Saints seeing signs of a better pass rush early in camp
By BRETT MARTEL
Aug. 08, 2017
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints defensive end Cam Jordan sees sacks as more of a team statistic than an individual one.
And as a team, New Orleans is trying to figure out which mix of players up front provides the best chance of improvement on its No. 27 ranking in sacks last season.
"The D-line will be feared," Jordan said after a recent practice at training camp. "We have the talent to do a lot of things. ... We've got to reset the line of scrimmage. We have to create havoc in the backfield, more so than we did last year."
Jordan believes that's possible despite the fact that Nick Fairley, New Orleans' top interior defender last season, was placed on injury reserve because of a career-threatening heart condition. The first glimpse of whether Jordan might be hoping for too much will come in preseason games, the first of which is at Cleveland on Thursday night.
In practice, defenders are forbidden from hitting quarterbacks. The best they can do is try to disrupt a quarterback's rhythm and vision, or run past the QB before the throw, which coaches would view as a likely sack. And there has been evidence of pressure in the backfield, particularly lately.
"It's obviously been a point of emphasis this year," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "We've done a better job of that to this point in camp."
Cornerback Devante Harris, who intercepted both Drew Brees and Garret Grayson during Monday's practice, credited pressure up front.
"It was that rush that really had the ball coming out of the quarterbacks' hands fast," Harris said. "Our D-line, man, they're doing an outstanding job."
The Saints totaled 30 sacks last season. A third of those came from Fairley and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, neither of whom will play for New Orleans this season.
Jordan, the club's highest-paid defensive player, led the Saints with 7½. Tackle Sheldon Rankins, a rookie last season, had four. No one else had more than one.
Rankins is expected to be New Orleans' premier interior defensive lineman this season, lining up alongside second-year pro David Onyemata on early downs. In some passing situations, the Saints are working on a "NASCAR" package in which newly acquired defensive end Alex Okafor rushes from the interior. Meanwhile, third-year pro Hau'oli Kikaha — a 2015 second-round pick who is back after missing last season because of a third reconstructive surgery on his left knee — comes in to rush from the edge opposite Jordan.
Jordan said he would like to shed blocks and get to QBs more often this season. His main goal is for the Saints to get more sacks overall, no matter who's bringing down the quarterback.
"The way I play has to set a tone," Jordan said. "I mean, if I come out soft, and I'm supposed to be the voice of our defense, how can anyone else come out and be better?"
Jordan said he sees signs that Onyemata, a Nigerian who learned football in college in Canada, will be more comfortable with the technique required to play his position well.
"He no longer is just a meathead moving forward. He is starting to get his hands right," Jordan said.
Jordan believes 2015 fifth-round draft choice Tyeler Davison could be another productive defensive tackle.
"The way he plays when he's healthy, he's going to help us out a lot," Jordan said.
Okafor, meanwhile, gained experience rushing from the interior in Arizona last season and sounds motivated to prove he also can be effective from the edge in the base defense.
"I knew there would be an opportunity for me to come in and play right away, so that's one of the main reasons I came out here," Okafor said.
This spring, New Orleans drafted defensive ends Trey Hendrickson (third round) and Al-Quadin Muhammad (sixth round). Hendrickson has been limited by injuries early in camp, and Muhammad remains somewhat of an unknown commodity.
Notes: Brees barked briefly at safety Kenny Vaccaro after the defender knocked the ball out of Brees' hands on a blitz. The defense celebrated the play, but Brees said afterward that he hopes his teammates will remain mindful of the practice rules meant to prevent QB injuries. "Obviously, you have rules for safety purposes. You don't want guys hitting your arm when you're throwing. That's not smart. That's not safe, so when it happens, you know, I understand it's going to happen from time to time, which it did. So, whatever. You move on." ... In addition to Hendrickson, CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Devlin Breaux, LT Ryan Ramczyk and WR Corey Fuller were among those who did not practice. ... CB Aurthur Maulet was hurt in a collision with WR Willie Snead and S Vonn Bell after a reception over the middle.