Last year anybody with a decent set of eyes could see the main culprit that contributed to a 7-9 season was the defense–check that, a blind man could see it was the defense. Rob Ryan’s defense was so complex it confused the players trying to execute it; and on game day, it seemed to confuse him too.
After being humiliated by the Washington Redskins to the tune of 47-14 Sean Payton had seen enough and fired Ryan saying at the time “We really struggled with substitutions and getting lined up and getting our guys the defensive call and being able to function.” Payton handed the defensive coordinator duties over to Dennis Allen with six games remaining.
In 2011 Allen was hired as defensive coordinator by newly appointed executive vice president of football operations John Elway to turn the defense around which was ranked dead last in 2010 (400.6 yards per game)
Allen improved that defense in 2011 moving it up to 21st (375.5 yards per game) While it might not seem like much it was enough to get them back into the playoffs and they brought pressure ranking 5th in sacks.
What History Tells us About Dennis Allen’s defensive scheme
On February 2nd the Saints officially announced what everybody already knew–Dennis Allen would be the Saints defensive coordinator in 2016 and beyond. The Saints went 3-3 with Allen taking over for Ryan but it was already too late to make wholesale changes so he simplified what they was already doing and there was some improvement. Statistically, it wasn’t pretty. Here’s the defensive yardage given up in those six games–Texans 362 yards, Panthers 497 yards, Bucs 291 yards, Lions 396 yards, Jaguars 412 yards and Falcons 419 yards. You have to account for injuries here because the Saints were pretty banged up coming down the stretch.
I think it’s safe to say Allen will deploy a 4-3 base defense and use a variations of fronts in nickle situations. Whenever I think of scheme I always think of personnel first and how does it fit within the scheme. For instance in 2011, Allen had Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Robert Ayers, Broderick Bunkley and DJ Williams. Pretty good core of defensive talent there. How will he move the chess pieces in New Orleans is anybody’s guess?
What I want to show (without going into too much detail with each play) is a snapshot of his defensive alignments from his time as the Broncos and Saints defensive coordinator with a little bit of the Raiders sprinkled in. (Keep in mind the teams Allen is coaching against because it dictates how he uses his personnel.)
Okay lets start with a look at Allen’s basic 4-3 defensive front, this is against the run heavy Vikings (2011)
This screen shot is against the Detroit Lions in a 4-3 odd front. (2011)
This is a look at an obvious passing down situation–again against the Lions in 2011
Here’s another look at Allen’s use of the 3-3-5 nickel defense–this time against the Packers (2011)
Next up the Chargers are facing 3rd and short and come out with four wide outs. Again Allen goes with a 3-3-5 (Miller is close to the line) but this time he dials up a corner blitz and forces Phillip Rivers to dump the ball off short of the 1st down marker.
Next up is the Bengals. The situation is second and around eight, Allen goes with man press with a single cover one safety using a base 4-3. He dials up pressure by sending a linebacker and dropping the other two into zone coverage, the middle backer takes the TE coming out.
Here’s a quick look at Allen’s defense when he was the head coach of the Raiders. They are going to stunt the defensive end and blitz the cornerback (the Raiders are in cover one)
Okay. Let’s take a look at Allen after he took over for Rob Ryan. This is against the Jaguars. The Jags come out in a single back two tight end run heavy look, Allen counters with a 4-2-5. I think this is a case of Allen guessing wrong or outsmarting himself. The Saints use this formation a lot and will get one on one isolations when teams load the box to counter the run. Allen goes nickel and pays the price as the Jags run off tackle (left) for a gain of around 25 yards.
Here is a look at Allen’s basic 4-2-5 nickel defense against the Lions. You will probably see about 4 or 5 different names at various spots with this same defense in 2016
This look is against Atlanta–a basic 4-3 with Kenny Vaccaro in the box. The Saints use Vaccaro as their 4th hybrid linebacker around 30% of the time. I like this alignment. It plays to his strength, and that’s playing downhill.
In this screen shot, the Saints have the Falcons pinned at their goal line. When I first saw them lined up, I cringed at Browner one on one with a wideout with no safety help. Byrd is shading Julio Jones side, and Vaccaro is on the line showing blitz along side Kikaha. But when the ball is snapped, Vaccaro drops back to help Browner and Kikaha drops in to zone coverage over the short middle. On the other side Humber helps Dixon Jam Julio Jones close to the line with Byrd and Hawthorne taking the tight end. The result was Matt Ryan had to dump to his safety valve–the running back.
Next up is the first play from scrimmage against Tampa Bay. Tampa is in a basic set (two backs, two wide outs and a single tight end). Allen counters with an eight man front. Kenny Vaccaro’s first job is to check tight end Luke Stocker. Once he sees Stocker’s in to block Kikaha, he’s off on a delayed blitz. Tampa runs a play action, and Vaccaro gets to Jameis Winston a fraction too late as he completes a long pass that was brought back because of holding.
Next up is a couple of screen shots of Allen’s use of zone coverage–except for Delvin Breaux who has one on one coverage with Julio Jones. The Saints line up in a 4-3 with Kikaha in the Jack position, but when the ball is snapped the Saints only rush two dropping everybody else back into coverage including DE’s Bobby Richardson and Cam Jordan after they have engaged their respective blocks before dropping back.
This is when Ryan releases the ball (I really don’t know what’s Byrd doing). This also shows how much confidence the Saints have in Breaux locking down one of the NFL’s elite receivers.
These are just a few snapshots of the defense that Dennis Allen likes to deploy. There are many more examples, but I think we get a picture of his overall leanings when it comes to scheme and alignments.
Allen runs a 4-3 base but is much more than that. While he may not be as complex or creative as Rob Ryan or Gregg Williams he looks to play to each individuals strengths. Word out of OTA’s is that Kikaha has moved to a permanent edge rusher role, and we should also expect a lot of three safety looks. This I like–expect to see Vaccaro all over the field. He’s a key cog in this defense.
I’ve never thought that the Saints had bad players on defense even though the results were horrible. Dennis Allen’s main job right now is to streamline everything and cut out all the confusion going on pre-snap. The addition of James Laurinaitis getting guys lined up correctly and making adjustments before the ball is snapped should help cut down on the mental breakdowns that we saw throughout last year. As we know all it takes is one of eleven to screw up his assignment for the big play to happen and if Allen gets this defense on the same page we should see significant improvement over last year’s debacle.