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Is It Time For the Saints to Turn Rookie EDGE Rusher Marcus Davenport “Loose” vs. Cleveland?

It wasn't exactly the greatest of secrets of why the New Orleans Saints suffered a variety of defensive issues in their season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, which was a main reason why the team gave up its top draft pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft to get it fixed: a lack of a pass rush.

It was a reason why Bucs career journeyman back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to SHRED the Saints pass defense to the tune of 21 completions-out-of-28 passes for 417 yards with four touchdowns and rushed 12 times for 36 yards, including a 12-yard gain on third-and-11 late in the fourth quarter that sealed the win for Tampa.

In nearly 40 pass attempts, the Saints D-Line recorded zero sacks and had only two QB hits on Fitzpatrick; which gave the wily 14-year veteran ample opportunities to burn the struggling Saints secondary with throws deep down field.

REPORTER'S QUESTION: "Can you just touch briefly on what didn’t work defensively today?"

Sean Payton: “Take your pick. We did not hurry the passer. Guys were open. Third downs were awful. They had over 500 yards. We didn’t disrupt the timing to any element of the passing game and too many penalties. I can’t think of any positives.”

Now to be completely fair, when a defense allows 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards, it's hard to pin your failure on any one specific issue. But clearly Fitzpatrick seemingly had ALL DAY to throw the football.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill: early on, the run defense wasn’t what it should have been, which made it harder to rush the passer. And the inability to keep Fitzpatrick in the pocket created a double-edged sword: the Saints needed to be conservative enough not to create running lanes but still get there fast enough to affect the quarterback's throws.

The problem is — as Underhill points out — the pass rush never showed up at all.

Without much pressure, Underhill points out that Fitzpatrick was able to pick apart the secondary. And with the secondary not covering well, the pass rush didn’t have time to get after the quarterback. It's hard to do one thing well when the other area of the defense isn't clicking. It's impossible when both elements are struggling.

One obvious reason why the pass rush struggled as badly as it did, is that Fitzpatrick was able to succeed with the notable help of his ability to quickly get the ball airborne to his receivers. Underhill makes the observation that Fitzpatrick threw the ball extremely fast.

On one play, he let the ball fly in 1.83 seconds on WR Mike Evans’ 50-yard touchdown with Marshon Lattimore in coverage in the 3rd quarter, and 1.75 seconds on a 35-yard gain to WR DeSean Jackson in the 4th quarter with Ken Crawley in coverage.

Fitzpatrick's "quick trigger" made it hard for the pass rush to get anything going, Underhill says; and even though there were a few times when the team knocked on the door, the team only ended up with five pressures.

That's not a misprint.

ONLY FIVE.

Which brings us to the topic of WHY there wasn't more playing time given to the young man whom the team gave up its top draft pick in next year's draft to generate that same pressure on the QB: rookie defensive end / EDGE pass rusher Marcus Davenport.

Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Hebert/NewOrleansSaints.com

While it's evident that the team is slowly bringing Davenport along as he "learns the ropes" of playing in the NFL (Davenport only played a total of 23 snaps (35%), he clearly is the Saints' FASTEST pass rusher because of his ELITE-CALIBER speed — and it's fair to wonder if the Saints defense could benefit from giving him more opportunities to play moving forward, perhaps as early as this Sunday in the  Saints' critically important game this Sunday vs. Cleveland.

Davenport was used sparingly in his NFL debut, and rotated with 6th year veteran defensive end Alex Okafor at right defensive end. The 22-year old recorded a tackle, a QB hit and a pass defensed that he nearly intercepted and told reporters that he felt he should have had.

After he made an impressive play for a rookie by reading a screen correctly, he was able to get both of his hands on Fitzpatrick's pass from a few yards away, but wasn't able to make the grab.

"I should have had that," Davenport said to reporters yesterday after practice. "I'll get it next time."

He also was assessed a roughing the passer penalty on a play that the NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, admitted said shouldn't have been called, per NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero

Davenport JUST BARELY MISSED making the sack and hit Fitzpatrick within a split second after he released the ball; which allowed Fitzpatrick to completed a 32-yard pass to Bucs WR Mike Evans but the call against the Saints rookie put Tampa on New Orleans’ doorstep at the 2-yard line. 

However, Davenport's helmet made contact with Fitzpatrick's helmet, and he was hit with a 15-yard penalty for roughing the quarterback. An unrelated penalty on Saints 4th year DT Tyeler Davison for unnecessary roughness on the same play was declined.

Davenport was upbeat about his first NFL game experience nevertheless, and after he had a chance to watch the film the following day this past Monday, told reporters yesterday that he saw a lot that he still needs to improve

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

"I want to play better," Davenport said. "I just feel like I have to play more violent and be able to stop the run better."

And as far as that apparently bogus penalty?

"It happened," Davenport said. "There's not much I can say about it, I'll just try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Davenport likely will see a similar snap count defensively once again this Sunday against Cleveland; but given the Saints' notable struggles with generating pressure last week, it's more than fair to wonder if perhaps giving the team's top 2018 Draft pick more playing time could be beneficial to the team's defensive pass rush moving forward.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

And considering his elite-caliber speed coming off the outside edge and the Saints' inability to generate much pressure otherwise, it does give the Saints an intriguing option.

Now it's up to the coaching staff to decide WHEN to use him more — and in a game this Sunday that the Saints NEED to win against the Browns, perhaps now is the time to "turn him loose"......

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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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