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Top Individual Performances of 2019: Rankins feasts on dirty bird for Thanksgiving

CSC takes a look back on Sheldon Rankins feasting on the Atlanta Falcons during the 2019 Thanksgiving matchup.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Sheldon Rankins has been a steady presence on the New Orleans Saints defensive line since he was drafted in 2016. After a down first year where he struggled with injuries, Rankins started to shine in 2017 and was well into another great 2019 before getting sidelined with an ankle injury which ended his season after the Saints’ December loss to the 49ers.

Sheldon Rankins stats (incl. postseason)

Year 2016 2017 2018 2019
Year 2016 2017 2018 2019
Games 9 18 17 10
Pressures 13 50 46 22
Hits 1 9 6 3
Sacks 4 3 8 2

The thing about analyzing defensive linemen, pass rushers more specifically, is that it’s not just enough to look at how many sacks a player has gotten. This is especially true for interior linemen like Rankins, who often face double teams and spend more time freeing up blockers for rushers coming off the edge. It also can be hard to quantify just how disruptive a pass rusher is off sacks alone, because a sack can be anything from beating your blocker and getting to the QB within a second and tackling a scrambling quarterback a yard past the line of scrimmage. That leads me to this post.

Sheldon Rankins most dominant performance came in the Thanksgiving game against the Atlanta Falcons. He only finished the game with one sack and two tackles, however he racked up a season high five pressures along with one hurry and one QB hit (all stats taken from Pro Football Focus). While the sack and tackle numbers don’t jump out on the page to you, his presence was felt in other ways. Even when going through all the Falcons’ passing plays to see where the pressure happens, it’s apparent watching from afar when Rankins is on the field compared to when he’s not (because when he is on the field, Matt Ryan usually had a left guard in his face). So let’s get into the film.

Q2 13:31 – Pressure forces Matt Ryan incompletion

Rankins in this play lines up in the right B-gap (from the defense’s perspective). The left guard leaves Rankins for the center to take, and Rankins responds by driving Falcons’ former All-Pro center Alex Mack directly back into Matt Ryan who’s forced to throw early by Rankins and by Mario Edwards Jr. Rankins finishes off the play with the hit on Ryan just after he releases the ball.

Q4 1:19 – Rankins gets clean-up sack late

Like I mentioned before, sacks are an interesting stat. Rankins dominated the Falcons interior line for most of this game, but his lone sack came on a play where he was designated to spy on Matt Ryan. Pressures from Trey Hendrickson and Demario Davis force Ryan to step up into the pocket, at which point Rankins snaps around his blocker and takes down the Falcons’ signal-caller.

Q1 4:16 - Pressure negated by quick Ryan pass

Jumped around a little bit with this one, because I felt like if I led off with it my overall point might’ve been deterred. This play was a net negative for the Saints defense. A 2nd-and-8 pass completed for seven yards. However Rankins still makes a good play to push his blocker back into the face of Matt Ryan, who makes a good quick pass to an open receiver for the completion. These plays happen all the time in football (and in other sports as well). You’re good, but your opponent was a little bit better. Rankins did well on this play, but Ryan managed to avoid it and turn this play into a win for his team.

That’s the thing with defensive line play. All of your good work can be rendered useless by a quick pass from a quarterback or a lapse in coverage from the secondary leading to an open receiver. Which is why it’s important to judge games (and players) like this not by the number of sacks but by the amount of pressures and tougher plays he forces a quarterback to make.

Check back in next week for the next installment in the 2019 Top Performances series.