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The Saints' defense under Rob Ryan is predictable in that there's only one rule - expect the unexpected. Ryan likes to deploy his players in a wide variety of different looks, with multiple fronts, alignments, personnel groupings, blitzes and coverage schemes. Chip Kelly alluded to that throughout the week, and it's something the Eagles will have to be ready for on Sunday.
When you look at a lot of defensive schemes, you get a sense of whether or not they prefer one-high or two-high coverages (referring to how many safeties are deep). Every team plays some of both to mix things up, but there's almost always more of a tendency to go one way or another. The Eagles, for instance, are a predominantly one-high team. The Jets, when they weren't blitzing, were a pretty big two-high team. The Saints, however, play a good amount of both. Whether it's Cover 1 or Cover 3, they play a good amount of one-high coverages, but they also play a lot of Cover 2 (specifically Tampa 2) as well with two safeties deep. The Eagles will have to try and get a key on their tendencies and attack the coverages by play design on Sunday to have success through the air.
Here's one example of what you can expect to see from New Orleans' defense. This is a Cover 1 look, with a safety in the middle of the field, man coverage across the board and a five-man pressure coming from a Double A-gap blitz right at the quarterback. Jameis Winston, still finding his way as an NFL pocket passer, hopes to get the ball out quickly to the outside, but across the board all of the Tampa receivers are pressed at the line of scrimmage. This pass is broken up by first-year cornerback Delvin Breaux, who signed with the team out of the CFL. When you look at this New Orleans group of cornerbacks, you can guess what kind of football they want to play on the outside. Brandon Browner, Keenan Lewis, Breaux, Damian Swann and Brian Dixon are all bigger corners who can disrupt at the line of scrimmage and impact receivers at the snap. Whether they're in man or zone coverage, the Eagles' receivers should expect looks like that early and often on Sunday.
The beauty of this scheme is that sometimes when they show pressure, like in the play above, pressure actually comes. That's not always the case though.
Here's a play against Arizona, where the Saints have eight defenders at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinals have no idea who is coming on this play, but quarterback Carson Palmer has to expect pressure with this kind of look. But what happens? Five of those eight defenders drop into coverage. This is a version of Tampa 2 where, instead of five defenders underneath, there are actually six players patrolling the short area of the field with just a three-man rush. Palmer, who expected to get the ball out quickly, had no open receivers to throw to, and it results in an incomplete pass on third down to force a punt.
On this play last weekend against Dallas, the Saints show potential pressure from the left before the snap, with a pre-snap read of a potential two-high coverage in the secondary.
But just before the ball is snapped, the real coverage declares itself. Instead of two defenders blitzing from the left, one will actually come from the slot to the right as well. This is Cover 1 from the Saints, with five defenders in man coverage, a high safety and a five-man blitz. Take note that it is rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony in man coverage against the running back in the backfield. Anthony, lined up on the edge, is responsible for him if he releases on a route.
The ball is snapped, and the running back crosses the formation to block the blitzer coming off the edge. Anthony follows the running back's track, but when he sees that the back ends up on the ground in protection, he inserts himself into the pressure and brings Brandon Weeden down for the sack. This is a smart play from Anthony on the "Green Dog" blitz, and the kind of play the Saints have come to expect from the instinctive first-round pick.
The other rookie linebacker who is making a ton of plays down in New Orleans is Hau'oli Kikaha (cue this Merrill Reese video). The first-year player out of Washington who some (including myself) thought maybe didn't have the athleticism to be a big-time pass rusher at the NFL level is proving doubters wrong. As the starting SAM linebacker, Kikaha is the leading tackler and leading sacker on this Saints defense (26 and three, respectively). He lines up all over the formation, standing up over the tight end in 4-3 fronts, as an outside pass rusher in 3-4 looks, over the A gap in certain blitz packages and with his hand in the ground as a defensive end in others. His hand use and high motor have served him well thus far in his NFL career, and the Saints definitely had a plan for him when they drafted him back in April.
Kikaha had a sack last Sunday against Tyron Smith of Dallas when he beat Smith to the corner, flew through a chip from the running back and still brought down Weeden from the backside. Here against Tampa Bay, you see his presence in the run game, coming downhill, taking on a fullback, disengaging him and making the play in the backfield. This revamped Saints defense plays a ton of rookies, lead by Anthony and Kikaha. Kasim Edebali, the backup to Kikaha at SAM, is another rookie out of Boston College who is seeing quality snaps at linebacker as well, while Bobby Richardson (a defensive end out of Indiana) and Tyeler Davison (a defensive tackle out of Fresno State) are all playing a lot for this team, but the rookies aren't just making a presence in the front seven. You'll find them in the secondary as well.
Down in the red zone against Carolina, the Saints felt comfortable putting Swann, the rookie cornerback out of Georgia, on their number one passing threat, tight end Greg Olsen. Swann forces an incompletion on this play, and he presents Ryan with a quality chess piece in the secondary because of his positional versatility. Swann played both outside and inside for the Bulldogs last year, and loves playing in the slot, closer to the action. He's a tough run defender, a savvy blitzer and has the length to match up with tight ends and bigger receivers while still possessing the athleticism to keep up with quicker pass catchers. Like the rest of the Saints' defensive backs, he'll even get reps at safety in some packages as well, as Ryan isn't afraid to put some of his corners on the back end to add some range to the safety position.
Speaking of versatile secondary pieces, former first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro is the epitome of just that. Vaccaro was a first-round pick because he was a safety with cornerback skills. The former Texas Longhorn can often be found near the line of scrimmage, as he's one of many players who the Saints will man up on tight ends (along with Swann, Lewis and Anthony). He plays in the slot and he is often used as a blitzer. That versatile skill set makes him a very dangerous player to prepare for, and one of the most intriguing safety talents in the entire NFL.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.