When the 2013 NFL season started virtually everyone thought the offense of the New Orleans Saints would again be one of the very best in the NFL due to the return of Sean Payton as head coach and offensive play-caller and there was no sign of age or decline in the play of quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints offensive line has played better over the past three games, but it is still an area of concern. It is easy to see this offensive line is not as stout in run blocking as the group they had in 2009 and 2011, but what is still a concern for me is the leakage happening in the pass protection part of the game.
In 2013 with 5 games left to play the Saints have given up 23 quarterback sacks. The most they have given up as a unit was 26 in both 2012 and 2010, but it has also been the hurries and pressures.
Down the stretch that is the area to watch closely.
The Saints need to do a better job protecting Brees for him to throw downfield against defenses like the Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers and the St. Louis Rams.
But what I wrote about in early August has been even better than I could have imagined and that is the maturing and production increase of the Saints defensive line.
It has been a main reason why the Saints with 5 games left on the schedule have given up just 21 touchdowns.
Last season this defense gave up 53.
The least amount ever for the Saints under Sean Payton was 32 back in 2010 under then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Cameron Jordan has emerged as one of the top 3-4 defensive ends in the business and while everyone knew he was a really good defender against the run, it has been his pass rush skills that have really been upgraded.
This summer Jordan told me that while he got in better overall shape he credits his better pass rush techniques and numbers to working on getting lower, using better leverage skills and learning how to use his arms and hands better when engaged with a blocker.
“Every day I work on getting quicker with my hands,” Jordan said. “It was about gaining better football skills and I knew for me to get better it all started with using my hands quicker to get off a block and then using my speed and athleticism to have that extra step in my closing speed to the quarterback. I was close to a few sacks my first few years, but I missed out by a half-step or step. For me to finish off plays I knew I had to get quicker off of blocks and just being a better technician. I worked hard to get in good shape, but it was also about gaining better football skills.”
It has paid off handsomely for Jordan who now totals 9 ½ quarterback sacks and he has emerged as the best defensive end in the black and gold since Joe Johnson.
The other factor upfront has been the development of rookie free agent defensive end Glenn Foster, the very strong interior play of 2013 third round pick John Jenkins, and the rapid development of second year defensive end Akiem Hicks.
I have written in this space since last season after closely watching Hicks play that he has more physical skills of any Saints defensive lineman and that also includes Cam Jordan.
Over the past few weeks we have seen the hard work of the off-season and also some experience as a pro emerge Hicks as a stellar defensive end in the pro ranks.
To be honest I really think a year from now Hicks and Jordan will be the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league and you will have an emerging young talent in Glenn Foster working into obvious pass rush situations.
Hicks says his work in the off-season also in being a better technician and using better leverage skills have made him a better player.
“In college in Canada I had to learn how to play one yard off the line of scrimmage,” Hicks said. “There was a learning curve for me to adjust to the pros and also playing guys that were every bit as big and as quick as I was. Like Cam, it was about learning about how to use better techniques, hand-usage, but most importantly for me was using better leverage. When I could use my speed and quickness and not get tied up I was OK last season, but when the linemen would get their hands on me I needed to learn how to leverage them out and use my hands better to shed off a block. I had to also learn how to play a little lower too and not give up too much of my body to a blocker. Coach (Bill) Johnson and Coach Rob Ryan really helped me a lot, along with Kenyon Coleman. Kenyon has a similar body type to me and he always helped in giving me tips to play lower, use my hands better and being more of a slip the block leverage wise out on the field. I feel good about my progress, but I know with more work I will get even better.”
Some have labeled Hicks a small college talent due to his time at Regina, but people forget he was one of the most highly recruited junior college defensive linemen in the country and while he originally signed with LSU teams like Oregon, UCLA, Tennessee and Florida State also pursued him.
The great news is that this front has developed into one of the top defensive fronts in the NFL and look at the youth the Saints have with Hicks, Jordan, Foster, Jenkins, Tom Johnson and even journeyman Keyunta Dawson, along with veteran Brodrick Bunkley.
This is the future for the New Orleans Saints and this is the best defensive front since the one they had in 2000 with Joe Johnson, Darren Howard, Norman Hand, La’Roi Glover and Willie Whitehead.
And it is also players playing off one another. We saw this with Glover and Johnson and we also saw it before with the famed “Dome Patrol” and how Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson played off one another.
The Saints have one of the elite players in the game today in Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham, but what is so promising for this New Orleans Saints team in 2013 has been the development of all these young and very talented defensive linemen.
This has raised the Saints play to another level in 2013 , but even better for what will happen in future years. They will provide some “Dome Rocking” plays for quite a few years.