NFC South: New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- That didn't take long.

After the best season of his career in 2013, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is once again facing scrutiny just four games into the 2014 season -- at least outside of the team facility.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
(Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesYear two of the Rob Ryan defense has been a rough one thus far for the Saints, mimicking what's happened at Ryan's other stops.
The Saints (1-3) are ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (396 per game), tied for 27th in points allowed (27.5 per game) and dead last in turnovers (1).

Inside the Saints' building, players and coach Sean Payton have continued to support Ryan. Cornerback Keenan Lewis offered the strongest possible endorsement Monday when he wasn't even asked about Ryan, saying, "We're gonna get it fixed. We've got the coaches, Coach Ryan's got all the faith, the best coordinator in the NFL. He's doing a great job. We just gotta listen, and we just gotta man up and get the job done."

Payton cut off a question when asked about Ryan not getting the same results as last season, saying, "Yeah, but that's 'we.' It's not any one individual. It's the Saints' defense. Sean Payton is not getting the same results as he did last year, and every player on this team is not getting the same results ... on defense."

However, a growing number of skeptics have pointed to Ryan's spotty track in previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said this week that if Ryan -- son of Buddy, twin brother to Rex -- had a different last name, "I don't think he'd be a defensive coordinator in this league."

Media members in both Cleveland and Dallas (where the Saints have lost games this year) both suggested that Ryan's struggles are reminiscent of relapses that his defenses had in those cities.

ESPN Stats and Information produced a chart this week, pointing out that last year's Saints defense was Ryan's first since 2006 to rank better than 20th in the NFL in defensive efficiency (a formula that measures the value of each play, based on the situation and result).

It's worth noting, however, that whether Ryan is the cause or the effect, he hasn't been with many good teams during his career. Last year's Saints team was the first to finish with a winning record in Ryan's 11-year career as a defensive coordinator.

Personally, I disagree with Williamson's assessment. There is more to Ryan than his family ties. Ryan has one of the most infectious personalities of any coach I've ever been around.

I've talked with many of Ryan's current and former players and scouting analysts who admire his work ethic as a creative schemer and "film rat." Players in both New Orleans and previous stops have almost universally praised him as a guy they love to play for. There is no question that Ryan's ability to both motivate and innovate got the most out of the Saints' young talent during their unexpected rise to prominence last year.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who fired Ryan after the 2012 season, said recently, "I think Rob's going to make a great head coach. I haven't seen anybody that is better in front of a team and better motivating than Rob Ryan."

But no one can dispute the fact that Ryan's defense needs to start producing better results on the field.

Injuries haven't been an issue this year, and talent shouldn't be either. Ryan is working with mostly the same players as last season, plus the addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The Saints did let go of several veteran leaders (Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper). But while their leadership clearly seems to be missed, many of them played limited roles last year because of injuries.

Ryan himself hasn’t shirked the blame. He isn’t scheduled to meet the media until Friday this week to discuss the defense's latest setback, a 38-17 loss at Dallas. But Ryan made no excuses after the Saints' first two losses, saying it's "on me."

Ryan also simplified his scheme before Week 3, eliminating the heavy amount of checks and adjustments he likes to use in his defenses (an approach that has also drawn its share of criticism in previous stops).

"When I was hired, I came into something special here. And I'm not going to screw it up," Ryan said last week. "I'm going to work hard and make sure we get it right."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

September, 30, 2014
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What’s wrong with the New Orleans Saints defense? Depends on which game you watch.

This time their run defense was the most glaring issue in a revolving set of problems that have plagued them throughout this season. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Saints got gashed by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ run game in last Sunday night’s 38-17 loss. They got paralyzed by the mere threat of Murray.

The Saints’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly got caught in no man’s land. Their pass rush wasn’t overly aggressive because they kept guys hanging back to guard against the run -- which ultimately didn’t work anyway. At the same time, the Saints’ coverage suffered in the middle of the field because they were burned by play-action passes.

The good news is that the Saints won’t face many running backs with Murray’s combination of power and speed this season. The bad news is that they keep finding different ways to lose games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray rushed 24 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Here are more observations after watching the tape:

Murray overwhelming: Murray definitely gets his share of credit for churning out 149 yards and two touchdowns. Once he got a head of steam, he powered through some guys (even stout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton on one occasion). Other times, Murray’s speed burned guys who took bad angles.

The low point might have been Murray’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, where he came up the middle, powered through Lofton while Lofton was coming off of a partial block, then kept running as linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Rafael Bush also failed to bring him down.

Murray’s speed burned the Saints on both of his touchdowns. On his 28-yarder in the third quarter, Murray started running left but made a sharp cut inside while Humber went wide. Then he sped past Lofton, who was trying to spin away from a block. And he made safety Jairus Byrd miss in the open field toward the end of the run. … Byrd also took too shallow of an angle on Murray’s 15-yard TD run in the first half.

The Cowboys’ run blocking was outstanding, with Murray getting out wide into open space a lot rather than plowing up the middle. Backup running back Joseph Randle also broke off a 14-yard gain late in the third quarter, aided by a missed tackle by safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Missed tackles: This was a repeat violation for the Saints, who were also plagued by missed tackles in Week 1. They had at least six blatant misses (one each by Vaccaro, Byrd, Lofton, Humber, Junior Galette and Corey White). And they had several others that would have been more challenging stops but still would be counted as misses.

Pass-rush problems: I can’t remember seeing many games where Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan were so ineffective. They barely even got any hurries on quarterback Tony Romo. To be fair, Romo didn’t stand in the pocket all day picking the Saints apart deep. But he was rarely harassed, and one of the few times he did get flushed, he ran 21 yards to convert a third down.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith had a lot to do with that. He beat both Galette and Jordan 1-on-1 a few times. One time, Galette even bounced off Smith and fell to the ground while trying a spin move. Nothing seemed to work for the Saints. One time, they flooded the Cowboys’ right side with a zone blitz that included two rushing linebackers, but Murray picked up Humber. Another time they tried stunts on both sides of the line, but everyone got stood up.

The Saints didn’t blitz much early in the game. And they started to have some success when they finally did start sending some heavy pressures (including a third-down sack by Vaccaro during a big moment late in the game when the Saints were rallying). But then again, all three of Romo’s touchdown passes came against blitzes.

A 23-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams in the second quarter and an 18-yarder to Dez Bryant in the fourth were almost identical plays against all-out blitzes. Romo made quick, back-shoulder throws to the receivers, who turned and caught them short of the goal line before powering in (Williams against Brian Dixon and Bryant against Keenan Lewis). Dixon was playing physical coverage, while Lewis gave a small cushion, but neither worked.

No man’s land: There were several examples of the Saints either getting burned by a play-action pass or leaving the middle of the field open with eight men in the box spying Murray. Romo’s first 6-yard TD pass to Williams was an example of the latter. Others included passes of 16, 16, 15 and 11).

Some good stuff: Lewis did a solid job against Bryant. He had one nice pass-break up and had good deep coverage twice when Romo fired that way under pressure. Sometimes the Saints doubled Bryant, but not too often, as he finished with three catches for 44 yards. … The Saints tightened up against the run in a few key moments late in the game. Bush, Byrd and linebacker Parys Haralson each got good penetration on run stuffs. … Not sure if this counts as good or bad, but the Saints recognized at the last moment that receiver Devin Street was uncovered on a third-and-9 play in the second quarter, and Byrd got there just in time to break up the pass. … Byrd struggled in run support but put some big licks on receivers in the open field.

The Film Don’t Lie: Saints

September, 30, 2014
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A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

Nobody needs the backing of the Dome crowd more than the New Orleans Saints' pass-rushers when they return home in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints' pass rush went from disappointing to disappearing in Sunday's 38-17 loss at Dallas. Ends Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan were held at bay all night, with New Orleans' only sack coming from safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The glaring problem against the Cowboys was that the Saints were so heavily focused on stopping the NFL's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray. They often had linebackers and Vaccaro hovering back behind the line for containment.

But the strategy backfired when Murray destroyed them for 149 rushing yards anyway. The Saints forced only one third-and-long situation during the first three quarters.

"There's no four-man pass rush if you can't stop the run," Galette lamented. "They're going to run play-actions on you, and you have to respect the play-actions. ... There's not one time [Tony Romo] just sat back there and was just comfortable. The times he did sit back there, he took off [running]. They game planned and had a lot of respect for our defensive line, and we didn't stop the run."

It seems defenses have been game planning in a similar fashion for most of this year, with quarterbacks releasing the ball quickly. As a result, the Saints are tied for 23rd in the NFL with just five sacks. And they're one of only two teams with zero interceptions.

The key to New Orleans' success last year was Jordan, Galette, Akiem Hicks and others getting consistent pressure with a four-man rush. And they need to be the leaders of this season's defensive revival to take some pressure off the secondary and possibly even start forcing some of those elusive takeaways.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."
METAIRIE, La. – There were no updates available Monday on New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead’s status for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he left this past Sunday night’s game early with a concussion.

Coach Sean Payton said Armstead will go through the NFL’s mandatory concussion-evaluation protocol during the week, and “we’ll wait and see where Terron’s at.”

Armstead
Payton did confirm that third-year pro Bryce Harris would remain Armstead’s replacement if needed, after he said Harris was one of the few bright spots during the Saints’ 38-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys.

“I thought Bryce did a pretty good job of stepping in there. Looking at the tape, he played pretty well,” Payton said of the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, who made his NFL starting debut at left tackle after starting one game at right tackle in both 2012 and 2013.

It was especially impressive that Harris held up in a situation where the Saints were forced to throw the ball on almost every snap as the game wore on.

If Armstead can’t play, however, the Saints will have to identify an even less-proven backup option for Harris. They have two backup guard/centers on the roster in Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, but neither was cross-trained at tackle this summer. Rookie Tavon Rooks could be activated from the practice squad. Or the Saints could look elsewhere for help.
Thomas MorsteadTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys stopped Thomas Morstead for a 2-yard loss on the Saints' ill-fated fake punt.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To be fair, there is no such thing as a high-percentage play when you are down 31-17 and facing a fourth-and-9 with 7:45 remaining in a game.

But a fake punt clearly wasn't the answer. And New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game that "hindsight probably was 20-20" after punter Thomas Morstead was sacked for a 2-yard loss. The Dallas Cowboys scored soon afterward to ice their 38-17 victory.

Payton said he is not sure he would have gone for it in that situation, though. He likely would have opted to punt instead with two timeouts still remaining.

"It’s something we’d had up for a while. Even versus their 'safe' look, it was something we thought would have a chance," Payton said of the play, which began with a fake handoff to running back Travaris Cadet -- but the Cowboys didn’t bite.

"There was some misdirection involved. They played it pretty well," Payton said. "Hindsight probably was 20-20. I had kind of gone back and forth with it. It was on the hash mark we wanted, and they covered it pretty well."

Morstead said the Saints had been practicing the play for a while, but the Cowboys simply didn’t bite.

"No one was open, so I didn't throw it," Morstead told reporters. "I think they had three guys covering the two that were options for me to throw to, and I just didn't feel like it was there. I decided instead of going 0-for-1 with an interception, I'd try to extend the play, and it just didn't work."

It was hardly the only special teams gaffe of the night for the Saints.

Kicker Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal wide right in the second quarter to help set the tone in an "everything that could go wrong ..." game.

It was Graham’s first field-goal miss of the season, but he also missed an extra point last week in a 20-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Graham later made a 30-yard field goal Sunday and is 4-of-5 on the season.

UPDATED: Payton reiterated Monday that the blame for the failed play was "on me for being impatient" when asked if he would have liked to see Morstead at least throw the ball up for grabs.

"No. Listen, that's on me. That's not Thomas or that's not Cadet," Payton said. "It's a play designed for misdirection. Credit Dallas, they were in a punt-safe. I kind of felt like they would be, and really that's on me for being impatient. I thought we were at a point in the game once we got to two scores, if I had to do it over again, I'd have punted. Thomas did what he was supposed to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday night’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t really all that different from their first three this season.

It still wound up being a pretty equal mix of some impressive drives and some paralyzing lulls. But the biggest difference was that this time, the Saints weren’t facing a team like the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings, who lulled along with them. This time, the Saints were playing an offense that was capable of leaving them in the dust.

You know – the kind of killer-instinct offense that we’re normally used to seeing from the Saints themselves.

Quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out that the Saints actually got off to a decent start, with their first two drives crossing midfield before his tipped-pass interception late in the second quarter sent Sunday’s game off the rails.

“It’s a game of momentum, and when you’re on the road, it’s even more so,” explained Brees, who pointed out what a fine line it was between 10-7 and 17-0.

But in a sense, Brees had it backwards.

The storyline of the Saints’ first two losses at Atlanta and at Cleveland, both of which came down to the final seconds, was that they were just one or two plays away from a different outcome.

As we saw Sunday night, the Saints’ offensive high-wire act this season also left them one or two plays from this kind of implosion.

They’ve been way too stop-and-start all season, even though the overall numbers and efficiency have ranked among the NFL’s best.

And sure enough, things got a little exciting and interesting in the second half Sunday night, too, once the Saints had to hurry up and start firing away. They flashed that quick-strike ability that still hasn’t gone away with two touchdowns that brought the score within 14 points. And Brees’ final numbers bordered on fantastic (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).

But clearly something is missing.

The most glaring absence so far has been the deep ball – which wasn’t a big problem until Sunday night, when Dallas also shut down the run game and corralled tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half.

I don’t see any concerns about Brees’ arm strength, which some people have asked about. When he did fire deep, he still had some authority and accuracy. But clearly, Brees is either not seeing what he needs to see down the field, or he’s not getting comfortable enough in the pocket to take those shots.

Once the Saints started forcing the ball downfield Sunday, it led to as many bad results as good ones: Brees’ interception into a too-tight window, fumbles by Graham and running back Travaris Cadet and at least two dropped passes each by Graham and receiver Marques Colston while the defense was repeatedly hitting them hard in the open field.

A 62-yard run by running back Khiry Robinson in the fourth quarter wound up making this game look even closer than it really was. Other than that run, the Saints gained 36 yards on 11 carries by running backs.

The Saints actually had the most efficient offense in the NFL through three weeks, according to a formula developed by ESPN Stats & Information. They earned that grade through a number of long drives that chipped away with the run game, underneath passes and third-down conversions.

Those numbers, however, masked just how thin the Saints’ margin for error was.

“So for us offensively, what do we need to do?” Brees said. “Well, we need to be ultra-efficient, score more points and take care of the football.”

It can be done – especially with seven home games remaining on the schedule. But as Brees said best of all Sunday night, “We’ve got to play better.”

Saints don't hide from harsh reality

September, 29, 2014
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said it best: You can't jump in a hole and hide from 1-3.

The Saints’ two last-second losses were frustrating. And they took their problems seriously. But they still had that sense of, "Oh man, if just one or two things had gone differently we could have been 3-0."

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys? That was downright disturbing.

[+] EnlargeCowboys
AP Photo/Tim SharpTerrance Williams caught two of Tony Romo's three TD passes against the Saints as Dallas amassed 445 total yards in its 38-17 rout.
It was disturbing because the defense imploded so badly that folks who cover the Cowboys were comparing it to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's demise in Dallas two years ago.

It was disturbing because the offense was just as bad, getting shut out in the first half for just the third time since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

And it was disturbing most of all because this was the Saints’ chance to show who they really were on the national “Sunday Night Football” stage.

Maybe that is exactly what they did.

"We can talk all we want about talent or expectation or any of that stuff. Right now we’re not a good football team. We didn’t do anything right," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You’re glad it’s the fourth game of the year and it’s not just decided (at the end of the season that) you were a bad team. But right now, we’re a bad team."

So how do they deal with that revelation?

"There’s one way to work yourself out of these holes, and it’s cliché to anybody that hasn’t experienced it, but you’ve got to work your butt off," Strief said. "I know guys feel like they’ve worked hard, and I know sometimes it looks like you’re working hard. But we have to find more. Somewhere, in really every department, we’ve got to work harder than we have and maybe harder than we ever have before."

Secondly, it has to start with some very real X’s and O’s corrections.

On defense, the Saints have a laundry list of fixes to make, but right at the top has to be figuring out how to generate more pressure with their four-man pass rush. That was maybe their biggest key to success last season, and it has virtually disappeared this season. That could lead to those badly needed turnovers and alleviate pressure on the secondary.

On offense, the Saints need to figure out how to hit on some deep passing plays. It was OK for three weeks when their offense was still very efficient. But those big plays were sorely missed against a Dallas defense that was also corralling Jimmy Graham and shutting down the run game at the same time in the first half.

On special teams, the Saints need to decide whether kicker Shayne Graham is still their guy, and they could use a little juice in the return game.

"It’s challenging, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. But that’s on all of us right now," Payton said. "It’s on me, it’s on our staff, it’s on the team. Obviously it’s not where you want to be, and we’ve got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we’re not winning."

Last but not least, those fixes have to pay off immediately with a Week 5 win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (also 1-3) before the Saints head into their Week 6 bye.

They don’t get much more "must-win" than this. The Saints haven’t lost a home game with Payton on the sideline since 2010 (not counting his 2012 suspension). And they certainly can’t stop now.

"We had a bad day today. That’s clear. Everybody sees it, everybody sees the score. You know, we’re disappointed and slightly embarrassed," Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’ve gotta go get this game against Tampa, get away from the bye and get on a roll.

"What we have on this team, the character of these guys, we’ve got to put more into the process. And we’ll get this thing corrected."
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- So which was the anomaly? The New Orleans Saints' stunning defensive turnaround in 2013? Or their stunning regression this season?

Sunday night's debacle in Dallas shouldn't be pinned on the Saints' defense alone. The number of guilty parties after their 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was roughly equal to the number of seats on the team plane. And nobody was shying away from that fact after the game.

But the Saints' offense has a track record that offers hope and optimism going forward. Heck, they even tried to turn this one into a real game with two quick second-half touchdown drives.

It's the defense that remains the biggest question mark after yet another meltdown Sunday night. It let Tony Romo throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, while DeMarco Murray ran for 149 yards and two scores.

"Definitely, I think now, after these couple games, it is a big deal now," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, one of many who had started to chafe at the constant line of questions about what was wrong with the Saints' defense after the first two losses. "First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK, now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

Those questions were especially hard to ignore this week in Dallas, where so many people who follow the Cowboys were asking both before and after the game if the bloom was off the Rob Ryan rose?

Ryan was hired as the Saints' defensive coordinator last year after being fired by the Cowboys following a disappointing second season as their defensive coordinator in 2012.

It seemed as though Ryan got the last laugh on the Cowboys when New Orleans routed them 49-17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season. But now Ryan has admittedly found himself in a spot once again where he needs to "prove it."

The New Orleans defense was supposed to be more loaded than it has been in any time in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They finished fourth in yards allowed and points allowed last year, and then added Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd for good measure.

Instead, they're currently ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed and 31st in turnovers forced (one, which came way back in the first quarter of Week 1).

"It's nothing about the scheme," Saints middle linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "What it comes down to is you gotta whup the man across the line from you. And if you don't do that, then you're not gonna be successful. If you gotta man him up, then you man him up. If I gotta tackle the running back, I gotta tackle the running back. It's plain and simple. There's no magic schemes. You gotta whup somebody in front of you."

So what is it, exactly, that's not working for the Saints' defense?

The only correct answer is, "Everything."

They haven't been able to force turnovers. The pass rush has been practically non-existent -- this may be the biggest head-scratcher of all since both Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette emerged as 12-sack guys last season. Blitzing hasn't worked, and not blitzing hasn't worked.

They missed tackles in bunches in both Week 1 at Atlanta and Week 4 at Dallas. They had breakdowns in their coverage assignments during the first two weeks before Ryan simplified his checks and adjustments last week. And that seemed to work in a 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings. But it sure didn't work at Dallas. Nothing did.

"I felt like we were heading in [the right] direction, we took a small step. But we took three steps back today, and that can't happen," said Lofton, who insisted confidence hadn't wavered -- but that reality hasn't disappeared, either.

"You can't run from 1-3," Lofton said. "So when you watch film, we don't point fingers around here, we use thumbs. The first thing I'm gonna do is see how I can get better and help this team win. If each guy does that and is accountable to each other, then we'll get where we need to get to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

No sugar-coating: There were no real fiery speeches in the Saints' locker room. But there was a whole lot of harsh reality. The Saints (1-3) were cautiously optimistic after their first two losses came down to the final seconds. But they were a lot more matter-of-fact after this blowout saw Dallas jump to a 31-3 lead:

Strief
"We have to be realistic right now with ourselves. Right now we're not a very good football team," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You're glad it's the fourth game of the year, and it's not just decided -- it's the 15th [game], and you were a bad team. But right now we're a bad team."

Added safety Kenny Vaccaro: "It is a big deal now. First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK. Now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

"There's not going to be much good to see on this film," coach Sean Payton said. "We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."

Why the fake punt? The Saints did just about everything wrong Sunday night, but the most inexplicable decision seemed to be their fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had closed the gap to 14 points. If you're gonna try for a miracle, why not at least have Drew Brees throwing it instead of punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-9?

Payton said, hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong decision. But it was a play the Saints had considered for a while, and they had the ball on the hash mark they wanted. But the Cowboys covered it well.

Effort and energy? Payton has never been shy about calling out his team when he feels like the effort and energy aren't there. But he stopped short of doing that this time.

"I don't know, necessarily," Payton said. "We'll grade that when we put the tape on. I thought they came in with the right mindset. Obviously, though, it didn't match what Dallas' was."
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins didn’t make the trip for Sunday night’s game at the Dallas Cowboys. The team said it was non-injury related but didn’t announce any specifics. Teams are required to announce when players don’t make the trip.

Jenkins
Jenkins could have missed the trip for any number of reasons, so it may have nothing to do with football.

The second-year pro has taken a step back this year after a strong rookie season. He has been a healthy inactive for two of the Saints’ first three games this season after missing all of OTAs and part of training camp with a pectoral injury.

But Jenkins seemed to have a positive outlook on his demotion when I asked him about it Thursday.

“You know what, I can’t really say that I’m battling frustration. If anything, I’m using this opportunity to get better and work on things that I wasn’t good at last year and be able to pinpoint my flaws more,” Jenkins said. “There’s a place for me, and right now I just need to make sure when they do call my name and they need me, that I’m ready like I was last year.”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said “the biggest thing with John is that he missed all of that time due to injuries.”

“When you’re a big guy missing that kind of time, it’s hard to get back,” Ryan said Friday. It’s hard to [miss] the sweating in training camp and all of the hard knocking and all of that. It takes a while for a defensive lineman. [Brandon Deaderick, who moved ahead of Jenkins], is doing a great job playing. [Jenkins] is working really hard, he’ll get back, but it’s a long process.

“You can’t play this game on your own terms; so if you’re hurt it’s hard to get out there and play it. If you miss all of training camp it’s a hard thing to do, especially for a defensive lineman.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Naturally, sharp-witted New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan threw in a couple sarcastic references about being fired by the Dallas Cowboys after the 2012 season on Friday.

Ryan
When asked about Dallas' offense, Ryan cracked, "You know, they’ve had a change in coordinator, like they do every year."

And when asked about past criticism that his schemes in Dallas were too complicated, Ryan said, "I think whatever excuse people need to make about letting me go, I’m sure there’s a long line of them."

But revenge hardly seems to be at the forefront of Ryan’s mind as the Saints prepare for a Sunday night prime-time showdown at Dallas.

Ryan already got his revenge last season when the Saints routed the Cowboys 49-17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. This week, Ryan said he is more concerned with getting the 1-2 Saints back to .500.

"I’m sure I’ll be cheered heavily there," Ryan deadpanned, when asked if the thought of playing at Dallas gets a little extra rise out of him. "But I just think, look, this time, we’ve got a lot to prove. We’re working hard on defense. We want to get better. We have to get better."

Players agreed that the Ryan-Dallas connection wasn’t anywhere on the radar this week.

"We want to be great. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But our guys are working hard. And we’re excited about this game," Ryan said. "We know they’re a well-coached team, and they’ve got a lot of great players there. We can’t wait to go out there and play."

Ryan was later asked about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ recent comments on Dallas radio that, "Rob’s going to make a great head coach. I haven’t seen anybody that is better in front of a team and better motivating than Rob Ryan."

"Welp, I think he’s right," Ryan told Ramon Antonio Vargas of The Advocate.

Ryan said he understood that change was needed after the Cowboys went 8-8 in 2012 -- he's just never made any secret about his objection to being made the scapegoat.

"Jerry Jones wants to win worse than any other owner in football," Ryan told The Advocate. "I just don’t think he always gets the best advice from people all the time."
METAIRIE, La. -- The Dallas Cowboys have suddenly become a run-first team, leaning more than ever on fourth-year pro DeMarco Murray -- even when they were down 21-0 last week before coming back to beat the St. Louis Rams.

That fact has not been lost on the New Orleans Saints, who have talked this week about Murray being a top priority.

Murray
The 6-foot, 217-pounder battled injuries early in his career. But he’s been on a tear since last season. He leads the NFL in both rushing attempts (75) and yards (385). And according to ESPN Stats and Information, Murray is the first running back since Curtis Martin in 2004 to run for at least 100 yards and a touchdown in each of the first three games of the season.

Here’s what the Saints had to say about Murray this week:

Coach Sean Payton: “I don’t know that [Murray’s rise has been] quiet. I think that when he’s been healthy, I think people in our league that know the player know that he’s someone who’s got strength, he’s got power. I think what’s also impressive is he’s playing on all the downs. He’s playing in base. When they get to third down, you see him in there as a protector. So he’s getting a lot of snaps and has been a big weapon for ‘em.”

ILB Curtis Lofton: “Oh, he’s very special, in how he can run the ball and plus how he catches the ball. Coming to Oklahoma, I took him on his recruiting trip, so we’ve been pretty close for years. And when Adrian [Peterson] was there, he was on the scout team, so he had the duty of getting us ready to play. And we used to hate it because he gave us fits all week. Now, he’s really matured into one of the top backs in this league. He’s one of those guys that can bounce it in and out, cuts back, has great speed, can go the distance. So it’s gonna take a group effort to get him down and get to him.”

OLB Junior Galette: “(He’s running as good right now) as I’ve ever seen anybody. He’s up there, top tier. He’s real patient, at the same time he’s explosive and can make guys miss. ... He ran well here last year (in the Saints’ 49-17 rout at New Orleans). But our offense was so explosive that they had no choice but to start passing.”

S Kenny Vaccaro: “He’s dynamic. He can do things in the passing game. He’s running hard, too. They’ve definitely stuck to that running game, and they do it well.”

OLB Parys Haralson: “You look at him on film, he’s breaking tackles, he’s running to the edge, he’s got speed, he’s got power. I think he’s kind of the total package. The offensive line’s blocking really well for him. A physical offensive line, they like to come off and sustain their blocks, even with the tight ends. So I think it’s gonna be a challenge.”

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
11:00
AM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

The Saints’ defense showed great improvement in most areas in Week 3. But in order to get their first road win of the season Sunday night at Dallas, they must figure out how to start forcing turnovers.

The Saints (1-2) have now gone 11 quarters without a takeaway. And they have just five over their past 14 games.

Turnovers were the Saints’ No. 1 priority in the offseason. They signed ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd to a $54 million contract. And they emphasized turnovers relentlessly in practices.

What’s especially head-scratching is that New Orleans has an excellent pass rush, led by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. But even when the defense has played great (last week against Minnesota and most of last season), the turnovers haven’t come.

“That goes with population to the ball. That goes with the pass rush. There’s so many things that can go into that, that I don’t think you can just hand out a tip sheet and say, ‘We need more takeaways,’” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

The Cowboys should provide an opportunity. They’re tied for fourth in the NFL with seven giveaways, and Tony Romo is tied for first with four interceptions.

And Byrd looks like he’ll be part of the solution. He forced a fumble against Atlanta’s Julio Jones in Week 1 and showed instant recognition when a tipped pass fluttered in the air last week (though he couldn’t reach it).

“Things aren’t gonna just be easy where, ‘Here’s a ball.’ They don’t come like that,” said Byrd, who now has 22 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles in six seasons. “We’ve gotta work, we’ve gotta earn our takeaways.”
METAIRIE, La. – The answer to the New Orleans Saints' defensive woes was simple:

Simplify things.

After struggling with assignment and communication breakdowns during their first two games, the Saints cut out all of their on-field checks and adjustments – especially since they were playing at home with the crowd noise at a fever pitch. The result was a much cleaner, more efficient performance in Sunday’s 20-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

[+] EnlargeSaints defense
AP Photo/Bill HaberKenny Vaccaro and the Saints' defense sizzled against Minnesota on Sunday.
“Anytime you’re having communication issues, especially playing at home, anytime you can simplify it, that helps everyone just get your cleats set and just play fast,” Saints safety Jairus Byrd said.

"This week we tried to approach it like, one call, that’s it," cornerback Corey White said. "Whatever they come out in, we work it out, we play through that. And that helped us a lot. Get our cleats set and just play through it."

If that approach sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of the biggest clichés in all of football.

But that cliché exists for a reason. And it’s one that has come up often with Rob Ryan’s defenses in the past.

For all of the praise Ryan has earned over the years for being a multiple, flexible, versatile “mad scientist” who will try to throw a variety of wrinkles at opposing offenses, he has also received his share of criticism for making things too complicated at times.

The trick is finding the right balance.

“It’s a fine line, but it can be blurry if the ends don’t justify the means,” coach Sean Payton said, presumably referencing the fact that the Saints' defense wasn't justifying those means by having too many assignment breakdowns in the first two games of the season.

“So it needs to be clear, it needs to be simplified. With that, you reduce variation and you reduce the variables that go into execution,” Payton continued. “So I thought we did a good job that way. I thought Rob and the staff did a good job. … I thought that was important.”

It will be interesting to see how the Saints toe that line going forward.

White, who played very well Sunday after being promoted back into a starting job ahead of Patrick Robinson, agreed that eliminating all of the checks was the biggest key to success for the Saints. But he disagreed with the notion that being too sophisticated causes problems.

“No, we’ve got a multiple defense and we’ve got a lot of smart players. So whatever [Ryan] gives us, he knows we can handle it,” White said. “And the first two weeks, we just didn’t execute third downs and specific situations.”

And Byrd said it’s important that the Saints don’t become too simple.

“You can’t stay the same, obviously. In this league, quarterbacks are too good where you can’t just be vanilla all the time,” Byrd said. “So we’ve got the baseline, now we just keep building slowly and keep building off of what we have.”

There was at least one player whose role wasn’t simplified on Sunday -- second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, who went back to playing the multiple “star” role that he played so often last year.

That meant shifting between the strong safety spot, the slot cornerback spot and even some time as a linebacker.

“It’s fun, but mentally I’ve gotta lock in more,” Vaccaro said. “I’ve gotta think on every play what position I’m playing, because the way Rob calls it, you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

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