NFC South: John Jenkins

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson was blunt in his assessment of nose tackle John Jenkins' struggles earlier in the season. But Johnson and other Saints coaches were clearly encouraged by what they saw this past Sunday as Jenkins finally got his season headed in the right direction.

Jenkins, who was inactive for three of the Saints’ first four games after missing much of the offseason because of a pectoral surgery, played well during 24 snaps in the Saints’ 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“John, you know, missed a lot of training camp ... and he was limited even in the first week of the season. So we played him in the second week, but I thought he played probably one of his worst games he had played against Cleveland. So we let him sit down another week or so,” Johnson said. “But I thought (this past Sunday) he looked more like his old self. I thought he looked quicker. I thought he played strong at the point of attack. And it looks to me like he’s finally got the number of reps it takes for a big man like that to play.

“I just thought he got behind during the preseason ... and I thought the last two weeks he really got better.”

Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made similar comments about Jenkins’ performance against Tampa Bay. Jenkins didn’t have any tackles or sacks in the game, but he helped build a wall up the middle that stifled the Buccaneers’ run game while splitting time with fellow nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

Tampa Bay finished with a total of 66 rushing yards on 21 carries (and one of those was a meaningless 16-yard run as time expired in regulation).

Jenkins had a standout rookie season last year after being drafted in the third round out of Georgia, with two of his best games coming in the playoffs (a career-high four tackles against Philadelphia and his lone career sack at Seattle). And he was expected to build off that by making that “Year 2 leap” this season. But then the pectoral injury wiped out all of OTAs and the first couple weeks of training camp.

Weight never seemed to be a big issue for the big man, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 359 pounds. He said he and the Saints prefer he plays in the 340s, and he said he was 347 when he returned to practice in August.

But as Ryan said, missing all that offseason work is even harder for bigger guys, in general. And clearly it took a while for Jenkins to get back to full speed.

“Everybody knows at this point I had that injury, and I’m just trying to work on it and get right and trying to do my job,” Jenkins said. “I’m not looking far down the road or anything, just taking it one day at a time, improving in practice and doing what I need to. And get back on the field and whatever they need me to do.”

Jenkins was held back from the Saints’ Week 4 trip to Dallas for an undisclosed reason. When asked if it was a disciplinary issue, Jenkins said only that it was Payton’s decision.

But in general, Jenkins seemed to keep a positive attitude while he was benched. When I talked to him last month, he said all the right things about being ready when needed and using the opportunity to learn how to get better after he relied on “pure instincts” and “want to” last season.

And now Jenkins said he was definitely encouraged by the way the coaches quickly gave him another opportunity.

“Of course,” Jenkins said. “We’re here to play games and have fun. So I was encouraged and excited at the same time.”
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins didn’t make the trip for Sunday night’s game at the Dallas Cowboys. The team said it was non-injury related but didn’t announce any specifics. Teams are required to announce when players don’t make the trip.

Jenkins could have missed the trip for any number of reasons, so it may have nothing to do with football.

The second-year pro has taken a step back this year after a strong rookie season. He has been a healthy inactive for two of the Saints’ first three games this season after missing all of OTAs and part of training camp with a pectoral injury.

But Jenkins seemed to have a positive outlook on his demotion when I asked him about it Thursday.

“You know what, I can’t really say that I’m battling frustration. If anything, I’m using this opportunity to get better and work on things that I wasn’t good at last year and be able to pinpoint my flaws more,” Jenkins said. “There’s a place for me, and right now I just need to make sure when they do call my name and they need me, that I’m ready like I was last year.”

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said “the biggest thing with John is that he missed all of that time due to injuries.”

“When you’re a big guy missing that kind of time, it’s hard to get back,” Ryan said Friday. It’s hard to [miss] the sweating in training camp and all of the hard knocking and all of that. It takes a while for a defensive lineman. [Brandon Deaderick, who moved ahead of Jenkins], is doing a great job playing. [Jenkins] is working really hard, he’ll get back, but it’s a long process.

“You can’t play this game on your own terms; so if you’re hurt it’s hard to get out there and play it. If you miss all of training camp it’s a hard thing to do, especially for a defensive lineman.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – Nose tackles don’t exactly pile up statistics. So the New Orleans Saints’ John Jenkins was quick to correct a reporter Tuesday when it was mentioned that he had no sacks during his rookie season.

“I had one. Seattle,” Jenkins said with a big laugh as he referenced his sack in the Saints’ divisional-round playoff loss. “I gotta get that.”

Jenkins’ spirits were high as he met with the media for the first time in training camp Tuesday. He finally returned to the practice field for the first time this week after his summer was wiped out by a pectoral surgery.

By all accounts though, Jenkins’ summer has been as productive as possible as he’s rehabbed rigorously with the trainers on a daily basis and absorbed as much as he can in the classroom.

Jenkins’ weight, which is admittedly an issue that needs to be monitored for someone his size, actually looks even better than last year at this time. He said he weighs 347 pounds and the team likes him somewhere in the 340s.

“I feel good. I mean, do I look good out there? Y’all watching,” said Jenkins, who said he didn’t get too frustrated about missing time this summer -- but admitted he’s anxious to get back to full speed.

“Oh, I’m anxious, man. This is what I do for a living. I’m excited,” Jenkins said.

Despite his lack of statistics, Jenkins did make a big impact in the middle of the Saints’ defensive line after being selected in the third round out of Georgia last year. Breakout stars Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette constantly credited the big guys inside for helping them load up on sacks around the edges -- often mentioning Jenkins by name.

And because veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley battled injuries last year, Jenkins wound up playing nearly 50 percent of all the Saints’ snaps on defense last season -- high volume for a rookie nose tackle.

“He’s a big anchor point. He’s a block eater. He eats up a couple blocks, which frees somebody to go,” said defensive line coach Bill Johnson, rattling off all of Jenkins’ strong points. “He’s a guy that lines up right. And what really was surprising, he’s a pretty good athlete for a big guy. And another thing that we found that he had a lot more stamina than you think these big guys had.

“You know, I would have loved to have come to OTAs and him been ready to go. But that’s part of this business, and we’ll catch up as we move forward.”

When asked what particular area of his game he wants to improve, Jenkins said, “everything.”

“Get a sack in the regular season instead of the playoffs,” Jenkins said with another laugh.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees remained sidelined when the New Orleans Saints got back on the practice field Sunday afternoon. But he continued to show progress in his recovery from a strained oblique while firing some hard passes to receiver Kenny Stills on a secondary practice field.

Though it’s unclear if Brees will return in time for the Saints’ second preseason game Friday against the Tennessee Titans, there does appear to be reason for optimism that he’ll be back in plenty of time for the regular season.

“No update,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Sunday. “I really mean it, we’ll go day-to-day. He’s making progress, and yet I just want to make sure that it’s something we don’t hurry back. Same way with Kenny (quad strain), we’ll just be smart day-to-day.”

On a positive note, Saints nose tackle John Jenkins practiced for the first time all summer after being officially taken off the PUP list (physically unable to perform). And guard Ben Grubbs returned to practice for the first time in roughly two weeks after being sidelined by an undisclosed injury.

Both players were held out of full-team drills, but they were dressed in full pads and participated in most of the individual position drills. Jenkins made a strong debut in one-on-one pass-rush drills, getting the best of center Tim Lelito at least once.

Jenkins, a promising second-year pro, missed the entire summer after having pectoral surgery.

“Being back on the roster and practicing is one thing, but we’ve got to be mindful that there’s a transition here that’s not everything right away,” Payton said. “He’s in better shape. I’d say his weight’s down (from last year). I think that’s difficult sometimes when you’re injured and you’re a big guy.

“But I thought he had a pretty solid rookie season, and I’m sure there’s some technique things. And from a snap count, he’s gonna be a guy that factors in and hopefully plays the role he did a year ago and makes improvement, like all the guys going into Year 2.”

Payton didn’t specify Jenkins’ current weight -- but he said it’s an important issue for him. Last summer, Jenkins talked about trying to get down from about 360 pounds to 340.

“His weight last year was solid, but it’s something that he’s conscientious of. And there’s a perfect weight for him, and when it gets north of that, you can see it affects his play,” Payton said. “This next week will be important for him as he transitions into what we’re doing. … But he is conscientious, and he’s someone that learns fairly quickly.”

Some other injury updates:
  • Running back Pierre Thomas remained sidelined by an undisclosed injury, though he was out on the field watching practice and doing some individual work off to the side.
  • Cornerback Patrick Robinson was absent for the second half of practice, though Payton declined to explain why.
  • Guard Jahri Evans, cornerback Champ Bailey, fullback Erik Lorig and outside linebacker Victor Butler remained absent from practice. Cornerback Rod Sweeting, who left Friday’s preseason game with an undisclosed injury, was also absent. Offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe, safety Ty Zimmerman and tight end Je’Ron Hamm were present but not in pads.
  • Receiver Andy Tanner and cornerback Terrence Frederick also returned to limited work in full pads.
  • Safety Jairus Byrd continued to be held out of full-team drills, though he participated in everything else.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was held out of practice again Wednesday as he recovers from a strained left oblique. But coach Sean Payton declined to rule him out of Friday’s preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams.

It seems highly unlikely that Brees will play, considering the Saints have vowed to take a cautious approach with Brees, who strained his oblique during last Friday’s practice. There’s no reason to push him into a preseason opener.

Payton said Brees is feeling a lot better, though. Observers at practice reported that Brees seemed to increase his workload off to the side, including showing some zip on passes to receiver Kenny Stills at one point.

Payton also declined to give updates on the rest of the Saints’ injuries. According to reports from practice, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, receivers Stills and Andy Tanner, cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Terrence Frederick, linebacker Victor Butler, defensive tackle John Jenkins, fullback Erik Lorig, tight end Je'Ron Hamm and offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe remained sidelined or absent from practice.

Both Grubbs and Jenkins reportedly appeared to increase their workload off to the side, however.

Meanwhile, receiver Joe Morgan and cornerback Derrius Brooks returned to practice.

Payton is not scheduled to address the media again before Friday's game at St. Louis. The Saints will hold a walk-through at their training camp site in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on Wednesday afternoon. They will travel to St. Louis on Thursday.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It's still unclear whether or not safety Jairus Byrd will be back on the field for the New Orleans Saints' first training camp practice on Friday. But coach Sean Payton said he expects the three-time Pro Bowler back "sooner than later."

"Much like we expected," Payton said of Byrd, who underwent a minor back surgery this summer to alleviate a nagging disc issue.

The Saints' original projection was for Byrd to be healthy enough to participate in training camp -- and back to full speed in plenty of time for the regular season. And a league source confirmed earlier this week that Byrd's recovery has been going as expected this summer.

Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis declined to make any official announcements about whether any veterans will be placed on the physically unable to perform list after they underwent their physicals and conditioning tests on Thursday.

But Payton compared Byrd's situation to that of second-year defensive tackle John Jenkins, who was placed on the PUP list earlier this week when the younger players reported to camp early for their conditioning tests in Metairie. Jenkins underwent minor pectoral surgery this summer and is also expected back soon.

Payton did, however, specify that receiver Joe Morgan is "a go" after Morgan missed all of organized team activities and minicamp this summer while still recovering from last year's knee surgery. Payton said Morgan has healed enough now to do everything, but it will just be a matter of the Saints deciding how quickly to bring him back up to speed.

Payton also addressed the injury that landed rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks on the non-football-injury list earlier this week. Payton said it was a minor back issue that he doesn't believe is significant and shouldn't keep Rooks off the field for long.

"Fortunately for us, that's not a big list right now," Payton said of the injuries. "And hopefully it can remain small."
New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd's recovery from back surgery has gone as expected this summer, according to a league source. Byrd is expected to be healthy enough to participate in training camp, though it’s unknown if he will be limited when the Saints begin practicing Friday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Obviously there’s a good chance the Saints will take a cautious approach with their prized free-agent acquisition. But all along, they expected Byrd to recover in plenty of time to participate in training camp and be fully healthy for the regular season.

Byrd missed all of OTAs and minicamp during the summer after he and the team decided he should have a minor surgery to alleviate a nagging disc issue in late May.

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton described the surgery as “something that didn’t need to be done” and said it wouldn’t have been done if it were the regular season. But Payton said all parties, including doctors, felt it would be the best approach for Byrd’s long-term health.

Byrd, 27, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract, in large part because of his ball-hawking history. Byrd’s 22 interceptions over the past five years rank second in the NFL during that span. He also forced 11 fumbles.

As for other injuries, it remains unclear if defensive tackle John Jenkins (pectoral) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) will remain sidelined or be limited at the start of training camp. Both players were also held out of OTAs and minicamp, but both are also expected to participate in training camp.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins has been sidelined throughout offseason practices because of a pectoral injury, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The report said he had minor pectoral surgery, according to a source, and that he will be ready for training camp or sooner.

Saints coach Sean Payton has declined to reveal the specific nature of Jenkins’ injury, saying he doesn't want to get into any injury specifics at this stage of the offseason.

When asked for a timetable on Jenkins' recovery, he said all injuries will be monitored every few days by the training staff.

Jenkins was one of six players who did not practice Tuesday during the Saints' first day of minicamp because of apparent injuries. The others were safety Jairus Byrd (back), receiver Joe Morgan (knee), receiver Andy Tanner (undisclosed), outside linebacker Cheta Ozougwu (undisclosed) and nose tackle Moses McCray (undisclosed).

Meanwhile, defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker and receiver Steve Hull returned to action after missing time earlier in OTAs for undisclosed reasons.

And as expected, neither tight end Jimmy Graham nor receiver Brandin Cooks was in attendance Tuesday. Graham remains unsigned, while Cooks is not allowed to participate until after his school, Oregon State, finishes with final exams. Cooks is expected to return for the final week of OTAs next week.
They say it takes three years to properly rate a draft class. But it’s clear that the New Orleans Saints are already sold on many of last year’s rookies.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro (first round), left tackle Terron Armstead (third round), nose tackle John Jenkins (third round), receiver Kenny Stills (fifth round), running back Khiry Robinson (undrafted) and center Tim Lelito (undrafted) are all expected to play major roles this season, among others.

In fact, the Saints’ high hopes for those players helped inspire a lot of the dramatic moves they made this offseason:
  • They traded away running back Darren Sproles, in part because they want to get Robinson more touches.
  • They released receiver Lance Moore, in part because Stills already supplanted him as a starter last season.
  • They didn’t re-sign left tackle Charles Brown or spend big on any other veteran left tackles because of their faith in Armstead.
  • They let center Brian de la Puente leave in free agency, in part because of their belief in Lelito’s potential.
  • They released safety Roman Harper and let safety Malcolm Jenkins get away in free agency, in part because of Vaccaro’s dynamic debut last year.
  • They worked out a significant pay cut with veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, in part because he’ll be in a timeshare with Jenkins.
  • And they let defensive end Tom Johnson leave as a restricted free agent, in part because of undrafted rookie Glenn Foster's impressive performance last year.

From top to bottom, it’s entirely possible that this could wind up being an all-time great draft class for the Saints -- though it’s still far too early to bring up any comparisons to 2006, 1986 or 1981.

Vaccaro has generated the most buzz so far. A versatile safety in coverage and run support, he played all over the field as a full-time starter last year and finished third in the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson described Vaccaro as a “eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player.”

Armstead could wind up being just as important if he can lock down the critical left tackle job. He showed promise last season after taking over the job in December and improving through each of his four starts.

Robinson might be the most fascinating of the bunch. The product of West Texas A&M exploded onto the scene during the playoffs last year. And Saints coach Sean Payton revealed that his mentor Bill Parcells compared Robinson to Curtis Martin.

Stills and Jenkins look like long-time starters in the making. Lelito could have that same potential. And fellow sophomores like Foster, pass-rusher Rufus Johnson, cornerback Rod Sweeting, linebacker Kevin Reddick, tight end Josh Hill and quarterback Ryan Griffin could all wind up playing bigger roles down the road, as well.

The most important part of the Saints’ 2013 draft class is that it has allowed the Saints to spend big in other key areas -- like the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency.

I spoke with ESPN analyst Louis Riddick recently about whether the Saints have proved that teams can thrive by pushing the salary-cap envelope each year. And he said to make that work, it’s essential that teams keep finding “cheap, affordable labor that is playing at a high level.

As Riddick pointed out, that’s something the Saints have been great at in recent years. And it’s something teams like the Dallas Cowboys have not been able to do consistently.

“That's a testament to (general manager Mickey Loomis) and Sean and the rest of the scouts down there,” Riddick said.
A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
A look at the New Orleans Saints' defensive line through the first six weeks of the 2013 season:

Looking back: The Saints’ defensive line play has been outstanding this season -- especially considering how many young players have stepped up through a barrage of injuries. They’ve arguably been New Orleans’ most valuable unit during the team’s 5-1 start.

End Cameron Jordan was excellent last season, but he’s been even better in his third NFL season, earning a lot of national attention for his play. A power rusher and a standout run defender, he has five sacks and a forced fumble this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan also has five quarterback hits and 24 hurries.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
AP Photo/Bill FeigCameron Jordan has led an early season surge by New Orleans' defensive line.
Second-year end Akiem Hicks and rookie nose tackle John Jenkins have also been very good as the primary starters in the Saints’ three-man front. Both are stout run-stuffers, but they’ve also shown an ability to push the pocket back on passing downs, sometimes leading to sacks on the edges. Hicks has one sack of his own. Backup ends Tyrunn Walker, Tom Johnson and Glenn Foster have taken turns producing while rotating in and out of the lineup because of injuries. They each have one sack this season. And veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley just returned in Week 6 from a Week 1 injury.

Looking forward: It’s hard to imagine we’ll keep seeing the same level of dominant production that we saw from this group in September -- especially now that the secret is out around the league. But there is nothing fluky about the individual performances. Jordan has been on this steady rise since his rookie season. Hicks and Walker showed flashes of this kind of talent as rookies last season. And Jenkins and Foster showed signs of this type of ability in the summer. Now that all of the injuries are healing, the Saints are suddenly overloaded with depth.

It will also help the pass rush if they keep things unpredictable. After relying heavily on a four-man rush in the first four games, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan caught offenses off guard with more frequent blitzes over the past two weeks.

Snaps played (out of a possible 375): Jordan 349, Hicks 238, Jenkins 207, Foster 93, Johnson 65, Walker 59, Bunkley 14, defensive end Keyunta Dawson 11.

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “I love their defensive line. I think Jenkins was a find (in the third round out of Georgia). Hicks has come on strong in his second year. Jordan is a star in the making. They have depth. Bunkley is a good player. And they’re better suited to a 3-4. I think it’s one of the better 3-4 defensive lines out there, and they’re really the unsung heroes of this whole success story.”
New Orleans Saints rookie nose tackle John Jenkins hasn’t received as much attention as his fellow draft classmates, safety Kenny Vaccaro and receiver Kenny Stills. But the third-round pick out of Georgia actually has the highest grade of the bunch according to Pro Football Focus, which assigns a plus or minus to players on every snap.

Jenkins’ overall season grade of plus-5.2 ranks him sixth best among all rookies in the NFL this year, according to PFF. He’s had a positive grade in all four games this year, effective as both a run defender and pass-rusher, after being thrust into a more prominent role when veteran starter Brodrick Bunkley was injured in Week 1. And Jenkins had his best game Monday night in a 38-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

The Saints’ new big man (listed at 6-3, 359 pounds) made two huge plays Monday. First was a run stuff on an early third-and-1 to force the Dolphins to settle for a field goal inside the red zone. Then late in the game, Jenkins’ pass pressure helped force Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill into an interception.

It would be tough to say that Jenkins has made a bigger impact than Vaccaro so far, since Vaccaro has played almost every snap and has been thriving in a unique safety/cornerback/linebacker role. But both of them deserve recognition for the key parts they’ve been playing in New Orleans’ revamped defense.

Fun with numbers:
  • Quarterback Drew Brees was the easy choice for PFF’s game ball. They broke down just how efficient Brees was in his 413-yard, four-touchdown performance.
  • An interesting comparison pointed out by Saints researcher Lenny Vangilder: Monday night was only the second time in the Sean Payton era that the Saints defense had four takeaways and four sacks. The other also came in Week 4 at home -- against the New York Jets in 2009. That year the Saints started 13-0 and won a Super Bowl.
  • According to ESPN Stats & Information, 82 percent of teams that started 4-0 have made it to the playoffs since the NFL expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990.
  • This is the fourth time the Saints have started 4-0 in franchise history (also in 1991, 1993 and 2009). They made the playoffs at 11-5 in 1991 but missed out at 8-8 in 1993.
  • Surprisingly, the Saints are one of six teams since 1990 to start 0-4 one year and 4-0 the next year. Apparently, “worst to first” is a popular trend.
Trash-talk removal: Not surprisingly, the Miami Dolphins’ offensive linemen were dismissive of Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and his harsh criticism of their play on Monday night. Galette ripped the Dolphins’ line after Monday’s game (saying he was fired up after they talked trash while trailing in the second half). Galette continued his criticism in a tweet directed at Dolphins guard Richie Incognito on Tuesday, though the tweet was later deleted.

Worth repeating: When asked if he feels any sense of “satisfaction” from the Saints’ effective offensive play-calling Monday, Payton cracked, “We all try to be, as coaches, very critical of ourselves, just like we would be of our players. I don’t know that there’s ever any complete satisfaction. It’s not like a Snickers bar.”

Saints' surging defense is the truth

September, 22, 2013
Cameron JordanStacy Revere/Getty ImagesCameron Jordan notched two of the Saints' four sacks Sunday versus Arizona.
NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, we've got to stop asking whether or not what we're seeing from the New Orleans Saints' defense is for real.

The defense has been the driving force behind all three victories by the unbeaten Saints, including a dominant 31-7 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. New Orleans has already blown open a two-game lead in the NFC South.

How much more real does it have to get?

"It's nothing to get super excited about, other than the fact that we show a lot of promise, and that's what we've got to keep doing," cautioned defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been the breakout individual player of the bunch with a team-high three sacks so far, including two on Sunday.

"You always want to have that hungry attitude of just straight grinding and building on each game," Jordan added. "I don't ever want to be like, 'This is the defense that we are.' I just want to keep going and keep getting better."

After a disastrous defensive performance last season, in which they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season (7,042), the idea was that the Saints could get back to being playoff contenders if they could just find some way to get their defense back to being a "middle-of-the-pack" unit.

[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer and Junior Galette
AP Photo/Bill FeigJunior Galette and the Saints kept pressure on Carson Palmer all game long.
Consider that goal already surpassed.

Of course, the Saints' defense is still a work in progress after making drastic changes this offseason -- both intended (hiring coordinator Rob Ryan, signing free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro) and unintended (losing veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to summer injuries).

But they've been thriving behind a youth movement, especially on the defensive front. Jordan, 24, and pass-rush specialist Junior Galette, 25, have been terrific on the edges, while Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster and John Jenkins -- all first- or second-year pros -- have taken turns doing damage up the middle.

Their performance up front has gone hand in hand with improved play on the back end, where veteran cornerbacks Lewis and Jabari Greer have done an outstanding job against top receivers like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.

"I think that's the bright side of our defense is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys. We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.

"Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."

The Saints had a total of four sacks Sunday (two by Jordan and one each by Galette and Foster). Everyone on the Saints' defensive front took turns abusing a suspect offensive line to hit and hurry Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the afternoon. They eventually forced interceptions by Vaccaro and Lewis in the fourth quarter.

After the Cardinals opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, they punted on their next eight possessions and threw interceptions on the final two.

"They can rush the passer," Palmer said. "There's two very good pass-rushers that people don't know a whole lot about. You hear a lot [about] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They're physical guys. They stop the run, and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed."

Jordan is starting to get that respect around the country. Pro Football Focus highlighted him this past week, pointing out that his 12 quarterback disruptions led all 3-4 ends through two weeks (though, to be fair, the versatile Jordan is lining up as a traditional 4-3 end in many pass-rushing situations).

More importantly, Jordan is making his mom proud. He said she gave him grief after he went sackless in Week 1.

She wasn't the only one, though. The Saints' defensive line is clearly a competitive group.

While Jordan was talking to a group of reporters Sunday, Walker yelled over that he stole one of his sacks. After Week 1, Jordan was beside himself that he didn't have any sacks against the Falcons while Hicks already had one.

And while crediting Galette for having tremendous speed on Sunday, Jordan admitted that he is more of a "power" guy. But he said that makes for an interesting race between the two to get to the quarterback.

"I've been claiming the strength of our D-line is just how much youth and talent is on the D-line. It definitely showed today," Jordan said Sunday. "From the outside to the interior, I was highly pleased. Whether it be Tyrunn Walker or big Akiem or Glenn Foster, it was all just pressure everywhere. You couldn't really locate just one spot where we were getting pressure.

"And when you're part of a D-line like that, it's a party."

Observation deck: Saints-Chiefs

August, 9, 2013

For those of you who thought coordinator Rob Ryan could come in and turn around the New Orleans Saints' defense overnight, think again.

This chore is going to take some time. That was apparent in Friday night’s 17-13 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Kansas City first-team offense, which wasn’t very good last year, had no problem marching 80 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. The Chiefs also got a field goal on the second drive, when the starters still were on the field. I did see some good moments by the defense, particularly the pass rush, later in the game when the starters were out.

But Ryan needs to use the next few weeks to get this defense ready for the regular season.

Some other observations on the Saints:

With Marques Colston sitting, rookie receiver Kenny Stills got the start. He didn’t have a great night. He dropped a deep pass from Drew Brees and also was called for offensive pass interference.

The Saints handed the ball to Mark Ingram on the first two plays of the game. I think that’s a sign of things to come. The Saints have said they want to run the ball more often and they want Ingram more involved in the offense.

Rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins, who has had a nice camp, recorded a sack of Chase Daniel. Jenkins has had a nice camp and could end up with a spot in the rotation.

Charles Brown got the start at left tackle and didn’t seem to have any major problems. But rookie Terron Armstead got a lot of playing time and still could have a chance to start.

Wide receiver Preston Parker probably enhanced his chances of making the roster by catching two touchdown passes.

Luke McCown may have solidified his lead over Seneca Wallace in the competition to be the backup quarterback. McCown completed 18 of 28 passes for 216 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wallace, who has been dealing with a groin injury, did not play.
The New Orleans Saints have put out their first unofficial depth chart in their media release for Friday night’s preseason opener. Let’s run through the positions where the competition is closest.

Charles Brown is listed as the No. 1 left tackle. Jason Smith is with the second team and Terron Armstead with the third team. But I think this competition remains very wide open and the preseason games will determine a lot.

With wide receiver Marques Colston still sidelined with an injury, the Saints are listing Joe Morgan as the starter opposite Lance Moore. That’s a sign Morgan has the inside track to be the third receiver once Colston returns.

The defensive line features Kenyon Coleman and Cameron Jordan as the first-team ends with Brodrick Bunkley at tackle. But I think Akiem Hicks still has a shot to start at defensive end and rookie John Jenkins could start at defensive tackle.

The Saints are listing first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro as a third-team safety. I think this is just a gesture of courtesy for the veterans. Vaccaro will be getting lots of playing time.