NEW ORLEANS — For more than three weeks, Cameron Jordan told anyone who would listen that New Orleans’ youth on the defensive line was a strength, not a weakness.
Few listened. After all, in the NFL, youth and inexperience usually leads to disaster.
Everyone should have listened.
Sunday, the play of the defensive line – youth and all – was once again one of the biggest differences in the Saints picking up a win, this time a 31-7 victory over Arizona.
Jordan is the elder statesman in his third year. Akiem Hicks was a third-round pick in 2012. John Jenkins went in the same round this past April. Tyrunn Walker and Glenn Foster both were undrafted.
Add to that group Junior Galette, an undrafted hybrid end/linebacker in his fourth year, and what could have been a weakness for a unit in transition has turned into its greatest asset. And none of that brings in veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, out with a calf injury, and journeyman end Tom Johnson, out with a hamstring issue.
Against the Cardinals, those who played were aggressive, physical and menacing, making quarterback Carson Palmer’s day an ugly one. They finished with four sacks by three different players. Palmer was hit nine total times. The pocket collapsed countless other times.
“The way that they’re getting pressure on the quarterback is unbelievable,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “They’re making us look a lot more effective. Those guys are working extremely hard. You see the effort that they put in every day at practice. They play with a purpose.”
These guys might not realize they’re not supposed to be good. The line was one of the biggest question marks coming into the season. Many wondered exactly where the Saints would get a pass rush this season after Victor Butler and Will Smith went down with season-ending injuries.
But there are no prima donnas on this unit.
“That’s the bright side of our defense,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We don’t really have any stars if you talk about big name guys. We just have a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence, not only in themselves but in each other, and we’re growing and growing.”
They’re just one part of what is turning into one of the biggest stories in this NFL season. A year after surrendering the most yards in league history, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has New Orleans flying high. At the pace they’re playing, they’d give up about 2,300 fewer yards in ’13 than they did in ’12.
Through three games, the Saints have allowed just 38 points, which includes a pick-six. Only the 1992 version allowed fewer points at 28. Three consecutive opponents have been held below 20 points for the first time since 2010.
It all goes back to the defensive front, which has helped force six turnovers, including two Sunday in which pressure on Palmer impeded his throwing motion and plant foot.
“We had enough disruption that it made it more challenging for the quarterback and that can lead to accuracy issues and that can lead to the interception that Kenny (Vaccaro) had, which was overthrown,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.”
Walker and Foster both returned to playing after missing time with a left knee and ankle injury, respectively. They give the Saints a rotation that is deep and talented, both playing significant snaps on third downs, when Arizona was 5 of 13.
“With the amount of physicality that they have to endure every play, it really bodes well for us in the long run,” Greer said. “The way that those guys are getting after the quarterback is impressive and no matter how they got here, they’re really making their mark.”
So, the question now becomes not about who provides the pass rush, but about whether they can sustain it? Three games do not a season make, but it’s certainly a long enough period to notice a trend.
“I think this is where our mentality is at – we obviously believe in the players we have on our defense,” Jenkins said. “We believe that we’re talented and we believe that we can be a great defense. But believing it doesn’t mean anything.
“So, we go to work every week and we treat every week like it’s Week 1 versus Atlanta.”