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How the Saints defensive line rotations performed in week one

A look at the production, usage, and rotation of the New Orleans Saints’ defensive fronts in their week one win.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Note: This is something I worked on throughout the week and look forward to sharing. However, it is an evolving method. If there is anything in particular you’d like me to pay attention to throughout the season in addition to the following information, please let me now in the comments so we can continue to improve on this already interesting study.

The New Orleans Saints did a good job retaining their defensive line personnel coming back for the 2020 season. They re-signed David Onyemata to a three-year deal this offseason and replaced only veteran Mario Edwards, Jr. with young undrafted defensive tackle Malcolm Roach. The Saints piled on 51 sacks in 2019, the first 50+ sack defense under Sean Payton. As they look to improve upon that performance this year, a big factor will be their ability to rotate personnel. I dug in to the film this week to break it down and here’s what I found.

Firstly, let’s establish some vocabulary as there are two ways to track this rotation.

  1. Configuration: This count is taken regardless of player personnel, but by position. So if the Saints sent out the same four defensive linemen on two snaps but Cam Jordan lined up on the defensive left for one play and then the defensive right on another, those are counted as two separate “configurations.”
  2. Groupings: Unlike configuration, this is based instead on the personnel. Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, and Trey Hendrickson are a four-man grouping no matter where the line up or how many roles they occupy. If they are on the field together, they remain the same grouping.
  3. End direction: “Left End” refers to the edge defender on the defensive left side (from the perspective of the defense). “Right End” is on the defensive right.
  4. 1-tech; Defensive tackle lined up over either shoulder of the center, threatening the A-gap.
  5. 3-tech: Defensive tackle lined up over the outside shoulder of the guard, threatening the B-gap
  6. Nose tackle: Defensive tackle lined up directly over the center, usually in a three-man front. Also referred to as 0-tech.
CBS Sports

The Saints operate out of both four- and three-man fronts which gives them some incredible flexibility in terms of the different personnel groupings they can deploy. With eight active defensive linemen on Sunday, New Orleans had a possibility of 70 different four-man groupings and 56 difference three-man groupings. Within that, the configuration possibilities were endless.

Of those total 126 possible groupings, they used a total of 21, expanding to 31 different configurations in which the personnel may have been repeated, but their positions were changed.

The most popular four-man personnel consisted of Cameron Jordan, David Onyemata, Malcom Brown, and Trey Hendrickson. That group should be no surprise. but considering the Saints defense played 70 snaps, it is surprising to consider that the most popular personnel group only saw the field eight times. This unit didn’t produce box score counts in terms of tackles for a loss or sack. Nor did they produce any pressures when on the field together. However, they did join forces to limit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a mere 1.88 yards per carry against them.

The most popular three-man personnel group included Jordan, Rankins, and Hendrickson for nine plays. Always with Rankins at nose tackle while the two edge defenders rotated. This group put together a sack, two hurries, a hit, and didn’t allow a single third down conversion of the four third downs they were present. Including the first sack of the game which came on a third-and-14 where the defensive line did a ton of work both blowing up the called screen and winning on the blindside.

Seeing David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins listed a co-starters at defensive tackle created some curiosity amongst Saints fans ahead of the first week of action. But considering their usages beyond just snap count but assignment - it makes a bit more sense.

Now to dig further into detail, the four-man configuration that saw the most plays was Cam Jordan at left end, David Onyemata at 3-tech, Malcom Brown at 1-tech, and Trey Hendrickson at right end. The most utilized three-man configuration kept Jordan and Hendrickson at the left and right end positions respectively and added Rankins up at nose tackle.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that the most used defensive line configurations and groupings included the Saints’ top five linemen. But part of what kept the Saints productive late in the game when facing a more pass-heavy attack is their rotation.

New Orleans showed a whopping 10 different player combinations (groupings) in the first half. That’s a lot of rotation. However, they followed that up in the second half by introducing 14 more after the break. The configurations were much the same. 13 dispensed in the first half with 18 more being unloaded in the third and fourth quarters.

In the fourth quarter alone we found three new personnel groupings lined up in eight different positional combinations. This helps the Saints stay fresh and effective late in games. In the fourth, two of the last groupings introduced yielded two sacks and two hurries as well as forcing a failed third down conversion. It’s not unusual to see new players added into the rotation late for a team with the lead, but the defensive coordinator Dennis Allen played all eight of his options by the tenth defensive snap of the game. Meaning there is a lot of trust across this entire depth chart.

This will be a lot of fun to continue watching throughout the season and will be a big factor in week two facing off against the Las Vegas Raiders and Josh Jacobs. If the Saints can keep their line fresh with rotations this deep all the way down to the final defensive snaps, they should be on their way to achieving their goals with another productive season across multiple defensive categories.

What do you think of the Saints’ defensive line rotation? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.