One very important New Orleans Saints defensive player to keep your eye on in 2013 is second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. Hicks, who the Saints selected in the third round in 2012, had a baptism by fire last season, and while he showed his inexperience and a lack of good techniques at times, he also showed that athletically he is the most talented big man the Saints have along their defensive line.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan is not a gold chip NFL performer, but he is a good blue chip player. Jordan excels in stopping the run, but last season he displayed good pass-rush skills at times and the ability to close in fast on a quarterback.
For Hicks, if the light comes on for him like it did for Jordan in 2012, he has a chance to be a special defensive lineman. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound defensive lineman is being played across the board in Rob Ryan’s new defensive 3-4 format.
“They are preparing me for every spot up front,” Hicks said. “I’m working at defensive end, nose tackle and playing the 3-technique. I like playing defensive end. It gives me an opportunity to use my athleticism and my speed coming off the ball. To be honest I am really a power-type player, but I surprise people on how quick I am coming off the ball. It’s a lot of one-on-one stuff at defensive end. When you play inside you are taking on a lot of double-team blocking. It’s adjusting and seeing what is best for me to excel and what is best for the team. It doesn’t matter where they play me, I just want to compete and play.”
Hicks said he has worked hard to improve his pad level and upgrade his leverage skills this offseason.
“In this league everyone is big, strong and fast, and it is an old saying, but a true one that the low man wins in football,” he said. “I have a tendency to play a little too tall and that gives blockers a chance to get under my pads and move me around some. I have to learn how to stay low, and I have a great teacher in (Saints defensive line coach) Bill Johnson. It’s the same thing with leverage. When I was younger I wrestled a lot, and that taught me a lot about leverage, but this is a different kind of leverage. It’s a lot about using your hands better and turning and leveraging your body quickly to defeat your man.”
Last season the Saints saw Jordan develop into a very good starting defensive end and Hicks believes that he can make that move in 2013.
“Things are different defensively from a schematic standpoint, but Coach (Rob) Ryan likes to play aggressive football and you have to understand your assignments,” Hicks said. “That is the big key I see in this league, and that you have to understand the different sets and alignments and not get caught out of position. This is an aggressive game, and it’s not about read and react. It is all about recognize fast and react fast, if not you get beat. I thought I played pretty well at times last season, but I just wasn’t consistent. I really like what I see that we are doing defensively, and we all know that we need to rush the quarterback better and also get off the field better on third down. When you have an offense like what we have and Drew Brees in control it is not about making big defensive plays all the time, and that would be great if we did, but it is about slowing down your opponent and then giving our offense a chance to get back on the field too. Really what gets a crowd excited, especially the “Who Dat Nation” pumped up loud, is making a big play on defense. We want that too and we want to get them revved up for our unit like they get excited for our offense.”
There are two key elements for the Saints defense to get better in 2013. The first is a consistent edge pass rush from free agent outside linebacker Victor Butler and matching up better down field in coverage with tight ends. That part of the equation has to come from 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro from the University of Texas.
The third piece of the puzzle is the continual development of Hicks along the defensive line, most likely at defensive end.
Hicks not only has a chance to be a good NFL player, but a special one for a team that desperately needs a big-time performer up front defensively. Like tight end Jimmy Graham did for the Saints in his second season, the boys in black and gold are hoping Hicks becomes that sort of player on defense.
If the New Orleans Saints can get some pressure from the likes of Hicks, Jordan, Butler and Junior Galette or Martez Wilson, it will relieve what was a troubling spot on the team in 2012.
Last season the Saints allowed opposing quarterbacks a passing rating of 93.8. That was the fifth worst figure in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs (99.9), the Philadelphia Eagles (99.6), the Oakland Raiders (97.5) and the Dallas Cowboys (94.7).
Of those five teams, only the Eagles finished overall defensively in the top half of the league, and they finished 15th overall. The Saints finished 32nd overall defensively in 2012. Not one of those five teams posted a winning record or made the playoffs last season. One thing defensively you will see more of out of the 2013 Saints under Ryan is more press-coverage schemes. Last season the Saints under Steve Spagnuolo played a lot more off-cover schemes than we had ever seen when Gregg Williams was in charge of the defense. But this season under Rob Ryan, whose dad Buddy Ryan was a mentor for both Williams and Rob Ryan, the Saints will go back to more press-cover schemes.
Former Saints safety Brett Maxie, now the secondary coach with the Tennessee Titans, said that the press-cover method dictates to the receiver what type of route he can run.
“If you play off a receiver, then you have to cover or react to every type of pass route,” Maxie said. “If you play press coverage that gives the cornerback an opportunity to get closer to the receiver and limit his overall route running tree. Now you are dictating to the receiver what he can do, but on the negative side, when you play a lot of press-cover schemes there are certain risks that you take and it heightens the chance of giving up the big play if you fail to execute well. Defensive backs get flagged more in press-cover situations and your margin of error on the deep routes down field is magnified. But what’s worse, having a quarterback pick you apart with the underneath stuff on the short passes or give up the big play over the top? You have to mix and match some, but you have to limit the short game today. You have to be able to take away some aspect of that because the way the rules are today and the quality of quarterbacks we have in this league they will eat you up if you consistently play off a receiver.”
Last season the Titans gave up a passer rating of 92.7 per game — the seventh-worst in the NFL, and they also had a losing record.