"Trending Up". In popular culture, it's a term used to describe the direction of some one or something that is continuing to get better and better with each passing day. But for the New Orleans Saints through their first 5 games of the 2018 NFL Season, it's a term that perfectly describes the Black and Gold's defensive unit and one of its key players: 3rd year starting defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
While there are those players who make a lot of noise with their mouths; there are also those players who prefer to remain relatively quiet and let their on-field performance do the talking for them; and the Saints definitely have one such player with Rankins.
5 games into the season thus far, Rankins appears to be off to the best start of his young professional career; and in the Saints' most recent win over the Washington Redskins last Monday Night, Rankins had a stand-out game in which he recorded a sack as well as another QB "hit" on Redskins QB Alex Smith; along with 2 QB "pressures" and 2 tackles.
That performance came on the heels of his notable play the previous week at New York against the Giants, in which Rankins was able to generate 2 QB "pressures" and 1 "hit" against QB Eli Manning.
Dating back to their Week #3 contest at Atlanta, Rankins has tallied a total of 9 QB "pressures" in the past 3 games; and all of them victories over the Falcons, Giants, and the Redskins.
And as a result, his improving performance from week-to-week in what is becoming a "break out" season for the Covington, Georgia native, has helped lead New Orleans to 4 straight victories.
In 5 total games thus far, Rankins has recorded 2 sacks, 10 QB "pressures", 4 QB "hits", 14 total tackles (8 solo, 6 assisted), and 4 tackles for a loss behind the opponent's line of scrimmage.
— Joe Peppercorn (@joe_peppercorn) October 9, 2018
So what has the 24-year old done differently this season thus far that he didn't in his first 2 seasons?
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill, Rankins owes part of his recent improvement and success to a "spin move" that he utilizes when he's playing basketball, which he has since added to his repertoire as a pass rusher.
Underhill says that it's the same move has become one of the staples of Rankins’ arsenal as a pass rusher, and he makes the observation that Rankins’ spin is so quick and smooth that it has become his signature move.
But as Underhill also notes: Rankins is smart about the move and doesn’t want to show it too much, and he saves it for the right moments; since using it too much might dilute its effectiveness.
“It just kind of depends on how guys pass set me,” Rankins told Underhill in their one-on-one interview. “Generally, I just kind of pull it out in certain situations where I’m like, ‘Listen, we need a win. I need to go make a play,’ and it usually comes through for me.”
Rankins also told Underhill that he can feel the progress that he's made and believes that he’s just scratching the surface of his potential, but also adds that he's a complete three-technique defensive tackle and can be “one of the best ones to do it.”
And Rankins wasn't trying to be "braggadocious" with his comment, but simply is just very confident about his own capabilities.
It's a sentiment shared by Saints D-Line coach Ryan Nielsen, who told Underhill that he noticed a difference in Rankins' play during Training Camp and said that it has now since carried over to the 2018 NFL Regular Season.
“Sheldon is playing tougher; he’s playing more stout at the point of attack,” Nielsen said. “He’s got all the tools. He can do it now. He definitely can.”
“This is Year 3 for him,” Nielsen said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit where he played a lot of snaps, and he made some plays, but I think this year you’re seeing his confidence grow.”
Not only is Rankins' confidence growing, but the entire defense has in the past few weeks.
It was only a month ago when that same group got embarrassed in a Week #1 loss at home in the Superdome to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while allowing 529 yards and six plays of 30 or more yards; as Bucs back-up QB Ryan Fitzpatrick joined former 1990's Redskins QB Mark Rypien (11-10-91 vs. ATL) as the only quarterbacks in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards, 4 TD's and zero interceptions while also rushing for a touchdown in a single game.
Then the unit seemed to struggle yet again in a narrow win at home in a Week #2 win over the Browns at home and then again at Atlanta in Week #3; in a game where they gave up 5 more touchdown passes to Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who threw five of his passes on that day to rookie Falcons WR Calvin Ridley for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
In fact, it wasn't until 2 weeks ago that the Saints defensive unit finally began showing some real signs of life in a Week #4 win over the Giants in New York.
But last Monday Night, the Saints defense was ALL OVER the Redskins offense and Alex Smith, as the unit limited the Redskins offense to a grand total of only just 283 yards, and plenty of that came late in the 2nd half with the game well out of hand.
And they clearly were able to disrupt his rhythm and timing as they sacked him three times and hit him often (for what seemed to be nearly every single play) in the pocket on plenty of other occasions.
Smith ended up completing 23 of 39 passes for 275 yards and an interception. He also rushed twice for seven yards and a touchdown, but lost a fumble as well.
It was the type of play on defense that the Saints made often last season during the height of their success, and it’s a great sign going forward for the defensive unit after their notable early-season struggles in the first few games, despite their winning (4-1) record.
As Rankins and his defensive teammates enjoy their "Bye Week" day off today while the rest of the League is playing its scheduled Week #6 games, they can take comfort in the fact that as they begin making preparations for next week's opponent the Baltimore Ravens, that they're continually getting better with each subsequent game following such a horrific start.