Here’s what you need to do to understand Rob Ryan’s new Saints defense

Accept that, often, the Saints won’t be in a 3-4 at all.

When people talk about Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense, they’re not talking about nickel formations, or exotic looks with inside linebackers at outside linebacker, nor are they talking about the so-called “amoeba” defense that Rob Ryan used to frustrate Drew Brees in 2010. They’re talking about his base 3-4 defense. Often the Saints will be using formations that are not the 3-4. I’m not talking about those.

I’m talking about our “starting defense.”

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Understand “under.”

The Saints will be running a base 3-4 defense that uses, to borrow a phrase from Sean Payton, “under defensive principles.” The word “under” is the key to understanding how the new defense is going to work; it’s not just throwaway coach-speak. Rather, it’s every bit as important as the idea of the 3-4 defense itself. (Fully delving into the context of football terms like “under” would require more space than I’m going to dedicate to the issue here, but there’s plenty of free reads online if you want to do some more research.)

In an under front, the defensive line shifts away from the strong side of the offense, the strong side being the side with more eligible receivers. In an offensive set with one tight end like in the diagram above, this means the linemen shift away from the tight end.

Rather than playing helmet-to-helmet with the strong side offensive tackle, the Saints will have Akiem Hicks or Kenyon Coleman playing defensive end in the three technique, a place football-savvy Saints fans may remember was the platform from which La’Roi Glover launched himself mercilessly into quarterbacks during the 2000 season.

Similarly, the nose tackle lines up in the weak side gap between guard and center rather than directly across from the center. Brodrick Bunkley or Jonathan Jenkins (or even, maybe, Tyrunn Walker) will fill this role.

And, finally, Cam Jordan (perhaps backed up by Tom Johnson) will take the five technique spot just outside the shoulder of the weak side offensive tackle. Jordan has already spent most of his career lined up in the five spot; his role isn’t going to change that much, and this is probably a good thing.

These alignment changes may seem small, but they completely alter the character of the 3-4 defense. Without understanding the under-shift, you can’t understand why putting Will Smith at outside linebacker actually makes sense.

Learn about Jack.

Yesterday, I picked on Jeff Duncan. He wrote about the Jack, or weak side outside linebacker position, in Rob Ryan’s defense, correctly noting its importance but, I thought, muddling a rather complex issue with simplicity. (Mr Duncan was good enough to have a polite Twitter debate with me, and I made a correction to my initial reaction piece based on that debate.)

In theory, the Jack linebacker in this defense should be the guy who—in the parlance of the times—brings the heat.

But Jack is not just a term that means “premier pass rusher,” or something like said; it has a specific definition. Jason Taylor, when Nick Saban coached Miami, was a weak side pass rusher. Whether the term used for him was “Jack” or not, though, he wasn’t playing the same position the men who will line up as the Saints’ Jack are going to play. The differences between the two gigs might be subtle, but they’re subtle in the same way an under-shift is a small change.1

The Jack linebacker’s job is to chase down the quarterback. Occasionally he’ll backpedal into coverage and often he’ll seal the edge against a stretch run play, but the main reason you move him up close to the line of scrimmage and dedicate him to the weak side of the opponent’s offense is so he has to face as few obstacles as possible on his way to the passer.

This was already the job Will Smith and Junior Galette were doing. Only they were previously doing the job with their hand on the ground and an offensive tackle on their inside shoulder. In so many words, Rob Ryan’s under-shifted 3-4 front will put a friendly player between that offensive tackle and Smith or Galette.

Because Ryan favors multiple personnel groups, there will certainly be times that players other than Smith or Galette line up in the Jack position. But, because, in the base defense, other positions require players with particular skills, Smith and Galette will be there more often than not.

We’ll certainly find out if Will Smith can succeed as the Saints’ Jack (or if Galette can thrive given more snaps in the role than he has previously played), but if he fails it will be more because of declining skills than because he’s a poor fit.

Ignore those who say Vilma failed in the Jets’ 3-4.

This one is pretty simple. Take another look at our diagram. Jonathan Vilma has two large, friendly players between him and the unfriendly large men who would make in ineffective (and a Jack pass rusher, for that matter—it’s not like offenses will leave him unblocked). Functionally Vilma is playing a position more similar to the weak side linebacker role he jumped into late last year than it is to playing inside linebacker in the Parcells double-bubble 3-4 defense. Vilma, a smaller linebacker, would certainly not be ideal in such a defense, because the uncovered guards would be all over him. But, if Vilma is healthy this year, there’s reason to think he will have at least a chance at a career rebirth.

Curtis Lofton, of course, will have more to worry about. Only the three technique defensive end stands between him and several very big people. But, like so much of the Ryan scheme, this is actually something that should work with the Saints’ personnel. Lofton is a larger, more powerful, more classic inside linebacker. If one of the Saints’ linebackers has to regularly take on blocks, it needs to be Lofton.

Realize that Jack and Sam are completely different guys.

I think people assume that both outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are just there to blitz. After all, at their respective peaks Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling were both terrifying double-digit sackers. But, while both the weak side and strong side linebackers will indeed rush the passer, the job description for the two positions is drastically different. 

To state it too simply: The strong side linebacker will cover more. And that’s why it makes sense to cast the larger guys, Will Smith and Galette, in the role of almost full-time pass rusher; doing so allows the leaner, quicker Victor Butler and Martez Wilson to play Sam and perform a mix of duties that require more general mobility. 

With a tight end in front of them, or a slot receiver nearby, Butler and Wilson will play coverage. Often, they will blitz. During runs, they will attack the ballcarrier. Butler already has experience under Rob Ryan in this role, and, with his great speed, Wilson seems like a natural. On the other hand, Butler hasn’t played full time yet, and Wilson may yet turn out to be more athlete than football player. Still: it makes sense.

Admit it makes sense.

One thing, more than any other, should give us all reason for hope in the Saints’ defense: the logical fit of each existing piece in the new scheme.

The 3-4, even in this specific 3-4 Under form, is not a magical fix-all solution. The Saints aren’t changing their scheme because the scheme itself is a better match for contemporary NFL offenses.

They are changing it most likely because, when Sean Payton watched Junior Galette on TV last season, he saw a 3-4 Under pass rusher, not a traditional hand-down defensive end. When he watched Akiem Hicks, he saw a player who might fit into the hybrid defensive tackle/defensive end role that is the three technique 3-4 Under end. He saw Martez Wilson, a player without a position, and figured the kid might find a home if given a shot in a different defense.

I doubt anyone would argue with me if I said Steve Spagnuolo’s defense did not fit the Saints’ personnel. The corollary to that statement is this: It would have taken longer to find new talent to run such a defense than it will to fit the existing talent to a defense that better suits it. That’s what the Saints have done. And while they may not have a great defense in 2013, or even a good one, they’ll certainly have one that is interesting to watch.

Besides. The Saints don’t need a great or good D. They just need one that doesn’t suck at an ahistorical level. If Rob Ryan’s 3-4 Under-based unit is even regular bad, the Saints will once again be contenders.

Slider image via Flickr user Asim Bharwani