The New Orleans Saints defensive line did a solid job against the New York Giants. For the most part, the defensive line won its battles in the trenches and tried to rattle quarterback Eli Manning, but the experienced passer’s quick recognition of where pressure was coming from and quality pass-catchers negated much of the Saints’ pass rush.
In run defense, the dynamic combination of New York Giants linemen Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh dominated the interior. Second-year nose tackle Tyler Davison, a preseason standout, was bullied; his run defense success rate of 62.5 percent was lowest among starters. Davison’s backup, fourth-year mammoth John Jenkins, was beaten badly on the way to a run defense success rate of 56.3, second-worst on the team.
The unit’s leader, defensive end Cameron Jordan, was clearly a problem in the minds of New York’s coaching staff. They only ran plays to his side of the line a handful of times, and never again after a block from tight end Larry Donnell resulted in disaster.
Donnell was thrown aside with one hand while Jordan went chest-to-chest with right tackle Marshall Newhouse, using his free hand to slow running back Rashad Jennings long enough for Jordan’s teammates to come from behind and tackle Jennings at the line of scrimmage. Jordan routinely held up his edge and prevented plays from going his way, scoring the best run defense rating (81.3) among starters.
However, Jordan really stood out as a pass rusher. The veteran defensive end had a good rating of 79.4, best among starters and just behind Kasim Edebali’s 80.6, but it should be noted that Jordan saw 64 snaps to Edebali’s 20. Jordan has developed a great swim move that, when used with a good get-off at the snap, is very difficult to defend. Jordan showed off elite athleticism on the Saints’ first sack of the season when he bent around the edge in his ankles and hips to get under Newhouse’s arms.
Paul Kruger came on as a pass rusher, finding a success rate of 75.7. His bull rush was tough to defend late in the game, but the Giants countered it with some draws and quick passes outside the numbers. Kruger’s run defense is a big weakness (as testified by his 63.6 rating there), but he had a tough matchup in a pair of solid blocking tight ends and left tackle Ereck Flowers. Don’t be surprised if Kruger starts picking up some sacks soon – by my count, he racked up four hurries and a hit against the Giants.
Nick Fairley started his second game in a row at the three-technique defensive tackle spot, scoring above-average as a run defender (78.3 percent) and showing some disruptive potential as a pass rusher (73.6 percent). Fairley is doing a great job subbing in as a nose tackle in three-man fronts to occupy multiple blockers, but sometimes he seemed slow off the ball and was a step too slow to impact the play.
David Onyemata is coming along really well. He was marketed as a project coming out of college, but the young defensive lineman is already making waves. Onyemata already had all-world athleticism and that shows in his run defense; he regularly penetrates upfield to disrupt plays behind the line of scrimmage, though any tackles for loss eluded him. Onyemata’s run defense success rate (93.8) was the best I’ve measured yet, but it should be noted that he only saw eight snaps as a run defender.
Onyemata was more pedestrian as a pass rusher, seeing a success rate of only 73.1 there. Right now Onyemata is all athleticism; he’s just attacking upfield without much of a plan. Once he finishes acclimating to the NFL game he will be able to develop advanced hand-fighting techniques and start to work in stunts, twists, and other moves that allow the defensive line to attack as a unit. Saints fans should be very encouraged by Onyemata’s rapid development this early in his career.
Among the other reserves, backup defensive ends Darryl Tapp and Kasim Edebali made impacts in run defense and pass rushing, respectively. But that’s also where both of those players are limited to contribute. Tapp was a good run defender on limited snaps (he had a success rate of 83.3), but got beat often as a pass rusher (58.3).
The opposite is true of Edebali, who won two of nine pass rushes for a score of 80.6, but was regularly blocked off-screen by stronger offensive tackles – his 47.7 run defense success rate was lowest on the team. Nose tackle John Jenkins, a depth body at this point, was a liability in run defense and a below-average pass rusher.
The Saints’ defensive line is young and not where the team needs it to be in order to win tough games right now. The bottom of the roster needs upgrading and adding another high-profile interior lineman will probably be a priority this spring. We’ll have to continue being patient with them and just accept that they’ll take some L’s, but time is on their side. This unit is green enough to learn from those mistakes and projects to a very successful future.