09/20/2013 07:13 PM
The last thing New Orleans Saints defensive tackle John Jenkins wants for the young, budding defensive line is to be placed atop a pedestal, especially after only two weeks into the 2013 season.
Yet it's hard not to call these guys "The Big Easys" as preseason promise has quickly melded into regular-season production through the first two games. Imagine the opportunities, T-shirt shop owners.
The Saints' young frontline is big, with an average weight of 307 pounds for Jenkins, Cam Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks. And their easygoing demeanors off the field are the exact opposite on Sundays, as quarterbacks Matt Ryan of Atlanta and Josh Freeman of Tampa Bay can attest.
The Saints may only sit tied for 17th in the league with four sacks, but the consistent pressure on quarterbacks hasn't gone unnoticed. Jordan has the second best "Pass Rushing Productivity" in the NFL at his position, according to Pro Football Focus, while Hicks ranks fifth. Ryan faced pressure from the Saints on 48 percent of his throws in Week 1.
"I'd say, especially for young players, they're really coming (on)," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "They work hard every day with (defensive line coach) Bill (Johnson) and he obviously is a great teacher. These guys are smart to listen, and they work hard. They are going to only improve. Each week I think we'll get improvement out of those guys and we got a lot of fight out of them last week; they got a lot of snaps.
"That was a player's game (vs. Tampa Bay) all the way. There weren't a whole lot of checks to it or anything; it was just us lining up and playing. I thought our D-line competed really well. I know we gave up a lot of yards, but some of those yards are on me calling the game just with the way the game was being played, and living with some of those runs."
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer may be one of the least mobile quarterbacks the Saints will face this season when New Orleans (2-0) hosts Arizona (1-1) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome -- which could mean the defensive front may have another successful outing. Palmer has been sacked five times in two weeks and has lost a fumble.
Two games doesn't make a defense. It's why the hunger for greatness is a consistent theme for the youthful front.
"We're not taking anything for granted," said Galette, who's playing mostly defensive end right now rather than outside linebacker because of attrition. "That's the beauty of this group. It feels like they need to earn their stripes and I need to earn my stripes.
"We're all young. Some of us are a little unknown. But we have more experience than people think. And at the same time, everybody is hungry and wants to earn respect."
The Saints' past defensive fronts under coach Sean Payton typically possessed a heavy dose of veterans with youth sprinkled here and there.
That's not the case this season, looking at the players' ages:
•23 -- Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster
•24 -- Jordan, Jenkins, Martez Wilson (he played defensive end against Tampa Bay)
•25 -- Junior Galette
•29 -- Brodrick Bunkley, Tom Johnson
Galette said while it's been only two games, there's no other way to view the defensive front's performance other than a positive.
"We wouldn't want it any other way," Galette said. "It's much better to be talked about in this way than in the other way. This is a good problem to have, opposed to us starting 0-2 and be in something like last year: 'Where's the pressure? The front seven needs to step up.'
"It's the other way around right now. But we just need to keep building on that and not lose sight of our main goal and that's to be the best we can be and not compare ourselves to anyone else in the league."
Hicks, in his second season, played 90 percent of the snaps last week, while Jenkins, in his first start in the NFL, played 86 percent of the time in Tampa Bay. Galette said it's a positive for those two players in particular to play so many snaps this early in their careers. The experience will only help down the line.
"We're having fun," Jenkins said. "That's a really good thing. You have a bunch of guys who you enjoy coming to work and being with. That's not just talk, you know? It's real. Day in and day out, we really enjoy each other.
"So when you have a group of guys who all work hard together and enjoy each other, it brings out the best on the field. We don't have things like when veterans are worried about their contracts and other things. We're all growing together into a great unit. There's no 'me.' It's all about what can I do to help us."
The defensive front will look to perform better against the run against Arizona than it had last week in Tampa Bay. Bucs running back Doug Martin muscled his way for 144 yards on 29 carries in the Saints' 16-14 win. The Saints did a better job with Steven Jackson in Week 1 against the Falcons, despite yielding a 50-yard run. New Orleans held Jackson to just 27 yards in his other 10 carries.
The Saints could potentially deal with a Jackson-type back on Sunday as the Cardinals' Rashard Mendenhall is known more for his bruising style. Mendenhall is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and his 126 rushing yards are almost as many as the Saints have compiled as a team (153 yards). But Mendenhall missed all of practice this week with a toe injury, so Arizona could be shorthanded.
Improving against the run is one of the reasons why Jenkins said no one on this promising unit is thinking about laying the foundation for a potentially stout frontline for many years to come.
"You just come to practice the next day and get better," Jenkins said. "Then when the game comes, you go out there and play your best. Looking too far ahead is where you fall apart. Then if things start adding up for us, it just happens. You don't jinx yourself."
Jordan, apparently, doesn't believe in jinxes.
"We want to be together as many years as we can and become a real force," Jordan said