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Grading the Saints Defensive Line against the Raiders

Jordan, Fairley stand out in frustrating Saints loss.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

I’m continuing my charting of the New Orleans Saints’ defensive line, which I began in the preseason. I’m going to keep refining my process as I gain experience and find new wrinkles. The biggest difference from my preseason charting is splits between pass and run plays, which are run through a simple algorithm to find a composite success rate.

On paper, the New Orleans Saints defense got worked by the Oakland Raiders offense in the 2016 season opener. They gave up a long scoring run of 75 yards to Jalen Richard, an undrafted rookie out of Southern Mississippi (To The Top! #SMTTT), and rarely affected quarterback Derek Carr’s reads and progressions.

In particular, the defensive line seemed to struggle. Only two starters registered above-average grades in run defense success rate: free agent signee Nick Fairley won 79.7 percent of his snaps, leading the team. Pro Bowl defensive end and captain Cameron Jordan was next-best among starters at 71.2 percent. Kasim Edebali was on the field for only a few plays in run defense, where he stalled out (neither disrupting the play nor getting washed out of it), which gave him a grade of 75.0 percent disproportionate to his snap count.

Preseason standout Tyeler Davison was a disappointment in run defense, winning only three of 16 snaps there and rating below-average at 65.6 percent. He gave as good as he got, but didn’t make nearly as big of an impact as you’d expect based off his high level of play in exhibition games. Davison was often matched up with elite guard Kelechi Osemele, which could explain his underwhelming outing.

Paul Kruger joined the team last week and drew headlines, but he wasn’t brought in for run defense, and it shows. Kruger has plenty of strength to hold up there and rarely surrendered ground on the edge, but it’s clear that he’s a pass rusher first and foremost. The Saints played most of their snaps out of a nickel defense, so Kruger’s deployment as wide-set end did him no favors. The good news is that he wasn’t responsible for any negative plays, only losing two of his 10 run defense snaps.

That’s not the story for John Jenkins. The fourth-year nose tackle would be expected to stand out in run defense, but this was more of the same from him. Jenkins lost four of his nine run defense snaps and was regularly pushed off his spot, which is inexcusable for a guy playing at around 350-pounds. He doesn’t control leverage well and gets knocked off-balance, making him easy pickings for quality interior linemen. Jenkins’ run defense success rating of 47.2-percent was lowest on the team.

The Saints’ defensive line did better in pass rushing, even if that didn’t translate to much pressure on the quarterback. The Raiders opened up with a great game plan to neutralize a New Orleans defensive front that looked much-improved in preseason by scripting quick hits passes, screens, and hot reads into their first few drives. Combined with an effective rushing attack, that was enough to keep the Saints’ linemen from pinning their ears back and committing to rushing upfield later in the game.

Cameron Jordan asserted himself as the team’s best pass rusher, winning 13 of his 43 attempts for a success rate of 80.8 percent. Jordan didn’t come away with any sacks, but he made both of Oakland’s offensive tackles look foolish, at one point forcing left tackle Donald Penn to trip himself over his own feet and “break his ankles” in a move more-common on the basketball court. He led the team with three pressures. The Saints have to find a complimentary pass rusher to Jordan if the 27-year-old pro is going to be effective.

There’s some hope that Paul Kruger could be that guy, but he didn’t look consistent enough to make his case early. Kruger won seven of his rushes for a rating of 75.9 percent, which is above-average, but we need to see more consistency from him. Hopefully, he and Jordan can continue to develop chemistry in Week 2 against a weak New York Giants offensive line.

One unexpected bright spot is rookie defensive lineman David Onyemata, a Nigerian import by way of Canada. Onyemata only saw 12 snaps on passing downs, but he won three of them and didn’t lose any (his pass rush success rating was 80.8, second-best). He’s visibly grown over the summer and has all the makings of being a good player as he continues to acclimate to the NFL game. With fellow rookie Sheldon Rankins out half the season, Onyemata’s number will be called often to fill in. An area Onyemata needs to work on is lowering his center of gravity in his hips and keeping his legs churning, otherwise he will keep getting worked like a blocking sled.

John Jenkins appears in the top end of ratings with a misleading score of 77.8 percent. That’s above-average and impressive, but Jenkins won only one of his nine appearances as a pass rusher. Maybe he has some untapped potential as an interior pass rusher, but that should have manifested by his fourth year on the team. The good news – and reason for Jenkins’ high rating – is his lack of negative plays against the pass.

On the other hand, Tyeler Davison played up to expectations as an interior pass rusher, winning five of his 21 snaps and losing only once for a success rate of 77.4 percent. Davison is a great asset at nose tackle in his second year and showed the flexibility to impact plays both over the center and off his shoulders. Davison’s snap count should continue to rise, and he’s one player who I’m very interested to keep track of moving forward.

Davison’s wrestling background shows up in his understanding of leverage and hand usage, but sometimes he gets too aggressive and ruins his angles; on Latavius Murray’s goalline score, Davison got his back turned to the ball-carrier while trying to penetrate upfield, breaking a golden rule of nose tackle play. Playing with more control should be a habit he develops, and will come with experience.

Nick Fairley wasn’t as impactful as you’d expect as an interior pass rusher (winning only six of 29 snaps), but that may be chalked up to the game plan. The Saints opened the game playing out of three-man fronts to disguise coverages and blitzes, which meant Fairley’s job was to hold the line and free up teammates to make plays. It should be noted that this also applies to John Jenkins.

That complimented linebacker Craig Robertson and safety Kenny Vaccaro perfectly; those two players combined for 16 total tackles, three of those for loss of yardage. Robertson also laid the wood on second-year quarterback Derek Carr, knocking him down a heartbeat after a throw. Either way, Fairley got pushed around too often and created some negative plays, setting up the initial gain on Jalen Richards’ highlight-reel long touchdown run. Those have to be reduced.

Reserve defensive ends Darryl Tapp (66.7 percent success rate) and Kasim Edebali (60.0 percent) did not draw much attention in the game. Tapp won once on his six snaps and Edebali did not log a win out of his 10. Hopefully they contribute more next week.

On the whole, Cameron Jordan was clearly the best defensive lineman on the field, logging a complete success rate of 77.2 percent while also seeing the most snaps (69). Nick Fairley was the runner-up at 73.4 percent, with Paul Kruger (73.1 percent) and Tyeler Davison (72.3 percent) just behind. David Onyemata (69.6 percent) was most-impressive of the reserves, while Darryl Tapp (65.0 percent), Kasim Edebali (63.5 percent), and John Jenkins (62.5 percent) all rated below-average.

This wasn’t a great game by the Saints’ defensive line, and considering the lack of options behind them at corner they’ll need to aspire to be great week-in and week-out. This is a young group of linemen that will grow and develop together, so for now we as fans need to be patient and enjoy watching this unit mature. We’re in for a long season as it is; may as well pay attention to a bright spot.