The decision on who to cut off on the defensive line come the end of the preseason is going to be difficult for the New Orleans Saints coaching staff. Without Alex Okafor (ankle sprain), Cameron Jordan (veteran rest) and Marcus Davenport (minor muscle strain) not playing the defensive end players in particular have gotten extra looks and many are the making the most of them.
Several players have received significant snaps on the EDGE through the first two games. Trey Hendrickson (25 Defensive Snaps, 3 Special Teams) has continued where he left off last season and could quietly be in contention for the starting spot opposite Jordan. (This would seem to be Okafor’s to lose, with Davenport being a pass rush specialist). Last week we talked about T-Rex’s ability as a pass rusher and some of his favorite pass rush moves, and this week he showed us even more variety.
Something mentioned briefly in that article was that Hendrickson wasn’t seen as a stalwart against the run, but it wasn’t necessarily considered a weakness. It is an area of his game that he still had to improve upon and last night showed, that while it’s still a work in progress, it’s trending in the right direction.
In the above play we see Hendrickson lined up as a seven technique outside the tight end in a two point stance. The second year player out of Florida Atlantic does a good job of driving the tight end back with good hand placement and power to lock out before shedding the block and tackling the runningback behind the line. His ability to control the blocker and push him back towards the mesh point, which cuts off the runningbacks angles, is an example of improved run blocking technique.
Speaking with someone close to the team they noted this about Trey’s performance against Arizona, “He’s playing a stand-up 7 tech in a 5 man front, basically 3-4 OLB stuff. The fact that he’s able to be this explosive with his hands without using the ground as a platform is really scary.” His performance as a pass rusher was also notably positive.
As in the formation about, and you’ll see the Saints deploy this look regularly, Hendrickson is once again a seven tech lined up wide of the right tackle. The speed off the edge here leaves him look as if he was unblocked. Nick Underhill noted that not only did he look quick off the edge, but that he was also guessing snap counts which lead to him being in the backfield before the opposing offensive linemen could react.
Hendrickson wasn't the only lineman impressing both fans and analysts against the Cardinals. For the second straight week Lawrence worked from the inside earning multiple pressures, a pass break up and a tackle for loss. Devaroe saw 26 snaps on defense which was good for second most among defensive tackles. (Taylor Stallworth had 32). His best play came on a deep twist concept.
Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen makes a smart play to throw the ball down at the feet of his receiver to avoid the sack, but the pressure by Devaroe is what causes this incompletion. He is going to cross from B gap to opposite B gap showing very good short area quickness and agility. Devaroe reads the hip of Jay Bromley and plays off of it, dipping behind and then explodes from a lowered base with very good hand placement and play strength to rock the left guard back towards the quarterback.
Plays like the one above show why the Saints have chosen to keep Lawrence around even with him struggling with injuries about both the collegiate and professional level. His back-story, one that Luke Johnson of NOLA.com writes about here, makes him a player everyone wants to root for and see succeed.
Muhammad showed a couple of good plays as well, including being a factor on the outside in the play we just saw with Lawrence. The young defender out of Miami racking up 27 snaps on the EDGE was the most of any defensive end in the game last night, and while there is still evidence of the “rawness” that was his buzzword coming out of the 2017 NFL draft we can also see progression.
As a unit, this is a negative play for the defense. Bromley fails to properly engage and lock down the double team which allows the left guard to carry up to Anzalone and clear him. Craig Robertson fails to extend and lock out against the fullback and is blocked out of the play even though he initially fills the gap. However, a positive on this play is Al-Quadin who has outside containment.
Hand placement inside the left tackle while controlling his inside shoulder allows Al-Quadin to walk him back behind the gap forcing the runningback to cut up field. Generally, you always want to push players runners and receivers inside where you have help. Muhammad then struggles to efficiently disengage, which is something he’ll need to continue to work on, but he did his job.
The push-pull technique that Muhammad is using here was something we saw last year and is one of his go to pass rush moves. While he isn’t able to finish the play by sacking Rosen (or altering the throw) the first half of the rep shows very good play/grip strength with the athletic ability to control the edge.
Not to be forgotten, Kikaha is fighting to stay on the roster and is doing so from multiple positions on defense. Kikaha (22 Defensive Snaps, 6 Special Teams) also saw time on special teams against the Cardinals which is not something we’re used to seeing. If he can provide value as a special teams candidate it increases his odds of making the roster.
While Kikaha has failed to live up to the expectations his 2nd draft grade places him he has to be given credit for finding ways to stick around. He’s seen snaps both as a defensive end and as the back up strong side linebacker this preseason.
Coming out of college one of Kikaha’s strengths was his hand usage and that trait is on display here. Utilizing a double swat and rip Kikaha is about to run the arc and apply pressure to the Cardinals quarterback. Like many of his plays for the black and gold he’s close, but not close enough. As an edge rusher the team needs to see more of him finishing plays instead of just influencing some.
Mitchell Loewen - Loewen had some good reps, and right now the main thing to watch for his consistency and general improvement in overall technique. There are a lot of half rep wins on Loewen’s tape, including last night. On some plays he’ll take control at the beginning but lack the ability to sustain, and on others he’ll lose the rep but still be a factor in the play due to his grit and motor.
Jay Bromley - There were some positive plays for Bromley, but if he’s going to make the Saints roster he’ll likely be doing it as the backup to Tyeler Davison as a one gapping nose tackle. In this regard Bromley didn’t have the best showing against the Cardinals. While he was able to generation pressure from the inside on a couple of passing plays he didn’t show enough as a gap stuff to help keep the linebackers clean on running downs.
Taylor Stallworth - He saw the most snaps of any defensive lineman with 32, and while there were flashes of success there weren't enough for the amount of snaps he played. Overall Stallworth is having a strong training camp and preseason, and like many of the young players talked about in this article continual improvement on technique will lead to more wins. As of now I’d have him behind Lawrence, but above Bromley, in the fight to take what is likely the 4th (and last) DT spot on the 53 man roster.
Sheldon Rankins & David Onyemata - Both looked good in limited work. Onyemata is still the raw and overpowering bull in a china shop while Rankins is the technician putting it all together methodically. The team is pretty happy with what they have with these two and that’s why they’re listed as 1a and 1b.
Tyeler Davison - Davison only saw eight reps with the defense early in the game. most of the defensive line starters saw limited and were enjoying the game from the sideline.
With just a couple of weeks left in the preseason the battle for the final defensive line spots are becoming one of the best training camp and roster battles to watch. While many players on this list are locks (Hendrickson, Rankins, Onyemata, etc.) there is still a spot or two for one of these lesser known players to make it.