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Play by Play: Saints Defensive Line versus Patriots

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Breaking down film of the defensive line from the Saints-Patriots game.

NFL: Preseason-New Orleans Saints at New England Patriots Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve read any of my work in the past for platforms like Who Dat Dish and Cover32, then you know that film study is a crucial factor in my analysis. By going back to tape and reviewing what actually went down on the field, you can gain invaluable insight.

I’m keeping that tradition going here at Canal Street Chronicles. I spent the better part of my Saturday locked in on the New Orleans Saints’ defensive line, watching the game at one-quarter the speed of live action. By doing this I was able to see exactly who was winning their battles at the line of scrimmage, and who was being disruptive (and therefore productive).

My methodology is fairly straightforward. On any given play, defensive linemen win by getting upfield, stall out by neither gaining nor giving ground, or lose by getting pushed off their spot. I’ve tracked these results for all of the Saints’ defensive linemen through this first preseason game.

Let’s get started with some superlatives:

Best Win Rate: Tyeler Davison #95. The second-year defensive tackle out of Fresno State burst onto the scene in a big way. He split the left guard and center on the first play of the Patriots’ first drive to initially redirect LeGarrette Blount to another gap in the line, but Blount’s footing caught in the turf just long enough for Davison to swallow him up and make the tackle for loss of yardage. This high level of play continued for all of Davison’s 29 snaps in the game, resulting in a team-best 10 wins (a leading percentage of 34.5).

Best Loss Rate: Davis Tull #55. Not many fans had high expectations for Davis Tull coming off consecutive surgeries on both shoulders and a rookie year missed on injured reserve. The weakside defensive end is at the bottom of the depth chart at his position behind the starter, Kasim Edebali, and another second-year edge rusher in Obum Gwacham. Tull’s play wasn’t as impressive as you’d like, but one positive for him is his lack of losses: he wasn’t beaten on any of his 20 snaps, but he only clearly won twice. The lack of negative plays is encouraging but Tull needs to work on not stalling out so often.

Best Win/Loss Differential: Nick Fairley #90. Nick Fairley was signed in free agency to be a shot in the arm for the defensive line, and so far, he’s living up to that billing. Fairley lost only one of his 27 battles and won 9 of them for a differential rate of 29.6 percent. He consistently held up at the line of scrimmage and rarely yielded yardage. Fairley’s career with the Saints is off to a great start, and it’s worth noting that the team isn’t giving him any sort of preferential treatment you’d expect for a veteran free agent pickup: Fairley played the fourth-most snaps of all Saints defensive linemen to make his case for a spot on the final roster.

Best Pass Rush Production: Kasim Edebali #91. There was a lot of confusion on draft day when the Saints chose not to add a rookie edge rusher with any of their draft picks, but the continued ascension of Kasim Edebali could explain their logic. Edebali’s career arc has mirrored disgraced former defensive captain Junior Galette, so he’s right on schedule for a double-digit sack season. Edebali had the best rate of quarterback pressures against the Patriots, logging two sacks and a pair of hurries on only 25 rushes. His success score of 12 percent led the team, with Sheldon Rankins a distant second; the first round draft pick logged 5.7 percent on 22 attempts.

Other Notes:

The Sheldon Rankins hype train has gathered speed on the heels of his impressive play in training camp practices. His interception off of a Tom Brady screen pass is already the stuff of legends, and he’s been a terror in one-on-one drills. Rankins posted the third-best win percentage on the defensive line against the Patriots, coming out on top in seven of his 22 snaps (31.8 percent). Rankins has a long way to go before he belongs in the same conversation as Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins, but he’s already off to a great start.

The other defensive lineman drafted by the Saints this year had a solid rookie debut. David Onyemata played the same number of snaps as Rankins, but stalled out more often and won fewer of his battles in the trenches. Still, his win percentage of 27.3 percent is above-average for the group and he posted the third-best pass rush success rating at 4.5 percent. Onyemata is going to take some time to develop into an NFL-quality lineman, but his raw ability is plain to see. I would like to see him track the ball-carrier better and refine his hand usage to shed blocks more efficiently.

There is some competition for the last defensive line spot on the final roster. Right now the guy in the lead for that spot is Darryl Tapp, a longtime member of the Detroit Lions. Tapp was signed before training camp after trying out in organized team activities, and he showed that he still has some gas left in the tank. Tapp won three of his 15 attempts and logged a hurry, which is better than what other, older veterans like Matt Shaugnessy and Ashaad Mabry managed. Tapp is a long shot to make the roster, but his combination of versatility, experience, and off-field leadership could keep him around.