFL. Payton has said that performance forced him to make a change at defensive coordinator, even though he felt bad letting Steve Spagnuolo go after only one highly unusual season.
Spagnuolo never got to coach with Payton, who was suspended all of last season in connection with the NFL’s bounty probe. Yet shortly after Payton was reinstated, the relatively calm, analytical Spagnuolo, who favored a read-and-react 4-3 defense, was replaced by Ryan, who runs a pressure-heavy 3-4 scheme (three down linemen, four linebackers).
Ryan also has been known to exhibit a brash demeanor more akin to that of Gregg Williams, the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011.
“Personality-wise they are very similar,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “They’re cut from the same cloth in that they know that players and matchups are what defense is all about and they have a lot of personality and they’re aggressive in their play-calling.”
Williams often referred to himself as a disciple of retired coach Buddy Ryan, who ran the defense of Chicago’s 1985 Super Bowl championship team and later was a head coach for Philadelphia and Arizona. Rob Ryan is Buddy Ryan’s son, and New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s brother.
“They’re all from the same school, the Buddy Ryan defense, so there are a lot of similarities between what Gregg was running and what Rob is bringing,” Jenkins said. “But I think Rob has a few more wrinkles with the 3-4 and everything, and I think we’re going to have fun.”
Williams used to boast brazenly of how nasty he wanted his defenses to be, and wound up being a central figure in the NFL’s investigation into the Saints’ bounty program. The league said Williams administered the program, which paid cash bonuses for big plays, including heavy and sometimes injury-causing hits.
Ryan’s approach also fosters toughness, Jenkins said, and that is something Saints players embrace, even as they are mindful of the scrutiny they faced from the league in the past.
“There’s a line and you don’t cross it, but you want to get as close to that line as you can,” Jenkins said. “We definitely want to be a physical, feared defense.”
Because the Saints’ offense, designed by Payton and orchestrated by quarterback Drew Brees, is perennially among the NFL’s best, New Orleans has not always had to be good on defense to win.
They ranked 25th of 32 teams in 2009, when they won their only Super Bowl. They ranked 24th in 2011, when they went 13-3 and advanced to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs before falling to San Francisco in a thriller.
So Ryan, whose defense in Dallas ranked 19th last season, doesn’t need to work miracles, but he does need to make the Saints’ defense a little closer to average.
“It was bad last year,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “There’s no sugar coating or anything like that, so we’ve got a lot of room to improve.”
Payton said he did a lot of research on Ryan, interviewing players and coaches who have worked with him, before concluding he would be right for the job.
“I like his passion,” Payton said. “I like the way players respond and I think he’s a perfect fit.”
Ryan has studied some of the schemes the Saints executed well under Williams and brought some of them back, even with the same terminology.
“I know our successes, where that’s been. It’s been a pressure team, I know that,” Ryan said. “But I also know we can do more with our coverage, and we have to.”
Jenkins said Ryan’s scheme better suits the strengths of Saints defenders, noting that the roster includes cornerbacks who can hold their own in single coverage long enough for Saints safeties, who’ve been effective blitzers, to disrupt quarterbacks.
If successful, Ryan could for the first time serve as a defensive coordinator on a winning team, something he never did while holding that post in Cleveland, Oakland and Dallas. However, he did win Super Bowls as a defensive assistant in New England.
“I’m fortunate enough to be with great program like the Saints, led by Sean Payton. I haven’t felt this way since I was in New England with Bill Belichick,” Ryan said. “I just feel like a sense of urgency. I can’t wait to give everything I have to this organization. I know everybody is on the same path.”
Mark your calendar …
Sunday Night Football matchup …
The Dallas Cowboys vs New Orleans Saints – November 10, 2013: