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John DeShazier: Rob Ryan likes defense's mental approach as he implements 3-4

New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said he's impressed with the leaders on the team

This stage of the process is an improvement, but it still is in its infancy.

Figuratively, Saints defenders have progressed from bottled milk to mashed and ground solid foods in terms of installation of the new defense, but there's still a ways to go before they're ready for a ribeye as they transition from last year's 4-3 alignment to this season's 3-4.

There remain positional changes (defensive ends Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson now are outside linebackers), verbiage adjustments and different responsibilities to consume and digest. There remains an attitude realignment to be implemented, the manifestation of which truly won't be known until pads are adorned for practice (beginning Sunday) and the lights come on for games.

"It's Day Two (of training camp)," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said Saturday. "If we were done (with the defensive installation), it'd be bad.

"(But) we're good. We've got a lot of defense in, more so than we've been able to put in with other defenses that I've had before – a lot more. This is a smart group, a disciplined group."

A group that Ryan was hired to mold into a more effective group than the 2012 edition, which surrendered 440.1 yards and 49 touchdowns, both NFL highs.

Not surprisingly, Ryan, who helped Dallas' defense improve from 23rd in total defense in 2011 to 14th in 2012, believes the directive can be accomplished.

"I'm so impressed with mentally, how they're quick to pick things up," he said. "Physically, we're going to learn a lot about that (Sunday) and in the next few days with the pads on. But I really like our mental approach to everything, how we've got outstanding coaches. These guys take coaching.

"We just want to get better. We're happy to be here, we're working hard, we're trying to improve, we've got some real talented guys on defense and they're doing a good job. They picked up from a lot of good work we had in the OTAs. These guys came back in unbelievable shape."

Sounds like that was a wise decision on the players' behalf because from the look of things in minicamp and the first two days of training camp, flying to the football and heavy doses of aggression will be calling cards.

If that sounds a lot like the mantra that was stamped to the banner Saints defenders carried in 2009, when 39 forced turnovers (including 26 interceptions) led to seven defensive touchdowns scored by five players, and opponents were limited to 34 offensive touchdowns, it should. Because that's precisely the kind of effectiveness and attitude that New Orleans would like to return to.

That's where defensive additions, like free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, figure to factor in and pay dividends.

"I think you know, that's getting back to what we used to do," safety Malcolm Jenkins said of Ryan's defense. "Man up and letting more people (cover), you have more people to rush the quarterback (and) give pressure.

"That helps us on the back end because it's less time to cover as well. It gives the (defensive) line and the blitzers a little bit more time to get there when you got those guys that can just line up and cover receivers."

The process is ongoing, though it may not take as long as it otherwise might have if the Saints didn't have veteran players on the roster to help accelerate the installation.

"Any time you have leaders like (linebacker) Jonathan Vilma that you inherit on a defense, it's outstanding," Ryan said. "I've been around (safety) Rodney Harrison (in New England), (linebacker) Ray Lewis (in Baltimore) – these guys make you good. They hold everybody accountable, which is something I absolutely love here about the Saints under Sean Payton.

"He holds everybody accountable."

Soft, mashed foods still might be OK for now. Soon, though, only the consumption of solid food will be sufficient.

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