ST. LOUIS — They weren't just bad, they were the worst in NFL history.
The New Orleans Saints' defense gave up a staggering 7,042 yards last season, an average of 440.1 yards per game, in breaking the NFL record of 6,793 yards allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
What a difference a year can make as the Saints under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will enter their contest against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome ranked sixth in the NFL surrendering 313.6 yards per game.
"They're sixth, as their offense is sixth," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said of the Saints' defense. "They've done a real nice job acquiring new talent and they're taking things away. That's what he does. He's an excellent coach and he's, obviously, got his hand in it and doing well."
Fisher and the Rams courted Ryan for their vacant defensive coordinator's post this winter.
It looked like Ryan had taken the job even though he hadn't signed a contract as he was seen around St. Louis and Rams Park, but he later changed his mind.
Two weeks later, he joined the Saints as a member of Sean Payton's staff as the replacement for fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the former Rams coach.
Fisher said he harbored no hard feelings against Ryan for backing out on the Rams.
"No. It's part of the National Football League," said Fisher, who played and coached under Ryan's father, Buddy. "People in this the league and people in life, often times, change their mind. He changed his mind. I'm happy for him."
Rob Ryan and his brother, Rex, the head coach of the New York Jets, have the same aggresive style as their father.
Rob Ryan has brought that style to the Saints.
"He's had an instant big impact," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "He brings a passion for the game. I didn't know him really at all prior to this past spring, and he's been a big addition for us and has really brought that level of excitement back for our players on defense."
The Saints' defense is led by inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, who has a team-high 120 tackles, and right defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has 11.5 sacks.
"They're talented. They're talented everywhere," Rams quarterback Kellen Clemends said of the Saints' defense. "They get after the quarterback. Rob does a nice job of mixing coverages and pressures and he does a really good job of making them look the same.
"So, sometimes it looks like their pressuring and they bail into coverage, looks like they're going to cover and they bring a lot of pressure."
The Rams' offense could be without rookie Tavon Austin, who is questionable because of an ankle injury.
If Austin can't play, it'll be even more critical for the Rams to get their running game untracked.
Zac Stacey was limited to 25 yards on 14 carries last week in a 30-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Saints rank 25th in the NFL in rushing offense, but quarterback Drew Brees handles the controls of the league's No. 2 passing offense.
Brees' favorite target is tight end Jimmy Graham, who has 74 catches for 1,046 yards and an NFL-leading 14 touchdowns.
The Saints can clinch a playoff berth with a win, while the Rams are playing purely for pride.
"They pay us to practice. We play for free," Clemens said. "It's fun to go out there and play. We're playing a kid's game and we love to do it."
Cahokia High School graduate Teron Armstead is a backup offensive tackle for the Saints. The third-round draft pick out Arkansas-Pine Bluff has played in three games during his rookie season.
"I think that he's very gifted with his feet," Payton said of Armstead. "He's been a real good pick for us. There's been weeks where we've had him activated on the (46-man gameday roster) and there's other weeks where he's been inactive just based on the health of maybe some of our other offensive linemen, but he's doing very well and he's got a ton of ability and a bright future."
Armstead is questionable for the game against the Rams because of a problem with nose bleeds.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.