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Despite injuries, Saints’ defensive line rotation continues to impress

16 weeks into the season and the Saints defensive line continues to be unpredictable.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints have continued to field one of the most diverse and interchangeable defensive lines all season. In Week 16, things were status quo for them deploying 19 different player lineups in 45 different positional combinations. Remarkable numbers considering the Saints were down both defensive end Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle Malcom Brown.

Despite being down two pivotal members of the position groups, the Saints continued to vary their approach in the defensive trenches. Here is a breakdown on the Saints’ defensive line rotation Week 16 agains the Minnesota Vikings.

Most Popular Player Combinations

Four-man front: Cam Jordan, David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle, and Marcus Davenport

While this group of four spent 15 snaps on the filed, they were the most utilized four-man front. They also played a whopping seven different positional combinations. Including one snap in which Cam Jordan manned the left offensive end, and all three of the remaining players listed manned the interior while a linebacker stood up to rush from the right offensive end. That play went for a -2 yard pass.

This combination allowed for 35 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown, 63 passing yards, and one passing touchdown.

Three-man front: Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, and Carl Granderson.

The Saints actually rolled out six different player combination for three-down linemen looks but this combo played the most often of them on six snaps. Four of the snaps took place in the first half and once each in the third and fourth quarter. The snaps also include a pair of snaps each on first, second, and third downs. This was an all-around usage combination for the Saints as opposed to specialized one aside from the fact that each of their snaps took place in the own 25 to midfield range.

They saw no rushing yards and allowed only 18 yards passing including a strip sack by Cam Jordan, and a hit.

Line Numbers

Three linemen: 20 snaps, 83 passing yards and two sacks.
Four linemen: 40 snaps, 99 rushing yards (2 TDs) and 233 passing yards (1 TD).
Five linemen: Two snaps, two rushing yards, one passing yard (1 TD)
Six linemen: Two snaps, -3 rushing yards, one passing yard (1 TD)

38 nickel snaps, 18 dime snaps, three base defense snaps, two goal line snaps, and a pair of “5-2-4” reps which included five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs.

In nickel, the Saints gave up 98 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, 152 passing yards, a passing touchdown, and one sack.

In dime, New Orleans allowed 98 passing yards. Of the 20 snaps, 12 including a blitzer that was often either a linebacker or safety off of the edge. In doing so, they also added in some additional layers to help try to confuse the Vikings offensive line, including deploying stunts and twists, which plagued Minnesota’s protection all season.

Stunt on These Vikes

Throughout the game, the Saints ran a total of eight stunts or “twists” along the defensive line. A stunt or twist is when a lineman or blitzing defender from the outside, wraps around another lineman who was lined up inside to attack the offensive interior or vice versa. On those occasions, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins went 5/8 for 67 yards and took one hit which caused the almost fumble that C.J. Gardner-Johnson took back for a touchdown just in case the play stood. It was later ruled an incomplete pass.

There may gave been a ninth, but to me it really just looked like congestion on a safety blitz that re-routed Malcolm Jenkins inside. Cousins was able to get that pass off and it resulted in a 13 yard gain.

Cam Jordan’s Shift

Cam Jordan played a ton of different positions and techniques in this one but one of the most interesting shifts was seeing him take most of his second half snaps on the offensive left edge as opposed to where he starter the game, on the defensive right. Jordan went from taking 18 snaps on the right edge in the first and second quarters to only six of 22 total snaps played in the second half (including some non-plays). Meaning he shifted massively to the offensive left edge in the third and fourth quarters.

My early assumption on the change had to do with the run game. The Vikings dominated the Saints on the offensive left side outside of the tackle. The Vikings only ran the ball six times in the second half, one to the outside left.

Interestingly enough, the sack-fumble he had in the fourth quarter to help the Saints extend their lead came from the offensive right side. The play was set up well with seven Saints defenders on the line of scrimmage pre-snap in a three-down linemen look. This was true for David Onyemata’s and Malcolm Jenkins’ split sack as well.

After the snap, Demario Davis who was threatening on the inside dropped back into coverage. When he did so, the Vikings’ right guard had to try to quickly reset his base to take on Cam Jordan who was already in his grill before he had the chance to brace. Jordan was able to win the one-on-one with the guard convincingly driving himself into the lap of Kirk Cousins, causing his first fumble since 2018 against the Dallas Cowboys.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who was added to the Covid/Reserve list this week, was partly responsible as he managed to take on and occupy the Minnesota right tackle all on his own, leaving Jordan with the single matchup on the interior.

Interesting Notes

On third downs the Saints gave unique looks on all nine attempts but two including a no play in which the Saints were called for a roughing the passer call. The did lean, unsurprisingly, heavy to the three-man sets however. Three-man fronts constituted 6/9 of those third down snaps.

The majority of the final 13 defensive snaps of the game were handled by Marcus Davenport and Carl Granderson on the edge while the defensive interior continued to rotate. Though when closer to the endzone on the Vikings penultimate drive, the Saints went heavier with Davenport, Onyemata, Tuttle, and Malcolm Roach for two-straight snaps before adding Granderson in for a five-man front on a play that resulted in tight end Irv Smith, Jr.’s second touchdown.

Both David Onyemata and Marcus Davenport played at least seven different techniques along the defensive line. Likely more in certain cases.

Saints gave up two big plays on bootlegs, one to open the game for a 16 yard completion to Adam Thielen and another a couple series later which results in a 13 yard gain to wide receiver Olabisi Johnson. The latter was extended by a Janoris Jenkins missed tackle. There was also a third bootleg later on which picked up only five yards.

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