If you watch closely, Sheldon Rankins is switching up his stance.
It’s a 7–3 game against the Falcons back in Week 13 and Atlanta is driving, inside the 15-yard line. The offense is in an I formation, and the tight end just motioned to Rankins’s side, signifying that Todd Gurley will be coming right at him any moment now. And yet, Rankins’s eyes are across the line of scrimmage. He’s downloading information on Chris Lindstrom, the Falcons’ right guard, looking for any tell.
Lindstrom is smaller and quicker than his left-side counterpart, Justin McCray, meaning he’ll likely be the one pulling if Atlanta decides to bring him around as a lead blocker. From his own pregame film study, Rankins likens this to a play the Saints have been working against in practice.
“I’m automatically thinking this is going to be some type of gap scheme or power play,” Rankins says—he’s breaking down film over Zoom before a workout at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, where he’s spent the offseason. “I’m away from Lindstrom, and, the way they ran a lot of their stuff, he’s the pull guy. They didn’t run this kind of stuff the opposite way. If they ran any of their gap scheme stuff, they’re bringing Lindstrom.”
But he’s also thinking: The Saints have a traditional nose tackle lined up next to Rankins, which means that if his inclination is right, the Falcons’ gap scheme will dictate that the nose tackle is doubled, leaving Rankins, who is lined up just inside the eye of left tackle Jake Matthews, a sitting duck to be washed down from a vulnerable position.
So, he puts a second hand in the dirt and shifts his body weight to the front of his hands. From the All-22 view, which we’re watching together, it looks like he’s in the gym about to attempt a bear crawl. At the snap, instead of reacting to the play, he shoots directly into the backfield and blows up Lindstrom as the guard is looping to try and lead Gurley through the gap. Rankins was right. Gurley ends up receiving the ball deep behind the line, dancing behind a pileup of bodies created by Rankins. Because Lindstrom is indisposed, the entire play collapses. Linebacker Alex Anzalone is able to walk into the fray and drag Gurley down for a loss.
“When I get this look, I’m like ‘O.K. I’m shooting it.’ Maybe I pick off the puller. Maybe I beat it enough to make the tackle for a loss,” Rankins says.
He adds: “You gotta be willing to say, for lack of a better term, F--- it. You could be wrong and something could happen that’s not advantageous to the defense. But you can’t play this game ignoring what your natural instinct is telling you to do.”
If there was a play that properly summed up Rankins’s five seasons in New Orleans, this might be it. The No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft, he came from Louisville where he was essentially a roving, J.J. Watt–type bruiser who could dominate as both an interior and exterior. So far in his NFL career, he’s suffered both a broken fibula and a torn Achilles, the latter of which, he says, left him without his explosive spring until the last few weeks of the 2020 season. One might view his standard statistical grid, seeing a high of eight sacks and 15 quarterback pressures in 2018, as his ceiling. Rankins, who, according to a league source, has garnered interest from roughly a dozen teams leading up to free agency (Rankins says that, as of this Tuesday film session, he had not been in contact with the Saints), doesn’t see it that way for two reasons. One: Like the Lindstrom play, there are always ways in which he can create an impact that won’t be measured in a box score. Two: He’s never felt healthier in his professional career.
“I’m excited [for free agency],” he says. “The Achilles injuries took their time, but I’m rounding into form. I’m feeling good. I’m able to get up and feel like me again. For a long time, after the left Achilles ruptured, then I had to fix the right one before it ruptured, there were a lot of mornings getting up where it was like, Yeah, we’re gonna see about today. Now, I can walk and not think about my Achilles.”
Back in 2018, on another play we’re scrolling through, Rankins finds himself in Dallas’s backfield on a second-and-long (a detail he remembers almost instantly as it’s called up on the screen). Because it’s a hurry-up situation, he’s not in his usual three-technique position, agreeing with another lineman to his right to swap positions so that the Cowboys cannot catch them misaligned. He reads a running back screen or rocket screen pre-snap as a tool to get the Cowboys back into a manageable third down. That’s when he emerges in the backfield to find himself looking at Ezekiel Elliott in the open field with the ball in his hands.
Rankins cannot sense where his backup is positioned and knows that he has no choice but to chase down a 4.4 running back to prevent him from getting to the edge. The two are facing each other at first like a point guard being defended at the top of the key before Elliott makes a full on sprint to his left. Rankins keeps with him step by step despite the 80-pound weight differential.
“Zeke started running, I started running, and every big guy will tell you, there’s a point in which you know, I’ma get him, or nah, I’m not gonna get there,” Rankins says. “And two steps in I was like ‘Oh yeah, I’ma get him. There was a point where I knew if I didn’t lay out for him he’s just naturally faster than me, but I knew I would get him.
“At the time it happened I thought about it and I was like, ‘That’s a great play.’ But then when you go back and look at it, you’re like, yo, that’s Zeke. All the respect to the Tom Bradys and Matt Ryans of the world, but they can’t move like that. Zeke is a 4.4 guy. Being able to put my foot in the ground and go get him, you’re like, ‘O.K., you might have done something there.’ ”
Rankins said within 10 to 15 yards, his speed and acceleration is “up there with some of the best athletes in the league.” During some of his best football, between his two injuries, he was a consistent backfield presence and an integral part of New Orleans’s scheme. In 2018, the defense was almost half a yard better per snap against both the pass and the run when Rankins was on the field. During the 2020 postseason, Rankins’s presence netted a positive .75 yard differential per snap against the run, and 1.42 yard differential per pass.
He thought that the player he was able to become down the stretch, the guy who logged five pressures over his final five games, along with a sack, two hurries, a knockdown and three tackles with no misses, is a better representation of what teams will be getting in free agency—along the lines of the guy who could hunt down an elite running back at full speed. But even if he’s not chasing someone down and drawing your attention, any play with him on the field is worth a second look to see how he might be planning to destroy it.
“The healthier I got the better I felt and the more I was able to play like me,” he says. “There’s no limitations. I’m ready to get back to doing the things I’m accustomed to doing.”