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Saints Counting on Back-Up Defensive Tackles to Come Up Big vs. Rams in NFC Championship Game

With the loss of key contributor and 3rd year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to a torn Achilles tendon injury in the Saints’ Divisional Playoff win over Philadelphia, the team now will have to rely on a trio of back-up defensive tackles in their upcoming showdown against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game this Sunday.

Rankins has by far and away been the the Saints’ most productive interior defensive lineman in the recently-completed 2018 NFL Regular Season, but he won’t be available for the remainder of the NFL Playoffs and possibly not even until a few games into next season — after sustaining the injury during the first quarter of Sunday’s 20-14 victory.

Michael DeMocker, | The Times-Picayune

As a precautionary measure, the Saints brought back former Saints defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, who originally made the team as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2012 NFL Season. Walker, a New Iberia, Louisiana native and former defensive star at the University of Tulsa, was released by New Orleans after the 2014 Season, and has also played for the Detroit Lions, the Rams, and the Buffalo Bills.

Nevertheless, the Saints coaching staff is confident that the trio of 4th year DT Tyeler Davison, 3rd year DT David Onyemata, and undrafted rookie DT Taylor Stallworth will be adequately able to not just only “fill in” for Rankins, but that they also can do a great job at it along the way.

All three players are expected to receive more snaps this Sunday against the high-powered Rams offensive attack that ranked 2nd overall in the NFL at 32.9 points per contest, with a trip to Super Bowl LIII (53) at stake.

As noted by New Orleans-based Associated Press NFL writer Brett Martel: the Saints defensive coaching staff led by D-Coordinator Dennis Allen, sounded encouraged by the fact that the three remaining players in the interior D-Line rotation, did enough to shut down the Philadelphia offense for the remaining 3 quarters of the contest after spotting the Eagles an early 14-0 first quarter lead.

“They played great,” Saints linebacker A.J. Klein told Martel in an one-on-one interview yesterday after studying game video from Sunday’s 20-14 Divisional Round win. “Our D-line group is very deep. We have the guys in that room to pick up the slack.”

They won’t have a choice but to help pick up the slack against a Rams offense that was also 2nd overall in total yards with 421.1 yards gained per contest.

In their 30-22 Divisional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys this past Saturday Night out in Los Angeles, it was actually the running game that the Rams placed an emphasis on; as their veteran RB tandem of Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson combined for 238 yards rushing and were essentially all the Rams needed to advance to this Sunday’s conference championship.

And undoubtedly the Saints will certainly miss the contributions of Rankins; who not only was 2nd on the team behind Cam Jordan with 8 sacks; but also is one of the team’s best run stoppers as well.

That was a sentiment shared by Klein, who told Martel that Rankins is a dynamic player on the inside who can be “stout against the run and hold off double teams, but to also be dynamic in the pass rush game.”

“His presence on third-down pass rush and stuff will be missed, but I know we have the depth in our defensive line room to get the job done,” Klein added.

Photo courtesy Butch Dill, The Associated Press

Those thoughts were echoed by Onyemata, the former 2015 Canadian college Defensive MVP and 3rd Round Saints 2016 NFL Draft pick who seems to be progressing with each subsequent game,

“When Sheldon is out there, we have more of an understanding of making the adjustments and all that, just moving around on defense,” Onyemata said.

“We’ve been playing pretty good the past couple weeks, having the guys step up and take more of a bigger role, If you go with a three-man rotation inside, you might have to do extra conditioning and just get your mind ready for more plays and expect more things,” Onyemata added.

The Saints run defense was ranked 2nd overall in the recently-completed regular season, and they were stellar once again in the opening Playoff game, as they limited Philly to only just 49 yards rushing for the game.

Photo courtesy of Steven Lew, New Orleans Advocate

But make no mistake about it: the Rams WILL fall back and revert to throwing the football at some point, especially if they aren’t able to establish their running game in the same manner as they did against Dallas.

Rams QB Jared Goff completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 293 yards per game this season, and it was that passing attack that allowed Los Angeles to keep the score close in their 45-35 loss to the Saints back in early November.

Against the Saints defense, he threw for nearly 400 yards passing (391) on 28-out-of-40 attempts and 3 TD’s with just one interception.

“It was a shootout. It was back and forth all game long,” Klein told Martel. “I thought we played the run well the first time we played them. That’s going to be challenge again this week. But I think being good on the play-action pass and eliminating deep shots over top will be crucial for us.”

Goff was sacked 33 times during the season all told, but the Saints weren’t unable to get a single sack against him in that Week #10 match-up.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

That’ll be something that all three players will be looking to change this Sunday, with a shot at making the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.

All three men were able to play key roles in helping the Black and Gold get to this point —  and you can believe that the Saints are certainly hoping they’ll be able to come up big against the Rams in Sunday’s showdown for the NFC Championship….



Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer 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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