The success of the Saints season hinges in large part on how much improvement this new Rob Ryan defense can make. So far, the first line of attack, the talented defensive line is showing promise to be something special.
The renaissance of the worst defense in the league starts up front, with the 3 men responsible for the initial push against opposing offenses. When veteran left defensive end and former Cowboy Kenyon Coleman went down with a torn pectoral muscle, the questions started piling up. So far, the Saints front is definitively answering them, starting with defensive end Cam Jordan.
“I think he’s in a real good spot with his stature and his weight right now. He’s in great shape,” head coach Sean Payton said. “I think he was one of the bright spots a year ago, and he’s handled this transition really well. He’s going to be on the field a lot, not only on the base. He rushes the passer well, he’s physical, and he’s provided good leadership. He has worked hard.”
Jordan’s versatility, speed off the snap and ability to shake off blockers has been impressive, but he says he still needs to get faster and stronger in his transition from a left defensive end in a 4-3 formation to a right defensive end in Ryan’s 3-4 alignment.
“It’s only preseason, so I’m just trying to catch my feel for it. The only thing that I’ve got going for me is that I’ve played the 3-4 in college and saw a couple of 3-4 packages with coach Gregg Williams,” Jordan said. “I think that I can play anything, honestly. I feel that every position you put me in, I think I can excel at. That’s the mentality every day.”
Given Jordan’s initial success, some are already drawing comparisons between him and the Texans star 3-4 defensive end JJ Watt. Payton won’t go that far, but will say the two players will be used in much the same way.
“They’re going to be aligned in a similar position,” Payton said. “They both probably are going to play not only in the base, but in the nickel. How they’re used, there will be some similarities. With Watt, he’s around the ball, he’s relentless, very athletic, and he’s very powerful. He’s someone that plays a lot of snaps and is a challenge for whoever is matched up against him.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the line, Akiem Hicks’ growth from year one to year two is promising as he’s tried to prove his worth holding down the left end. Coaches are especially pleased with the improvement of his leverage skills. Broderick Buckley and John Jenkins are pushing each other at nose guard, and a talented pool of hopefuls stands behind them all, competing to be backups, including undrafted rookie Glenn Foster out of Illinois.
The defensive end is forcing the Saints staff to take notice with 7 tackles and 3 sacks so far this preseason. Foster says a fellow Illinois product gives him daily inspiration.
“I talked to Coach Payton, and he told me that I had a legitimate shot at making the team as a free agent,” Foster said. “Pierre Thomas is from Illinois, a free agent. He’s still with the team. So I felt confident that I will be able to fit in this 3-4 defense.”
Veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins is encouraged by what he sees unfolding in front of him on the field.
“I think this 3-4 as far as the front has given us the chance to be solid in the run. I think that’s one place we were not great at last year, stopping the run, and that opened up the play action pass and all these other big plays,” Jenkins said. “So far, this preseason, our front has done a great job of one, pressuring the quarterback and two stopping the run or getting negative plays in the run game and allowing our linebackers to run freely. I don’t think we have any runs that have broken into the secondary yet, which is something that happened pretty often last year. When you don’t have big plays in games, it’s easier for us to function as a defense. When you are giving up big plays and scoring fast, you really don’t give yourself a chance.”