Just like Jeff Fisher, the New Orleans Saints had enough of 7-9. The Saints were the exact same team the previous three seasons, a team with a great offense and chain link defense that existed solely as a vehicle for Drew Brees to drive around in. This season that has changed. The Saints went 11-5 and won the NFC South.
The defense is what flipped. The previous three seasons the Saints ranked 31st, 32nd, and 31st in defensive DVOA while ranking 7th, 7th, and 6th in offensive DVOA. This season the Saints have an offense DVOA of 23.2%, which is second, and a defense DVOA of -3.8%, which is ninth. This performance has held since the midway part of the season. Since this point the Saints have been a Superbowl contender, gashing teams open with a cat-dog rushing attack composed of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, and playing more than competent defense necessary to win games with the offense they have.
The Saints improved their defense by picking up two starting defensive backs with their first three picks, and lopping off the extra skin that had made them feel self conscious for so long. This offseason they scalped Jarius Byrd, and Daniel Ellerbe, and let Roman Harper, B.W. Webb, and Paul Kruger walk away. In their place they signed A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o, Alex Okafor, and Rafael Bush to moderate and safe contracts.
Throughout this 7-9 existentialism, big fish flopping free agent signings, and skin grating, Cameron Jordan has been here. The cornerstone of the Saints’ defense has been ravaging quarterbacks since his second year in the league, going all the way back to 2013. That year he made 55 run plays, had 5 quarterback hits, 16.5 hurries, 8 sacks, and 3 pass disruptions. Since that point Jordan has 245 run stops, 50 quarterback hits, 196 hurries, 58 sacks, and 32 pass disruptions.
Over the last three years Jordan has gone from a good pass rusher to one of the premier rushers in the NFL. But because of his situation, sole great player on a terrible defense that kept his team spinning around in 7-9, he has been largely forgotten. While we thought about Khalil Mack, Everson Griffen, and Von Miller, as the premier edge defenders, Jordan has been swashbuckling all this time without any words tossed his way.
That needs to change. This year Jordan made 41 run plays, had 47.5 hurries (eighth), 13 sacks, and deflected 10 passes at the line of scrimmage. The Saints had a pressure rate of 32.2% (9th), and sacked the quarterback 42 times this season. And most importantly, the Saints are a Superbowl Contender heading to Minnesota this weekend thanks to a defensive renaissance led by him.
To start their playoff run, Jordan continued his garish play picking up a sack, three tackles, a quarterback hit, two hurries, and batted two passes at the line of scrimmage.
Jordan started the game rushing with a lot of hand fighting. Slapping digits away, and slipping underneath. The first big play he made sterilized a 1st and 10 screen pass attempt.
The Panthers love to run screens. Most screens are quick and designed to attack a vicious rush. The Panther aren’t like most teams. They instead prefer to run longer developing screens off slow moving play fakes that draw attention to Cam Newton as a runner and allows their offensive line to travel downfield like some Jungle Book elephants. This allows a pass rusher to have an impact on a play he normally wouldn’t.
The Panthers run a screen off play action. They fake the run to Christian McCaffrey and have him leak out to the flat. After staring downfield Cam Newton dumps the ball off to him with a horde leading the way downfield. From the left guard on the Panthers slide one gap over. Khalil doesn’t follow the aggressive pass sets they use. He kick slide backs and is forced to block Jordan for seconds instead of an instant.
Khalil kick slides and squares up with Jordan, who is doing the same as he diagnoses the play.
Jordan can’t speed rush since he’s even with Khalil. He doesn’t have options. So he pulls out his club and whacks his left arm.
Khalil is able to recover pretty well by pulling his right arm into Jordan’s chest.
The problem is this pulls Jordan into him. The offensive tackle wants to punch and extend to control the block. Instead, Khalil and Jordan are in a chest wrestle.
Jordan has carnivore strength and is the one who extends Khalil. He has his hands inside on his chest. He has the extension. He’s in control of the block, and lifts Khalil’s hands off of him.
After a gasp of breath he tosses his left arm under Khalil and rips to shed the block.
This moves grants him freedom to run and a clear path to Newton. Khalil can only claw at him.
Behind this path is McCaffrey waiting for the screen. Newton finishes looking downfield to create open yards for McCaffrey to pitter-patter through. He turns left to throw and hits Jordan’s galactic left paw, the same one he ripped with.
After this rush Jordan tried to beat Khalil in similar fashion. He took him on head first, and attempted to slap punches away to open up his rip. It didn’t work. Khalil was able to consistently keep his ground and readjust his hands inside. Although these opening fights ended in stalemates, each one was violent. Jordan collided into another chunk of minerals with his own moon. It looked like two prehistoric monsters thrashing around in a primordial swamp.
The Saints pass rush stalled for a bit. Newton was allowed to put all of his weight on his back foot and rip taut lines down the field. The Panthers didn’t have trouble moving the ball in this game. They started off with five trips into the redzone, but managed to score only twelve points. So Dennis Allen got creative. Instead of leaving Jordan and the rest of his rushers in 1 v. 1 situations he began to pull out the stunts.
Like all premier pass rushers, Jordan has an extraterrestrial combination of quickness and strength. These two components by default also make him great at running stunts. In a breath he can move two gaps over to get into the center of the line of scrimmage. And from there he treats blockers like weighted inflatable. Jordan will toss a despicable swim move over blockers to get into the backfield instantly. There’s no waiting to pick up the stunt for the offensive linemen. It’s waiting to get the red flag waved in front of him.
Jordan didn’t collect a sack or a pressure with these first half stunts. But he quickly got through the line of scrimmage, put pressure on the offensive line, and enforced Newton to toss the ball sooner. These stunts were the jolt the Saints’ pass rush needed.
Strength is what makes Jordan a spectacular pass rusher.
You don’t see him run past tackles and bend around the edge like a slinky. Instead he uses quickness to get to the outside shoulder, and then exerts an insane amount of strength to move back offensive tackles with one arm. The power a single arm generates is what makes him a great rusher. From this extension he sheds the block to detonate into the quarterback.
Here in slow motion is the foundation of Jordan’s game. He uses his left arm to bench press Khalil to open up his pass rush move. This time it’s a swim. Newton gets rid of the ball before he can get there, but he still wins the block.
This same combination was used on his sack. Extend with one arm, and then bust a move.
It’s second and ten. It’s an obvious pass rushing down. Jordan is the ‘5’ technique and is lined up across from Khalil again.
Jordan doesn’t aim for the outside shoulder. He looks to take Khalil on head on. He had some struggles doing this earlier in this game, but doesn’t at all here.
Jordan doesn’t bother knocking the tackle’s hands away. Like spaceships he dips. Lowering himself, he comes directly into the center of Khalil.
Khalil is in better position than Jordan. He’s lower. He has a foot anchored down. Even though his hand placement isn’t perfect, it’s shabby enough.
The problem for Khalil is Jordan is an atomic bomb. He explodes up and out of this position and jars him backwards. Khalil reshuffles and comes back at him the best he can.
With this extension, Jordan extends his right arm to create a greater expanse of space than two arms can generate. This burst opens his rush up.
Now he breaks out a pass rush move to escape the block. He uses his left arm to rip under Khalil’s death rattle.
He also throws his shoulder into this rip. He places it into the tackle’s chest. This allows him to finish his rush with strength. By rubbing up against Khalil he can’t be tossed off his path, and it puts him on a more direct and quicker path to Newton.
All Khalil can do is shove his back, which does nothing.
The best part of all this isn’t even his rush. It’s Jordan’s tackle. Newton is an enormous man. Defensive linemen struggle to tackle him. He can carry them through the line of scrimmage, he’s able to run through them to fall forward for extra yards, and like statues of marble, he’s hard to bring down even when standing straight up. He’s broken 24 tackles on runs this year, and 11 in the pocket to evade sacks. With Newton’s arm moving backwards, Jordan plows into him with just his side. Jordan takes out the biggest guy in the mosh pit with a shoulder and a shove.
This gold mouthed swashbuckler doesn’t only affect the quarterback’s passing attempts. This same strength, and these same sheds are put to work in the run game.
The Saints run a variety of base defenses. The majority of time they play in a 4-3, but sometimes they will move Jordan out wider to outside linebacker in their 3-4, and other times they will place a man over the center in a ‘bear’ front. The Panthers are running a power toss play to the left with Jonathan Stewart. Jordan is playing outside linebacker, and Ed Dickson is forced to drive him out on his own. Moving towards this direction is the pulling Khalil, who is great at run blocking in space, and the fullback.
Jordan punches and drives Dickson horizontally. He swims over and leaves him bent over barfing and heaving. From there the fullback is forced to block him instead of the safety. Jordan demolishes one block with a swim, takes on another, and gives his defensive back the opportunity to extinguish the play for no gain.
This missed tackle on Newton is just like his sack. He takes on the blocker head. He punches, drives him backwards, and extends all while keeping his head on the outside to maintain gap integrity. From this position he is a fork in a road that can branch off in either direction. Once Newton keeps and follows his blocker through the ‘B’ gap he rips and leaps at Newton. However, this time, he slips off like Frank Zombo trying to tackle Derrick Henry.
This bear trap tackle of Stewart is similar to the previous play. This time he attacks the outside shoulder before ripping and making a play.
And sometimes his brute strength allows him to do things that only freaks like Jadeveon Clowney can pull off. The Panthers are running counter with their excellent right guard and slot tight end pulling. Once Jordan goes unblocked he comes flat down the line of scrimmage. He comes inside of the guard’s pull and puts his chin on his chest to get across his block. When he recovers from the collision he engages with the tight end. Now the linebacker outside of him is free to collapse on the ball carrier.
An entire game of hell raising and pillaging wasn’t enough. Thanks to a quick McCaffrey pass, and a fourth down “interception”, the Panthers still had a shot to win this game. Carolina has zero time outs. The score is 31-26. They have the ball at their 31 and need to drive 69 yards to save their season.
Jordan continued abusing Carolina on this drive. He made three humongous plays to help seal this win. The first one came on 1st and 10 with :46 seconds left. Carolina moved the ball to New Orleans’s 21 yard line with two sublime sideline passes, and a defensive holding penalty. They were in striking distance.
Like the first half, the Saints turned to a stunt to generate a rush once things became stale. Jordan is rushing all the way to the ‘A’ gap from the left defensive end position. Taking over the ‘C’ gap in his place is the left defensive tackle, and the right defensive tackle is coming all the way across the center to the other ‘B’ gap. The Panthers’ pass protection has them slide over one gap on the right side and block man on man on the left side.
Schematically, the problem this stunt creates is it takes the center with the left defensive tackle. It pulls him all the way to the right. This opens up the center of the line of scrimmage for Jordan to bash through. The center should pass the defensive tackle over, but it’s easier said then done once he’s already engaged.
Andrew Norwell (#68) has no one to block. The defensive tackle slants inside and the linebacker drops back in pass coverage. All of Ryan Khalil’s effort is concentrated on the tackle.
Norwell looks inside to help, snaps his head to the right too late. Jordan is already even with him and he hasn’t even finished taking a step over.
Luckily, McCaffrey is there. The little guy jumps on the grenade and comes at Jordan’s legs. Norwell shoves Jordan in the back to finish the chop block. It’s not enough though.
Jordan is moving too fast. He’s too powerful. Not even true love can stop this train. Jordan is able to come over the top and into Newton. This shortens his front foot. He can’t get everything on his pass to Devin Funchess. The ball Bortles out and is too far outside for Funchess to make the catch. With a clean pocket this could be a game winning score.
On the next play the Panthers bring more blockers in to protect Cam, and Jordan makes the biggest play of the game. They go split back and have seven in to protect Newton. They attempted to do what they had done at times to block Jordan—throw multiple bodies at him by doubling, Von Miller chipping, and tripling him.
Carolina is playing man on man on the right, and shifting over one gap on the left. I’m assuming they did this to shift the protection towards Jordan. The problem? He’s lined up on the other side of the formation. This protection scheme works because Carolina has a back in to pick up an extra rusher or anyone who breaks through the line of scrimmage. Carolina opts to keep in McCaffrey in the backfield as a passing threat the Saints have to account for.
Jordan doesn’t waste time. He gets a perfect jump and comes at Daryl Williams’s (#60) outside shoulder, and grabs his right hand. Jordan is breaking out his counter, and comes inside. He knows Williams is going to over set wide on the speed rush. Jordan swims inside to make him pay for it.
He plants and moves across the tackle’s face. Along the way he grabs his chest so a strong punch won’t pop him backwards and neutralize his momentum.
With his left hand he grabs Williams and pulls him to his right. He takes his left arm and swims over the top of the block. This movement also creates more space for him to travel through in the process. It’s the same move he uses to disappear around blockers when he crashes inside.
Williams goes for the kill and tries to jam his head into the open chest. He’s too late. Jordan is already over the top and inside. His chest is around the gate. McCaffrey sees all of this. He plants and shuffles inside.
He’s around the first block. Jordan sees and McCaffrey and lowers his shoulder.
He gets lower than the tiny back and drives him backwards.
Jordan long arms McCaffrey once he is even with Newton and peels off the block like a scab.
Jordan then finishes the play by wrapping up Newton. He holds him. He carries him. Newton can’t escape and throws the ball to the sideline. Intentional grounding is called.
A touchdown shot or an incompletion becomes a fifteen yard loss. 3rd and 10 becomes 3rd and 23. Newton puts the ball close to Funchess, but he loses the ball in the lights and doesn’t make a play on it.
4th and 23 arrives. The Saints blitz against a five man protection. Jordan swims over Williams again. Except this time he takes an outside route. He’s off the block and sticks his teeth into Newton after Vonn Bell does. In unison they drive Newton backwards.
New Orleans advances. The game ends on a 17 yard sack.
The Saints’ defense making this turnaround without spending big in free agency, and completely rehauling the defense is surprising. What isn’t surprising is a potential Saints’ playoff run now that they have the defense to go along with their offense. And along the way, Jordan should finally be recognized as what he is, one of the league’s best pass rushers.