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Ryan turns Saints defense in right direction

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is the toast of New Orleans after three weeks of the NFL season.

His flowing gray hair has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. Saints fans have contests going to give him a nickname. He bought drinks for the house at a New Orleans bar after the Saints’ season-opening win over Atlanta.

Ryan faced the reclamation project of the year when he was hired in February to take over the Saints’ defense. New Orleans allowed the most yards in NFL history last year — 7,042, or 440 a game.

The Saints have started 3-0, and allowed only 17, 14 and 7 points in wins over Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Arizona, respectively. New Orleans has allowed the fourth fewest yards in the league.

The Saints get a legitimacy test Monday night when they play host to the 3-0 Miami Dolphins.

Whether Ryan’s defense is for real remains in doubt, because he seemingly has needed all the mirrors in Louisiana to manufacture the good start.

The Saints have done it without five projected starters. Linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler and defensive end Kenyon Coleman all were lost for the season to injuries in training camp. Inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma is out until at least midseason with a knee injury. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley has played only seven snaps due to a calf injury. Nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson was lost for the year to a knee injury in Week Two.

Ryan, 50, was fired by Dallas in January after two seasons with the Cowboys. He was the scapegoat for the Cowboys’ disappointing 8-8 finish. He had improved the defense from 31st to 16th in points allowed in 2011. It slipped to 24th in 2012 but had a slew of injuries. He had to use a league-high 14 different starting lineups. The Dallas offense was about as much to blame, but owner Jerry Jones wasn’t inclined to ax head coach Jason Garrett.

“We felt like too many schemes can cause problems regardless of how good they are or how sound they are,” Jones told the Dallas Morning News.

Ryan had a different take.

“I inherited a team that was 31st in the league in defense and made them better,” Ryan told ESPN the day he was fired. “I … made them a hell of a lot better. I’ll be out of work for like five minutes.”

That proved about right. Ryan was scooped up by Saints coach Sean Payton.

“I think No. 1, the scheme’s different,” Payton said on a conference call this week. “I wanted to move toward a ‘34’ front. At first Rob was someone that wasn’t even on the radar. … He was someone that I felt brought a confidence level to the players, brought a scheme that we were looking for and someone also that is a great staff guy, who really appreciates the importance of a team.”

The Saints’ three-man defensive line is legitimate and massive. Former first-round pick Cameron Jordan was good against the run last year but poor rushing the passer as a 4-3 end. He’s a better fit in the 3-4. Rookie John Jenkins, a 360-pound third-round pick from Georgia, is a space-eating nose tackle. The other end is Akiem Hicks, a third-round pick last year from the University of Regina. He’s a 325-pound, 3-4 end.

The injuries at linebacker have Ryan playing a lot of 3-3-5 defense and using first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro as his Mr. Versatile. Vaccaro, the 15th overall pick from Texas, has lined up as deep safety, cornerback, inside linebacker and outside linebacker. In the Atlanta game, he deflected a pass for Tony Gonzalez that safety Roman Harper intercepted to save the victory.

Ryan has a good starting cornerback tandem in Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis, a free-agent signee from Pittsburgh.

Whether Ryan has enough edge-rush talent remains to be seen. His outside linebackers are Junior Galette and Parys Haralson. Galette, undrafted out of Temple in 2010, has two sacks. Haralson had eight sacks in 2008 but just six in the last three years. Jordan is revived and already has three sacks.

It looks like Ryan will be in patchwork-mode again on Monday. Harper and Bunkley haven’t been able to practice. Greer has been limited with a sore back.

Player spotlight

Daryl Smith, LB, Ravens. Few general managers are as good as Baltimore’s Ozzie Newsome at filling critical holes with a player who is just the right fit. It looks like the Wizard has done it again in replacing Ray Lewis. Smith toiled for nine years in relative obscurity in Jacksonville. He never made the Pro Bowl but he was an instinctive, sideline to sideline defender. His 1,096 tackles are a Jaguars franchise record. Smith missed most of last season with a groin injury, and he turned 31 in April.

He was not Newsome’s Plan A. Smith was signed to a one-year deal in June only after troubled Rolando McClain, who had been signed in April, retired.

Said Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees this week: “Here’s a guy who didn’t know anything about our system, and for him to catch on so quick tells you a little bit about him. I think what he means to this defense is … Clarence Brooks said it the other day in the D-line meeting. He was talking to the D-linemen, and we were watching film. He says, ‘We’ve got a tackling machine playing right behind you. When that guy grabs you, you go down.’ ”

10 Questions with Chud

Coach of the Week honors from last week had to go to Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski, for engineering an upset in Minnesota days after the trade of Trent Richardson.

Chudzinski was a three-year starter at tight end for Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami. He was hired by the Browns after two years as offensive chief at Carolina.

Q-and-As with Chudzinski, from the NFL: Favorite movie: Braveheart. Last book read: Good to Great by Jim Collins. Favorite stadium: The old Orange Bowl. Person he’d most like to meet: Abraham Lincoln. Best pure athlete he has coached: Cam Newton and Antonio Gates. Toughest player he has coached: Steve Smith. Most overrated aspect of football: total yards. Favorite athlete as a child: Ozzie Newsome. Best overachiever he has coached: Ken Dorsey. Hobby: Fishing.

Onside kicks

• Denver has won 14 straight regular-season games. A win over the Eagles today would mark Peyton Manning’s sixth 4-0 start, the most in the Super Bowl era.

• The Bills played a traditional 3-4 front, with the nose tackle head-up on the center, on more than a third of the snaps against the Jets. That was a change from the first two weeks. The Jets ran 22 times for 98 yards against the Bills’ “regular” 3-4 front (that includes four snaps against a 5-3-3 defense). Baltimore will test the stoutness of the Bills’ base defense. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach played 50 percent of the snaps the last two games.

• Drew Brees has eight straight 300-yard games. With another against the Dolphins on Monday, he will tie his own NFL record.

• A win over the Patriots today will make Matt Ryan 35-5 at home, tying him with Brett Favre for the most wins at home in a QB’s first 40 starts.

• Kansas City’s Justin Houston has to be drooling. He has 7.5 sacks and needs two today against the Giants to have the most ever over the first four games. The Giants already have allowed 11 sacks.