New Orleans Saints  

 

Rob Ryan fitting in nicely with revamped Saints D

NEW ORLEANS -- Inside a dim, smoky dive bar known to locals for its cheap booze and good times, New Orleans Saints fans were celebrating their season-opening win against the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago when the man of the hour shuffled his way to the bar.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan laid down a $100 bill and asked the bartender to pour a round for the place. The bartender obliged. The crowd smiled. And the coach left shortly afterward, leaving in his wake a story that has since turned Ryan into a cult hero.

"I think this town just appreciates normal people -- good, hard-working people," Ryan said Friday.

Yes, that much certainly is true. But do you know what else this town appreciates? Winning. Good, passionate winning. And after just two games as the team's new defensive coordinator, Ryan has helped bring the fan base exactly that.

They love Ryan off the field -- "He's just a normal, down-to-earth guy who likes an occasional Rolling Rock," said one patron at Ms. Mae's -- but they're growing to love him even more on the sideline. After a 2-0 start, Ryan has helped turn this New Orleans Saints defense into one of the early surprises of the 2013 NFL season.

He's doing it through aggressive coaching, while putting his players in positions they are embracing. The result has created a level of trust in the locker room as players buy into everything Ryan is scheming for them.

"We finally have the opportunity to get guys in a position to be their best and make plays," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "You give guys a scheme they understand, and put them in a place that benefits their skill sets, and it's going to help.

"That's one thing Rob has done a good job with. He's not making it too hard, and as a result, guys are playing fast and violent."

One year after giving up more yards than any defense in NFL history, the Saints held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to under 300 yards last week and kept the Falcons out of the end zone in the closing seconds of Week 1 for a season-opening win.

Of course, this isn't simply about Ryan, who was hired by Saints coach Sean Payton with the intention of switching to a 3-4 scheme while implementing a more aggressive, attacking approach. It is also about the players who are reaching their potential.

As the season was getting started, some wonder existed whether this year's personnel even was equipped to run Ryan's 3-4 scheme, especially since the Saints don't have a prototypical pass-rushing force like Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware to run the defense.

But Akiem Hicks and Cameron Jordan have both looked beastly up front to start the season, and Junior Galette looks like a very worthy linebacker as he and Martez Wilson attempt to fill a void left by the preseason loss of Will Smith.

In addition to some good early play from rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who helped preserve a win against the Falcons with his tipped pass in the Saints' end zone on Atlanta’s last stand, the Saints' defense looks vaguely similar to that magical group of 2009: They aren't perfect. But they play confident as all hell.

"I definitely think we're swarming the ball, and that's when you get turnovers," Jenkins said. "That's not a scheme. That's not a play call. That's a mentality. I think we've gotten that back. Guys just have effort to the ball. We have population to the football.

"And when you do that, good things happen."

It's a mentality being provoked by Ryan; encouraged through a team that suddenly recognizes it doesn't always need a flawless performance from Drew Brees to garner a win.

Suddenly and dramatically, the Saints aren't simply an offensive team anymore. And should this keep up, Ryan can keep his money in his pocket. In these parts of town, he won't be paying for his drinks anytime soon.

"I know we've got a lot to prove, and I think our guys come with the mindset that we want to get better each week," Ryan said. "If I can be a little tiny part of our success here, that's what we want to do and that's what we strive for."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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