METAIRIE, La. (AP) — When Rob Ryan took over what was statistically among the worst defenses in NFL history, the Saints' first-year coordinator promised a flexible scheme which he could adjust to suit the strengths of whichever players he had.
Injuries to a half-dozen prominent defensive players have forced Ryan to adjust constantly. Yet he managed to field a fourth-ranked unit that helped the Saints make the playoffs, and then slowed down Philadelphia's second-ranked offense in the wild card round last weekend.
"It's tough because you've got great players" now on injured reserve, Ryan said after Thursday's practice. "But our roster is full of a lot of talented guys and I think that's what makes this place exceptional."
Before the season even began, the Saints lost both projected starters at outside linebacker — Victor Butler and Will Smith — to season-ending knee injuries. In Week 2, another knee injury ended the season of one of their top three cornerbacks, Patrick Robinson. Later in the regular season, season-ending injuries took starting cornerback Jabari Greer and starting strong safety Kenny Vaccaro out of action.
In the playoff victory at Philadelphia last weekend, outside linebacker Parys Haralson, who started eight games and played regularly in the rest, tore a pectoral muscle, ending his season.
"We've lost some tremendous football players," Ryan said. "But we've got some really high-quality guys behind them that are just waiting for an opportunity to play, and they're getting that opportunity and they're doing well."
Well enough, anyway, to set up a return visit to Seattle on Saturday afternoon in the divisional round of the playoffs. In the last meeting, the Saints' defense played arguably its worst game of the season, struggling to contain quarterback Russell Wilson and giving up 429 total yards in a 34-7 loss.
"We really didn't play our style of game at all," Ryan said. "That's really the only game that I just don't think we were ourselves at all. Whatever it was, we made mental mistakes, we made fundamental mistakes, some technique things.
"We pride ourselves on playing the game the right way. I don't think we really did that," Ryan continued. "Obviously, the execution of their quarterback was something to be seen. Hopefully he doesn't have that type of game against us again or we're in big trouble."
Fortunately for the Saints, it appears their top cornerback, Keenan Lewis, will play after leaving last week's game to be tested for concussion symptoms. Lewis, who had a career-high four interceptions this season, has been practicing and promised earlier this week that he'd be ready to play.