INDIANAPOLIS — Cam Jordan finally said Hau’oli Kikaha’s name properly.
That may not seem like the kind of thing that’s notable, and it’s certainly not the first sentence you’d expect to read in this story, but it means something. It’s symbolic, a sign the New Orleans defense is coming together and headed in the right direction, even though it only hung in the air for a second.
It couldn’t last. Kikaha, who was standing in the corner of the locker room, heard what Jordan said and yelled over to let him know. Jordan, unwilling to let his season-long joke come to an close, quickly added some syllables to the rookie’s name to keep his streak of mispronouncing Kikaha’s name alive.
It was too late. The young guys are here, working in concert with Jordan, to help the Saints achieve a string of quarters this group can be proud of and build upon. The evidence is spelled out, and it’s clear. When things are this black and white, it takes a deliberate attempt to mispronounce things. Perhaps now that’s the joke.
“They’re definitely playing their butts off,” Jordan said. “If it’s not the D line, the DBs are showing up and making the quarterbacks hold the ball. Linebackers are playing their butts off. It’s an overall defense thing.”
It’s surprising because, as recently as a month ago, Jordan wasn’t sure about where this group was heading. Reading between the lines, it was clear he had reservations about trading Akiem Hicks to the New England Patriots, and there were questions about whether this defensive front would be able to generate enough pressure to survive the season.
Those feelings were justified. Each of the quarterbacks who faced New Orleans during the first four weeks was granted a 60-minute lease to a few yards of turf behind his offensive line. Trespassing wasn’t just frowned upon; it seemed to be strictly prohibited.
But then Atlanta came to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last week, and the Saints pummeled and harassed Matt Ryan from start to finish, recording five sacks. That momentum carried over to Sunday, when the Saints walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium as 27-21 victors, with four sacks of Andrew Luck and countless hurries.
It was almost stunning to see. The Colts still have one of the best quarterbacks in the league. And while Luck has completed just a shade over 30 percent of his passes this season while under pressure, it was surprising to see him so shaken up and so out of sorts throughout the first half.
He didn’t complete his first pass until there were about 9 minutes remaining in the second quarter, and it took even longer for Indianapolis to advance past midfield. By halftime, he had completed only 9 of 19 attempts for 79 yards with a pair of interceptions.
“You could tell he was getting a little frustrated,” Jordan said. “You couldn’t tell by the way I was hitting him. He definitely ‘Good jobbed’ me one time. I wasn’t expecting that. At this point, I’m like, ‘No, you’re from Stanford. I hate you!’ But, of course, he’s a Pac-10 guy, so you can’t hate him too much.”
Luck didn’t find it as funny. He admitted after the game he was confused and rattled by what New Orleans was doing on defense, which prevented him from ever settling in and getting anything going early in the game.
“They did a nice job mixing up coverages, mixing up looks, mixing up blitzes, mixing up looks,” Luck said. “They did a nice job of stymieing us that first half.”
The Saints did mix up some man and zone looks. They also showed some three-man fronts when the norm this season has been to operate with a four-man line. But, for the most part, the defensive players said they didn’t try to do anything too exotic.
They said they went out there, lined up and played their game.
“There wasn’t too much confusion. It was more locking up, to be honest,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Pressure, and you got to take hats off to the guys in coverage. He’s holding that ball. There’s a reason he’s holding it.”
The only thing is the defense, which recorded four three-and-outs, gave up touchdown passes of 87 and 46 yards to receiver T.Y. Hilton. Both plays came after Delvin Breaux either lost his footing or got his feet tangled up and fell to the turf.
Those plays hurt. The defense was hoping to pitch a shutout and make a statement, but it didn’t happen. And while there are things to learn from the performance and to improve upon, everyone has to admit this is where the defense wants to be.
There is a pass rush. The secondary can cover. And the defense can win games when the offense isn’t at its best. Those were all things critics once doubted.
It was impossible not to question those elements of the defense. But maybe conclusions were drawn too early. Maybe all they needed was patience and space to figure things out.
“Normally you have vets that carry along and know the process. This year it’s all about teaching,” Jordan said. “That’s not being skeptical of whatever we have in our D line room — I’m proud of them — it’s just for sure growing pains.
“When you have the D line that you’ve known three or four years — you guys know how you guys move; you guys know what stuff’s coming from where just by simple looks, numbers, whatever. At this point, it’s ground zero, foundation, building this trust level. We’re working on it.”
And maybe, after two solid games, it’s unreasonable to expect it to look the same every week. This group is still young and, as Jordan said, working on building a foundation. But the results are starting to show up.
If they keep doing that, soon everyone will know these guys’ names.