Cameron Jordan (94) and the Saints held Atlanta to 88 rushing yards in the opener; overall New Orleans is fourth in the league in total defense. (Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated)
For two years, since they were selected 11th and 24th in the first round of the 2011 draft, combo-platter defensive ends J.J. Watt of Houston and Cameron Jordan of New Orleans had a large gulf between them. Watt was the record-breaker, the pass-deflector and sack machine, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan was a nice defensive end, but miscast in the Saints’ futile 4-3 scheme.
At 6-4 and 287 pounds, Jordan needed to be a Watt, a 3-4 end who moved inside and played some 3-technique depending on the down and distance. That’s how Watt got his 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections in 2012. It was one of the best seasons a defensive lineman ever had.
Someone saw. Someone knew the impact Jordan could make playing as a 3-4 end on running downs and playing inside against the pass. Veteran defensive coach Rob Ryan knew, and when Sean Payton replaced coordinator Steve Spagnuolo—a 4-3 guy—with malleable 3-4 maven Ryan after the Saints’ disastrous defensive season in 2012, Ryan pushed Jordan to his more natural spot. And Ryan essentially told him to go get the quarterback and forget everything else on passing downs. It was perfect for Jordan. Watch him play, and you see a Tasmanian devil, a powerful and slippery twister-and-turner with 17 quarterback disruptions (sacks, pressures and knockdowns) through three games. Watt has 14.
Jordan was the 37th-rated 4-3 end by Pro Football Focus, the service that rates every play by every player. Through three weeks in 2013, he’s the second-rated 3-4 end, second only to Watt. In an interview from New Orleans on Monday, Jordan said of Watt: “He’s a high-motor individual."
It is exactly how Jordan plays. It’s easy to play with a high motor when you know you can play instinctively instead of thinking a lot.
“The new scheme we’re running is more user-friendly,’’ Jordan said. “When you’re more comfortable with the scheme, that eliminates the hesitating movement.’’
Ryan has made Jordan what the young rusher called the “jackknife’’ of the Saints defense. Maybe “Swiss Army knife’’ is more appropriate, seeing that Jordan plays all over the line. But where he feels best is inside, where he’s comfortable slicing through the guard-tackle and guard-center gaps to take a shorter path to the quarterback. “I definitely like my role,’’ he said. “I feel it’s more cemented than last year. I used to feel I was just a left end. Now I do some 3-technique, and I bounce outside. Rob does a great job of figuring out everyone’s best role—speed guys, power guys."
Cameron Jordan is tied for ninth in the NFL with three sacks. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Jordan illustrates what many Saints’ defenders said about Spagnuolo’s scheme in 2012—they were thinking too much and not in their best individual roles. In 2012, the Saints sent a record for defensive futility, allowing the most yards of any team in a season in NFL history: 440 per game. The Saints signed free-agent outside linebacker Victor Butler from Dallas in the offseason to ramp up the non-existent pass-rush. But Butler and veteran Will Smith, the best pass-rush prospects for Ryan, both were lost for the season due to summer ACL tears. And a spate of other injuries left the Saints with the youngest defensive front they’ve had in years; the average age of the men in the front seven who played the most snaps Sunday is 24.3. The most impactful rushers, Jordan and Junior Galette, are 24 and 25, respectively. Coach Sean Payton said Monday it “wasn’t by design’’ that the defense got young so quickly. “The young players earned their spots,’’ he said.
“Everyone talks about [the Saints losing] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma,’’ Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said after his team's 31-7 loss Sunday in New Orleans. “But Cameron Jordan is really good. Junior Galette is really good. They both stop the run and rush the passer. That is a really good combination.’’
Through three games New Orleans opponents have had 33 possessions and scored four offensive touchdowns. Of the other 29 possessions, 20 ended in punts and six in turnovers. That is what’s called a dominant defense. The Saints kept the Cards scoreless for the final 50 minutes and 10 drives on Sunday.
Now comes a significant three-week test. In 14 days beginning Monday night, the unbeaten Saints host 3-0 Miami, then travel to 3-0 Chicago and 3-0 in New England. There might not be a tougher three-game stretch any team will face in this season of early surprises. But those teams are going to have to worry about the New Orleans defense now, and not just Drew Brees. Times are changing in New Orleans.
Want more Jordan? The Saints defensive star will be the guest on this week’s “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King," posting at TheMMQB.com on Wednesday.
The Tuesday Mailbag
INSIDE THE NINERS LOCKER ROOM.In light of Aldon Smith's most recent indiscretion, what do the guys on his team think of this? How do they treat the guy? Is he given the cold shoulder? Helped like a brother? Tough love? Personally, if a co-worker was not "getting it" in this way, I would have serious reservations about trusting him/her in the work environment. I know that a team sport is different, but are we not still human?
Well, I’m not in the locker room and haven’t been around this team since midway through training camp. So all I can do is take an educated guess based on my experience covering a lot of locker rooms over the years. I think it’s probably a mix. I think some guys in the room think he should get a hold of himself and he’s letting down the team. But I think others are fully sympathetic and they think he should just get help. Remember, these guys have been teammates and probably have become very good friends and have won some of the biggest games on the sport’s stage over the past couple of years. When you’ve shed blood and sweat with a teammate, I don’t think you’re just going to abandon him when he’s having problems.
AARON RODGERS. NOT CLUTCH? I'm a lifelong Packers fan and certainly think of Aaron Rodgers as one of the best around. But it strikes me that he rarely leads the team from behind late in the fourth quarter. Partly because he doesn't often need to, but twice this year he had the ball in his hands with a chance to take the lead late in the game and didn't deliver. I've noticed over the years with him that we don't usually get the win if trailing late. Shouldn't "the best player in the game" be pulling off the last-minute win more often? Is this just me or is there a real gap in his résumé?
Aaron Rodgers has a career 5-17 record in games decided by four points or less. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
I haven’t studied Rodgers performance late in fourth quarters as much as, say, Tony Romo, who doesn’t have a good record late in games, or Eli Manning, who does. But let’s talk about Sunday in Cincinnati. Rodgers had the lead and was driving for an insurance TD when Johnathan Franklin fumbled and the Bengals took it back for the winning points. I realize Rodgers got the ball back and didn’t score, but on the other hand he was probably three or four plays away from giving the Packers a 10-point lead when Franklin fumbled.
Rodgers does not strike me as an un-clutch player. Think back to his great Super Bowl XLV throw to Greg Jennings on 3rd-and-10 against Pittsburgh. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m just saying that if this is a flaw, I think it’s a minor one, and I don’t think of Rodgers as a guy who doesn’t get the job done late in games.
NEW RULE CAUSING CONFUSION. I'm confused on this supposed new rule that running backs will be flagged for a personal foul if they lower their helmet as they prepare for a collision with a defender outside of the box. The first play in the Indy/SF game, Ahmad Bradshaw receives a outlet pass from Luck in the flat, runs upfield a couple of yards and meets Donte Whitner. Whitner led with his shoulder, but Bradshaw lowered his head to bust through the tackle and Whitner's shoulder hit Bradshaw in the helmet. Whitner is given a flag for unnecessary roughness.
I thought this was the exact case of the new rule that should be applied. I know that the league has erred on the side of the defender being responsible for any hits to the head of an offensive player, but I have not seen this called yet. What is the point of this new rule?
The rule simply is meant to stop players on both offense and defense from using the crown of their helmets as a battering ram. Because I didn’t see this play, I can’t tell you exactly how I would have called it. But, there are three elements that have to happen for this play to be called a penalty on either offensive or defensive players: 1) The play has to be outside the tackle box; 2) A player has to approach a player on the opposite team and, in the words of the NFL, line him up, and lower the head to strike; and 3) The top of the helmet must be used on either the body or the helmet of the opposing player straight ahead and with force. The officials, I believe, are struggling with this call very much.
TANKING IN CLEVELAND?Why did so many people react to the Trent Richardson trade with a "tanking" take? You can't "tank" in football by trading one player unless it's the likes of Aaron Rodgers. You certainly can't tank by ditching a running back putting up middling numbers. I understand the gut reaction when a team trades its most recognizable offensive player, but I think we can be smarter collectively about how much it's going to swing the fortunes of a season.
—Marino, St. Paul
The reason I felt the Browns were playing for 2014 is because they are. Honestly, whether they traded Richardson or not, Cleveland is going nowhere this season. You know it. I know it. They know it. This was simply a move by a regime that didn’t draft Richardson to try to get value for a player it didn’t value highly. However you want to phrase it, the Browns are trying to gather as many pieces as they can—draft and otherwise—for the team to contend in 2014 and beyond. Richardson wasn’t one of those pieces.
HISTORICALLY BAD JAGS? Are the Jaguars the least talented team in modern pro football? I mean, they are not even competitive. Can you think of any team—maybe the ’76 Buccaneers, for example—who had as little talent as the Jags?
—Justin, Quincy, Ill.
I don’t know. Every year brings two or three teams that, as the season shakes out, are far worse than the others. We tend to think of the year that we’re in as “the most this” or “the most that”. Usually, if you have some perspective, you find that a terrible team in 2013 actually compares to a terrible team in 2007, or 1999, or 2001.
Got a question for Peter? Send it to email@example.com and it may be included in next Tuesday's mailbag.
ALEX SMITH IS NOT THE ANSWER.
It was a real eye-opener watching the contrast between the Alex Smith-led Chiefs and the Colin Kaepernick-led 49ers. It seems that the 49ers have completely lost their emphasis on moving the chains in favor of gobbling up large chunks of yards through the air. What has happened to the 49ers’ short-passing game? The passes to fullback Bruce Miller were quite effective yesterday, as was the ground game that the 49ers seemed to abandon when down a field goal or two. Yet the 49ers showed little interest in either the ground game or the shorter passes that in the aggregate move the chains. Why? If that is the new offensive philosophy in Santa Clara, it strikes me as backward. The 49ers defense wore down in the fourth quarter largely due to the failure of the offense to stay on the field, something that absolutely would not have happened with Alex Smith at the helm.
You know what else wouldn’t have happened with Alex Smith behind center? A Colts’ win.
—Nathan, San Francisco