When the Saints began constructing their roster during the offseason, one of the areas they keyed in on improving was their interior rush.
While those outside the building were screaming about getting production off the edges, New Orleans felt it could better improve its ability to speed up quarterbacks and create havoc by acquiring players who could bring it up the middle.
So, the team selected Sheldon Rankins in the first round, signed Nick Fairley, and then added David Onyemata on the third day of the draft. The group created optimism during the summer, but those plans took a hit when Rankins broke his fibula and was placed on injured reserve.
The New Orleans Saints knew how to take advantage of the Carolina Panthers.
Since then, despite showing some positive signs the past two weeks, the pass rush hasn’t been operating as intended. But that should soon change. The Saints activated Rankins from injured reserve, and he began practicing on Wednesday. If all goes to plan and there are no setbacks, he could be back on the field in two weeks.
And that’s a good thing.
“Previous to his injury, he was showing so much potential on the interior rush,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “We were looking forward to having him. Post-injury, it has let guys like Onyemata really develop. Nick (Fairley) has definitely shined the last couple games. Just really turned it on.”
The reason the interior rush is so often valuable is that quarterbacks see it coming. There are times when a quarterback doesn’t see an edge player coming, or sometimes he can simply step up in the pocket to avoid the rush. When it’s coming down the middle, and the quarterback sees it, he’s forced to react to it. Sometimes that speeds up a throw. Sometimes it causes him to flee the pocket and sets up a defensive end.
There is no official documentation for players who set up sacks for their teammates, but Fairley, who has 3 ½ sacks and nine quarterback hits, did that during Sunday’s win over the Panthers. During the first quarter, he and Onyemata created interior pressure, which caused quarterback Cam Newton to step back out of the pocket and into the arms of defensive end Kasim Edebali.
Those moments are also created through chemistry. Depending on who is at tackle or end, the players need to learn one another and alter the way they attack. For instance, if Fairley shoots up the field, Jordan might try to underlap him. With Onyemata, who is a power rusher, Jordan will act more like a speed rusher, so they don’t end up in the same lanes.
These are things that Rankins has paid attention to during his time down. He learned the tendencies of his teammates throughout camp and feels comfortable with how each one plays, but he’s been keeping an eye on his own teammates during his down time to keep sharp on how they approach things. But these are things he’d also do if he were healthy.
The Saints were without a handful of players during the open portion of Wednesday's practice.
“I rushed with all these guys during camp. I kind of know everybody’s strength, everybody’s weakness,” Rankins said. “When guys what want to take chances, when guys are going to play it safe. Just getting back out there. Clearly there’s going to be some rust to shake off, but I think I have a good understanding of what everybody likes to do and how they want to do it.”
Along with Fairley, the Saints have also gotten a good amount of production from Onyemata. He typically only plays on passing downs and is still developing as a player but has shown some ability during the early portion of the season.
Having more options is a good thing. The team has been rotating more often on the defensive line the last two weeks, which has led to an increase in production from some of the players. It’s probably not a coincidence Jordan and Fairley have performed better when not being asked to play every snap.
When Rankins comes back, he’ll add to the strength of that rotation. He’ll likely see a lot of snaps, and there should be plenty of snaps where he’s playing alongside Fairley, but he’ll also give the team a third option capable of generating pressure from the interior. That should help the overall strength of the team.
“You got a guy like Rankins pushing the pocket, you’ll see interception totals go up, you’ll see sack totals go up,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “The best defenses have a lot of good players. And a lot of good players around the league have a lot of good teammates.”
How he’ll slot it when the time comes will be interesting to see. Rankins served as the top defensive tackle in base packages during the summer, with Fairley serving behind him. The two then lined up together in sub packages. It might make sense to stick with that, but it probably doesn’t matter much to Rankins.
He’s waited several weeks to get back on the field. He can now see the finish line, assuming all goes to plan. And soon, quarterbacks will be able to see him coming at them.