Saints transition to a team led by its defense is complete
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints used to have an offensive coach as their head coach.
But Sean Payton resigned in January.
Now former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is the head coach. And two of the more accomplished assistant coaches on Allen’s staff – defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and secondary coach Kris Richard – are co-defensive coordinators.
Throw in a defensive roster that outperformed the offensive roster in Payton’s final season and the transformation of the team’s identity is complete heading into 2022.
These New Orleans Saints, who concluded three weeks of voluntary OTAs on Thursday in preparation for next week’s mandatory mini-camp, are a team led by their defense.
The offense has a chance to be much improved and perhaps return to the high standard that was met nearly perennially during Payton’s 15-season tenure.
But for the first time since Payton was hired – and arguably for the first time since the heyday of Jim Mora and Steve Sidwell’s legendary Dome Patrol defense in the late 1980s and early 1990s – it will be the defense that sets the tone for the team.
“We know what to expect from our defense,” Nielsen said.
In 2021, New Orleans ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring defense and run defense, seventh in total defense and 14th in pass defense. The offense ranked 15th in rushing, 19th in scoring, 28th in yards and 32nd (last) in passing.
The Saints narrowly missed the playoffs last season, ending a string of four consecutive NFC South titles, but still finished 9-8 despite an inordinate number of significant absences due to injuries and COVID issues.
It was the defense that primarily kept the post-season hopes alive until an overtime loss by the Rams to the 49ers on the final Sunday of the regular season ended New Orleans’ year.
The Saints’ defensive roster is mostly in tact from last season, but there is a transition there too.
Most notably the team has to replace its starting safeties after Marcus Williams signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Malcolm Jenkins retired. The Saints replaced them by signing former Jet Marcus Maye and former LSU and Kansas City star Tyrann Mathieu as a free agent.
Richard is in his second season as the Saints secondary coach after spending two seasons before that in Dallas and eight before that in Seattle, where he was defensive coordinator for the final three seasons – leading one of the top defenses, led by the secondary, in the NFL.
Nielsen, who was teammates with Richard at USC (1998-2001) said sharing the coordinator duties with Richard was a natural extension of Allen being named head coach.
“Kris is absolutely fantastic and he’s done it before,” Nielsen said. “He’s had a lot of success and I think our track record here kind of speaks for itself and coach Allen just decided it was probably the best thing to do and Kris and I were both on board with it. So it was pretty easy.”
Richard said the Saints’ day-to-day approach to coaching is designed to prepare position coaches to be coordinators through the responsibilities that they are given.
“We have the opportunity to present, we have the opportunity to prepare, we have the opportunity to organize, we have the opportunity to script – everything that’s required of a coordinator. And fortunately I have history as a coordinator, Ryan has history at that too, so it’s second nature.”
This Saints defense could be reminiscent of those Dome Patrol defenses because it too features a group of alpha dogs. Mora and Sidwell’s defense was most identified with the elite linebacker corps of Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson.
The alphas on this defense are more spread out across the field with end Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and now Mathieu.
“That’s a lot of smart football players,” Nielsen said. “When you’ve got a bunch of smart football players it makes your job a lot easier. They’re all competitors. They compete their asses off. It’s contagious. They feed off of each other and the other players around them.”
It will be different this season seeing Allen in Payton’s place, though a hint was provided unexpectedly last season when Payton missed the game at Tampa Bay because of COVID and Allen filled in.
The defense had one of its most dominant performances in franchise history as the Saints beat the reigning Super Bowl champions 9-0 in Week 15.
After all those seasons watching the head coach mostly double as a play-caller, so too will fans see Allen double as a play-caller – just on the other side of the ball.
Richard said the gameday approach on defense will be “business as usual.”
“‘D.A., let it rip,’” Richard said. “If it’s not broken, why try to fix it?”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…