A year ago, Bountygate and a 0-4 start turned the New Orleans Saints into sad sacks.
This season, the Saints are 4-0 thanks in a large part to sacks of a different kind.
The most notable difference has been a stifling defense. It all starts with defensive end Cameron Jordan, who abuses opposing team’s offensive tackles and guards and has quietly become a centerpiece to the unit.
“I still think we can improve in pressures and sacks,” Jordan told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “I think we had four [against the Dolphins] but I think there were a couple that got away. We’re leaving sacks on the field and that cannot happen.”
The Saints’ defense set an NFL record for the most yards allowed in a season in 2012.
You can credit pass-happy and no-huddle offenses for the porous play but sometimes a complicated scheme can bog down players.
When Sean Payton returned from a one-year suspension because of his alleged involvement in a bounty scandal, his first priority was to fix the ailing unit. He hired Rob Ryan.
Fresh from being fired by the Cowboys, Ryan brought a new energy and scheme, which has paved the way to a top-five ranking in takeaways and points allowed.
“He does a great job of scheming and the players just respond well,” Jordan said. “It’s a lot easier to understand and to grasp concepts. Where Steve [Spagnuolo’s] defense, if we would’ve had another year, we could’ve got it under control. But that didn’t happen. We’ve stepped up and we’re better for it.”
“[Ryan] loves to win but you have to bring that high level of energy and he expects it out of you. You have to bring it every practice and every game.”
The emerging talent, such as Jordan, has made the difference on the field and deserves the praise. Jordan, who ranks third in sacks for defensive ends, credits his teammates. The talent was supposed to blossom, but at what rate was unknown.
The Saints lost three projected starters during the summer, including linebackers Will Smith, Victor Butler and defensive end Kenyon Coleman.
It didn’t get any easier. Nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson sustained a season-ending injury to his patella tendon in Week 2. Jonathan Vilma underwent minor knee surgery in training camp, safety Roman Harper and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley have also been hampered by injuries.
Jordan, 24, says that the players have taken advantage of their new roles and veterans Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Jenkins have been the mainstays of the defense.
“The main thing is not even trying to be a leader, but just making sure everyone is on the same page and trying to be complementary of each other.”
Complementary defense allows each defender to make plays, but they must be disciplined and know their responsibilities. Fourth-year player Junior Gallette, Akiem Hicks and rookie Kenny Vaccaro all contribute and make this unit one of the best in the game.
“It let’s all of us just connect the dots and be a great defense up front which will in a sense let everyone eat,” Jordan said of the 3-4 scheme.
Jordan is familiar playing in new schemes and alignments. The third-year defensive lineman has played for five different coordinators in the last five years, including his college days at Cal.
His new role allows him to line up in a variety of spots on the line and use his unique athleticism as a mismatch for offenses.
The Saints are preparing for one of the most potent offenses in the league as they travel to Chicago. The Bears rank third in the league, averaging 31.8 points a game and the Saints are aware on how to properly defend them.
“We played Jay Cutler two years ago and the real important part is just putting pressure on him,” Jordan said. “If you can do that, then you can possibly have a huge effect on the game. We all know about his accuracy and he’s showed it the first three games.”
Cutler threw three interceptions in a 40-32 loss against the Lions on Sunday. You can be certain that Ryan and Co. have been studying the tape on how to bait the eighth-year quarterback into making the high-risk throws that so often get him in trouble.
“We have such a prolific, explosive offense that I think teams have to try to catch up to Drew (Brees),” Jordan said. “It’s just going to equal more passes for the team and because of that we’re going to get more pass rush looks.
So, after four games is Jordan willing to make a bold statement about the defense?
“I think it’s still too early in the season, but if you give me another couple of games I could have a definite answer for you.”
He’ll let his play, and his coordinator, do the talking.