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Barry Hirstius

Saints Pass Rush Doing Well So Far — But Why Not Play Muhammad???

One of the biggest reasons for the improvement of the Saints defense in recent weeks has been a much better pass rush from the Saints Defensive Front 7. Up front, 7th-year veteran Cameron Jordan’s 3 sacks lead a pass rush that has 11 sacks so far after 4 games; and ranks 9th in the League in sacks per play.

For a Saints team that only had 30 total sacks last year, which ranked them 27th overall in the NFL in that department; to see how improved they appear to be so far at getting pressure on opposing QB's has been encouraging; especially since they've notched 8 sacks in their last 2 games alone.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

A major factor in that upswing in recent weeks is that 7 of the team's total of 11 sacks come from the defensive end / edge rusher position, specifically: Jordan (3), Hau'oli Kikaha (2), Alex Okafor (1), and rookie Trey Hendrickson (1). 

But despite that improvement, the Saints continue to be plagued by the simple fact that they still don't seem to have found a "complementary" player on the outside edge for their pass rush, on the side opposite of Jordan.

Which then raises this legitimate question:

Why not allow rookie 6th Round 2017 Draft pick Al Quadin-Muhammad to play some more, and give him more opportunities to show what he can do???

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, New Orleans Times-Picayune

The Saints have consistently designated Muhammad as inactive on Game Days; and have elected to go with the 3rd year veteran Kikaha and the rookie 3rd Round pick Hendickson instead, to back-up Okafor at the RDE (Right Defensive End) spot.

The only member of the impressive (thus far) 2017 Saints rookie draft class to not have taken the field at his designated position, Muhammad only has a total of 5 special teams snaps to his credit; in one game that he was active: the season opener in Week #1 at Minneapolis.

Otherwise, Muhammad has been declared inactive due to "a coach's decision" in Weeks 2 thru 4, up to this point.

Presumably, the reason behind Muhammad's inactivity is that it has everything to do with the fact that the 22-year old rookie is still considered to be "raw" (he missed a year of football because of rule violations at the University of Miami) — rather than anything it has to do with a perceived lack of talent.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

While that's all well and good and certainly a valid reason, here's an observation: why not give Muhammad some more playing time, especially when you've got nothing to lose?

After all, he was a very pleasant surprise throughout Training Camp, and he was absolutely ON FIRE during the Pre-Season — finishing tied for the NFL lead in Pre-Season sacks with 4 along with a handful of QB pressures.

While it's obvious that a vast majority of his Pre-Season snaps came against 3rd stringers and players that were eventually cut, there's STILL something to be said for a young man who despite his being "raw", managed to consistently show the capability to get to the quarterback in every single game, and generate pressure from a variety of pass-rush moves normally seen from a savvy veteran.

Muhammad clearly went out and earned his roster spot this past summer, giving the Saints scouting department what appears to be another late round Draft "gem" to their credit.

Let's not make any mistake: this kid can play — and do it well.

He'll only get even better with more time and experience, as noted in this fantastic analysis and film breakdown by my good friend, Walter "Reverend Deuce" Windham, writer / film analyst and NFL Draft expert for Canal Street Chronicles.

Muhammad was the final player chosen in the 2017 Saints Draft Class, but perhaps he may have been the biggest surprise of them all this past off-season; given the fact that Muhammad was considered a "project" player when the Saints took him after his short but controversial career with the storied Miami Hurricanes football program.

But what probably was unexpected by both the team and fans alike back in August; was that Muhammad would emerge so quickly within the parameters of his designated role as a back-up at right defensive end, in the Saints defensive substitution pass rush packages.

And yet, it's obvious that head coach Sean Payton and the defensive coaching staff don't feel that the young Irvington, New Jersey native is ready for the rigors of battle faced by defensive linemen on a weekly basis, in the NFL.

Photo courtesy of Layne C. Murdoch

After the Saints' final Pre-Season game back on August 30th against the Ravens, Payton said this when asked if Muhammad had done "enough" to make the team's Final 53-man roster:

“I think we’ve got a pretty good young (rookie) class. He has done some good things and yet there are some things he has to really improve on. It is going to be important for him to play early in the kicking game and coverage units."

If one were to read into Payton's comments that day, it would seem to suggest that despite Muhammad's impressive Pre-Season performance, that the coaching staff feels the former 4-star nationally rated high school prospect and the one-time #1 overall ranked defensive player in the state of New Jersey, still has more "growing up" yet to do.

The coaches ultimately make the decision as to who gets playing time and who doesn't; and it's evident that they feel that Hendrickson — the team's 3rd Round pick from Florida Atlantic University — is better suited to be one of the back-ups in the defensive end rotation, than Muhammad.

Hendrickson has played a total of 37 snaps since missing the season opener due to a Pre-Season injury. He got his one sack in the 2nd half at Carolina in Week #3 against Panthers QB Cam Newton, in the 34-13 win in Charlotte.

While there's no reason to be overly critical of the team's decision to play Hendrickson over Muhammad, it does seem a bit odd that they decided to play Hendrickson  — who missed most of the Pre-Season because of that unspecified injury — over the player (Muhammad) who was tied for the League lead in sacks during the Pre-Season.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Nevertheless, it is what it is.

Also, chances are that the coaching staff just feels that Hendrickson is the more "polished" player at this point.

But yet, Muhammad still has TREMENDOUS upside  — although playing him right now would only take away valuable snaps from a pass-rushing specialist like Kikaha; and that's rather unlikely to happen anytime soon.

As it is, the Saints' improvement on defense has become very evident in the last few weeks. They’ve given up an average of 19.5 points, which as of this moment  has them tied for 12th fewest in the league.

This is the very same defense that has been undeniably one of THE WORST defenses in the entire League for the last 3 seasons, allowing 26.5, 29.8 and 28.4 points per game from 2014 to last year.

In those 3 seasons: the Saints defense was ranked 28th, 32nd and 31st. 

And God knows, they were downright awful at times.

Even worse: they gave up 65 points in losing the first two games to the Vikings (29) and Patriots (36); and appeared headed for a certain disaster once again this year, after that underwhelming start.

But give credit where credit is due: they've only given up 13 points in the last two games, and that includes shutting out an opponent for the first time in 5 years (2012, against Tampa Bay)

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

And it's because of the better pass rush  — thanks to being given more time by a markedly improved secondary that has been "locking down" opposing receivers — that the defense has looked as good as it has.

But one can only wonder if it might even look better, by simply giving one of its young and talented players some more opportunities going forward.

For a team that has benefited GREATLY from one the best Draft classes in the franchise's entire 51-year history, it certainly couldn't hurt to give the only remaining member of the class who hasn't yet played the position that he was drafted to play, a chance to show what he can do........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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