Defense is key to Saints' revival

Rob Ryan is in the middle of the Saints' efforts to upgrade a defense that was last in the NFL in 2012. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

After a tumultuous 2012 that included just seven wins, the New Orleans Saints appear reinvigorated by the return of their head coach. Sean Payton was reinstated by the NFL following a season-long suspension and subsequently signed a new contract that places him among the top-paid coaches in the league.

Payton will resume his substantial offensive influence in the game-planning and play-calling processes, which should pay off for quarterback Drew Brees and his supporting cast. He'll also inject leadership and stability that the team appeared to miss during its underwhelming 2012 campaign.

Payton's return is significant, there's little doubting as much.

But the struggles in New Orleans in 2012 fell outside of Payton's area of greatest expertise (offense), as the team still ranked third in points scored and second in total yards, charged by another productive season from Brees.

By contrast, the Saints were woefully poor on defense, surrendering over 7,000 yards last season (7,042 to be precise), a figure never previously reached in NFL annals.

The Steve Spagnuolo experiment at defensive coordinator was finished before he even worked a game alongside Payton, as the head coach acted swiftly to dismiss the former Rams boss and replace him with Rob Ryan, most recently the Cowboys' defensive overseer.

Ryan holds the keys to the Saints' defense now, and defensive performance will be the pivot point for New Orleans in 2013.