Happy men wearing Saints garb and proud smiles swarmed their old friend, head coach Sean Payton, as the former Naperville Central and Eastern Illinois quarterback exited the visitors locker room at Soldier Field on Sunday.
The men, including the winning coach, smiled, hugged, laughed and shook hands after the Saints' 26-18 win over the Bears. They posed for snapshots.
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Several minutes later, Rob Ryan walked briskly out of the same locker room and headed straight to a mobile food pantry that was located just about a screen-pass away. The Saints' scraggly haired, big-bellied defensive coordinator grabbed his hot eats and moved on. No one accompanied the Stevenson High School graduate or greeted him. And he was unavailable to the media.
Rest assured, it was a tummy-warming homecoming for the 50-year-old Ryan, who came home, saw old friends and conquered a high-scoring offense, much like his dad, Buddy, did when he was calling the defensive shots for the Bears back in the day.
"We didn't talk much about it, but he did get a chance to go to his high school while he was here and spend some time (with friends)," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I'm sure it was special for him."
Under Ryan, New Orleans' defense has been something special. After allowing an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season, the Saints fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and hired Ryan, who was dismissed as the Cowboys' defensive coordinator after two seasons.
Ryan, who had previously served as DC of the Raiders and Browns, as well, brought to New Orleans a 3-4 scheme and, perhaps more importantly, a fresh attitude. And the Saints have responded, allowing just 73 points in winning their first five games.
"He's brought energy," sixth-year inside linebacker David Hawthorne said. "He has a unique style and it's tailored to us. We're really buying in, and we're really loving it."
In the first half Sunday, Ryan's havoc-wreaking defense resembled his dad's old '46' defense. The Saints sacked Jay Cutler three times thanks to three blitzes. Jenkins looped around the left side of the Bears' offensive line and forced a fumble by Cutler at the Bears 13 early in the first quarter, leading to a Saints field goal.
Hawthorne and safety Kenny Vaccaro added sacks later in the opening half.
"He played differently with the Saints than he did with Dallas so there were some different (things)," Cutler said of Ryan.
"We had a few blitzes dialed up that we executed well on," Hawthorne said. "They didn't really adjust until later in the game. I guess they didn't expect it. I think it was great execution by a lot of players."
With Bears trying to cut into a 23-7 deficit in the third quarter, their drive stalled at 9 after having first-and-goal from the 4, settling for a 27-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.
"That's his baby right there," Jenkins said of Ryan's red-zone schemes. "He'll let some of the other coaches break down the third downs, or first and second downs, but he's the only one that does red zone. He prides himself on it."
A late TD toss from Cutler to Brandon Marshall and ensuing Matt Forte conversion run allowed the Bears to become the first team this season to score more than 17 points against the Saints.
"I just think we're believing in the process," Hawthorne said. "We're preparing for that (particular) game and putting everything we got into that (particular) week, and cashing out at the end of the week."
Cutler threw for a season-high 358 yards and 2 TDs, but 50 of those yards came late in the first half with the Bears trying to drive the length of the field and the Saints in prevent mode. Cutler passed for 82 more yards with the Bears chasing a 26-10 deficit in the final three minutes.
"We have a lot to improve on, especially after today," Jenkins said. "(Cutler) is probably one of the better quarterbacks we've played all year. He had more success than we wanted him to."
Jenkins got a chance to blitz again late in the first half, but he came up empty.
"I came through and missed the layup," Jenkins said with a sheepish grin. "That's how it goes sometimes."
For the Saints, it has gone extremely well under Rob Ryan.