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Don’t Look Now, But the New Orleans Saints Might Just Have the Best Young D-Line in Pro Football

Scoring at a clip of 35 points per game (34.9, to be exact, tied for 2nd most in the NFL), it probably goes without saying that the reputation of the New Orleans Saints this season is well known across the League on the offensive side of the football.

But what has surprised many people this year — perhaps even the Saints themselves — is how quickly and rather quietly that the Black and Gold has suddenly managed to build one of the best young defensive lines in all of Pro Football.

Going into their rematch this Sunday at Tampa Bay with the Bucs, New Orleans’ surging pass rush the past few weeks has been absolutely phenomenal, and it bodes well for the team’s chance at success for the upcoming 2018 NFL Playoffs.

One of those surprised people was Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter, who yesterday told reporters that even he has been surprised at just how well the Saints defense and specifically the young interior pressure up front from DT’s Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, have been at getting to opposing quarterbacks. The Saints actually lead the NFL in total sacks in the past 4 games, with (20) of them.

“I haven’t been following them that much, I guess; I probably wouldn’t have guessed that,” Koetter said. “You don’t win 10 straight in this league if you’re not pretty good.”

8th year veteran All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan  is the “elder statesman” of the Saints D-Line at age 29, and his five sacks over his past four games has set the pace for the unit’s rapid rise from the ashes of its near disastrous start to the 2018 season.

But Jordan, one of three New Orleans defensive linemen to record at least three sacks over the past four games, finally has some much-needed help — and hasn’t been forced to do it all by himself anymore.

Rankins (age 24) and Onyemata (age 26) each have recorded three sacks a piece during that time; and both players are enjoying “break out seasons” in just their 3rd year in the NFL each.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Then throw in other players along the defensive front such as 4th year nose tackle Tyeler Davison (age 26), 2nd year DT Taylor Stallworth (age 23), 2nd year defensive end Trey Hendrickson (age 24), and heralded rookie Marcus Davenport (age 22); and it becomes fairly evident that the Saints D-Line could be “set” at least for the next few years.

Don’t look now, but the Saints might just even have THE best young D-Line in the entire sport of Pro Football.

Despite the disappointing loss to the Cowboys last Thursday Night at Dallas, the Saints D-Line created havoc for a full 60 minutes, as the unit tallied seven sacks, helped to cause two takeaways, and shut out the Cowboys in the 2nd half.

Now the only question will be whether or not they’ll be able to successfully maintain that production for the remaining 4 regular season and the upcoming Playoffs, and likely against teams that are just as good on the offensive side of the football as the Saints are.

The odds certainly seem to be in their favor at this point.

As noted by USA TODAY SaintsWire analyst / managing editor John Sigler: the Saints defense might be the best unit in the current NFC playoff picture.

Michael DeMocker, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Sigler notes that the numbers in the last four games for each of the six teams (Rams, Saints, Bears, Cowboys, Seahawks, and Vikings) that are currently poised to make the Playoffs next month. give a better indication of how they might perform in the post-season.

And by calculating the season stats via the folks over at Pro Football Reference, Sigler projects that it’s the Saints who actually have THE BEST defense of the 6 NFC Playoff teams (click HERE to read his outstanding breakdown).

Now whether or not this year’s version of the Saints D-Line will eventually go on to become the greatest one ever in the franchise’s 52-year history is certainly open for debate, although they’ll likely be hard-pressed to match the accomplishments of the 2000 Saints D-Line, which is considered by some as the one of the greatest defensive lines in League history itself.

That year’s Saints D-Line featured three linemen, all of whom each had double-digit sacks; collectively combine to help New Orleans post a whopping 66 sacks, the 6th most in league history.

Then-5th year veteran DT La’Roi Glover (age 26 at the time) racked up a league-high 17.0 sacks and earned 1st-team All-Pro honors.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Not to be outdone, 1994 top Saints draft pick and former University of Arkansas star DE Joe Johnson (age 28 at the time) had 12.0 sacks, and he was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl while also earning the 2000 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award as he returned from a torn patellar tendon in his right knee,

And then-rookie and former Kansas State University star Darren Howard (age 23 at the time) —  who was that season’s version of Davenport — added 11.0 sacks of his own to set a new team rookie record.

Additionally, New Orleans had a fierce interior presence as well during that time; and when ever the Saints D-Line would rotate in bigger and heavier players in order to gear up against stopping the opponent’s running game, they did so with a defensive tackle rotation which became nicknamed “The Heavy Lunch Bunch”,  featuring three players who all weighed over 325-pounds each: Norman HandMartin Chase and Grady Jackson.

The nickname actually evolved from then-1st year Saints head coach Jim Haslett referring to Hand (who sadly passed away in 2010 at the age of 37) as “Heavy Lunch” because he joked that he wasn’t familiar with the concept of eating a light lunch.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

The nickname stuck, and then Hand eventually became even more famous for another nickname; when his “Big Wiggle” celebration dance after each sack or big play, began to earn notoriety among fans.

As a result of the fantastic overall performance by that year’s D-Line, the 2000 Saints team went from “worst to first” in the NFC West Division (two years before the creation of the brand new NFC South Division that began during the 2002 season) and earned a spot in the Playoffs.

Haslett and his then-young Saints team would then go on to defeat then-defending Super Bowl champion the St. Louis Rams (before they moved back to Los Angeles) in the Wild-Card round, capturing the franchise’s first-ever victory in the NFL Playoffs, before they eventually lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the Divisional round at Minneapolis.

With the final chapters of the Saints 2018 season story still yet to be written, such comparisons are better left off until a later date and time.

But make no mistake about it: given the notable struggles (zero sacks and only 5 QB “pressures” total) in their 48-40 loss back in Week #1 against the same Buccaneers team that New Orleans will face this coming Sunday, the improvement by the Saints defense and the defensive line especially, has been quite dramatic.

Photo courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

And rest assured: Saints fans everywhere couldn’t be more happier, even with the bad taste left in their mouths from the disappointing loss at Dallas.

Don’t look now, but the New Orleans Saints might just have the best young D-Line in all of Pro Football…..

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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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