- Associated Press - Thursday, December 25, 2014

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton doesn’t necessarily believe New Orleans’ much-maligned defense needs wholesale changes heading into next season.

While some roster adjustments will have to be made following a non-playoff campaign, Lofton thinks many pieces are already in place that will allow New Orleans to regain the form that took the Saints to an 11-5 record in 2013 and a spot in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

One thing is clear, Lofton insists defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to stay.

“I think Rob is one of the best defensive coordinators I’ve ever been around and played for,” Lofton said. “Throughout the year, he stayed confident in himself and us.

“We let him down this year, so that’s disappointing. He stayed the same old same old. We all love Rob and we’d run through a wall for Rob.”

Lofton isn’t alone in his assessment of Ryan.

After the Saints’ 30-14 loss to Atlanta last week knocked New Orleans out of playoff contention, many players who were asked about the defense backed up their embattled coach.

“Why shouldn’t he be back here?” outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “We’re the ones out there on the field at the end of the day. He put us in a lot of good situations. I think it’s unfair.”

Images of irate coach Sean Payton yelling at Ryan became commonplace as the Saints (6-9) struggled this season. Criticism has been heaped on Ryan because the defense has looked more like the historically bad 2012 unit than the near NFL-leading group of last year.

“You can’t just blame him when things go wrong,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “I don’t think the blame should go to the coaches at all. We’re the ones out there playing. We’ve got to find a way to get it stopped.”

New Orleans has given up nearly a touchdown more per game this season than in 2013 when the Saints ranked fourth in the NFL by holding teams to 19 points per game. The current Saints are second to last in yards allowed, giving up 390.9. That is 85 yards more than a season ago.

The 2012 defense, which gave up more yards than any other team in NFL history, only allowed two points more per game than this season’s group. The unit also stopped teams more often on third down. This year’s Saints are ranked 30th, allowing teams to convert on 45 percent of third-down plays.

Change helped last season’s defense improve as there were seven new starters. This season has featured only three new starters from last year.

Still, the players don’t believe Ryan’s sometimes complicated schemes are the reason for the decline.

“The guy came here and turned around a defense that was historically one of the worst defenses ever,” Galette said. “We have one bad year and it’s like, ‘Aw, Rob get out of here.’ It’s unfair. It’s crazy to me.”

This season has proven to be quite a lesson for younger players such as second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, who came off a rookie campaign in which he played a key role in the Saints’ defensive success.

This year, however, Vaccaro has had trouble backing up his sensational first season.

“You’ve got to detail everything,” he said. “You can’t take anything for granted. Just because you were successful the season before doesn’t mean in the next season.”

But Vaccaro said that is on him, not Ryan.

“Rob’s my guy. I love Rob,” Vaccaro said. “I’ll fight for Rob every game. I’m a Rob guy, so there’s no point even asking me about Rob. He’ll ride with me until the end.”

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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