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Film Study: The Impact of David Onyemata’s Return

The star defensive tackle returned form his suspension to bolster the Saints’ run defense

NFL: Player Headshots 2021 Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Back in July of this past offseason, news rang down that New Orleans Saints defensive tackle David Onyemata would face a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Those who knew the Saints knew that losing Onyemata would be a big blow to the Saints’ run defense, because while Onyemata has never been one to rack up sacks or pressures, Onyemata has slowly been establishing himself as one of the better run-defending interior linemen in the NFL.

The beautiful thing about the Saints’ run defense however, is that losing Onyemata wasn’t as big a death blow as those anticipated. In the six games the Saints’ played without the Nigerian run stuffer, the Saints gave up 4.0 yards per rush or less in all but one game (the loss to the New York Giants), and they held opponents to less than 100 rushing yards in, again, all but one game (the win over the Washington Football Team, when WFT ran the ball 33 times).

In fact, this past week’s contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the worst the run defense has played this season, giving up a season-high 5.1 yards per carry (71 yards on 14 carries), with 24 of those yards coming on one 24-yard scramble by former Tar Heel great Giovani Bernard. Remove that run and the Saints defense was at a usually stout 3.7 yards per carry, which is in line with the Saints’ defensive rushing stats for the season. With that being said, let’s take a look at the impact Onyemata made during his return on Sunday.

The very first play the Buccaneers ran on Sunday was Leonard Fournette running right into the teeth of the Saints defense, and Onyemata (#93) was tested immediately in his return. While he didn’t end up making the tackle, Onyemata was the reason for Fournette being taken down for a loss. On this run, Fournette’s trying to go into the right A-gap (between the center and guard). If Onyemata doesn’t get across his blocker as quickly as he does, Fournette’s able to burst through that gap for a positive gain. With Onyemata filling that spot, Fournette’s forced to bounce into the B-gap where rookie linebacker Pete Werner is waiting to make the stop. A classic “won’t show up on the box score” play from the Saints defensive tackle.

This is a play that if made against anyone other than Tom Brady, probably gets more plaudits than it did. Onyemata (lined up as the left defensive tackle from the defense’s perspective) does everything right on this play. He gets a good jump off the snap, knocks his blocker off balance and bullrushes him right into Brady’s face. The Saints defense just gets beat on this one with Brady making a good throw with pressure baring down on him. Again, a good play from Onyemata, wiped out by an even better play by the Bucs offense.

Overall, Onyemata made a solid impact in his first game back from suspension. With Tampa Bay only running the ball 13 times on Sunday, Onyemata didn’t have a big chance to unleash his full run-stuffing capabilities and also found himself rotated with Shy Tuttle and Montravious Adams a fair bit.

This coming week, the Saints will find themselves playing the Atlanta Falcons’ aggressively mediocre run game. The Falcons have Pro Football Focus’s 17th ranked run block unit and their 27th ranked team rushing grade, to go along with a yards per rushing play of 3.69, good for 29th in the NFL. The Saints stout run defense shouldn’t have much an issue with their NFC South rivals, so this is a good opportunity for Onyemata to get back up to speed as the Saints hit the homestretch of the season.

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