Cam Jordan opened this season in an unfamiliar role, both on the field and in the locker room.
The Saints shifted him to the Jack, the highlight spot in Rob Ryan’s defense, trying to get their best pass rusher in more one-on-one situations.
Off the field, Jordan found himself making a move on a defensive line that increasingly looked nothing like the one he was used to seeing. First Tyrunn Walker left for Detroit. Then the Saints released Junior Galette right before training camp, and Brodrick Bunkley soon after that. Three weeks into the season, New Orleans traded Akiem Hicks.
Jordan, who signed a five-year, $60 milion extension in the offseason, suddenly found himself the face of the Saints’ front seven, a respected veteran trying to teach a group full of rookies how to get after the passer. When Jordan arrived at training camp, he instinctively knew his role had changed.
“Didn’t we all know coming into the season we were coming in with some growing pains?” Jordan asked. “When you have such a huge transition, you guys saw the roster — it’s got to be the most rookies I’ve ever seen before — but to their credit, they came in with high abilities, and they’re trying to live up to them.”
Up until this season, Jordan has been the young up-and-comer, trying to soak up everything he can from players like Will Smith and Sedrick Ellis in the beginning to Bunkley the last couple of years.
“I was a learner-type,” Jordan said.
Now, Jordan is a leader. Named a captain by his teammates, Jordan finds himself the bell cow of a defensive line that carries five rookie defensive linemen, plus rookie outside linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha and second-year pass rusher Kasim Edebali. New Orleans also signed veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams, but on this Saints defensive line, it’s Jordan who sets the tone.
And he’s been a diligent teacher.
Jordan answers every question, takes the rookies out on the practice field and tries to offer them tips. Before every game, he checks with each rookie to make sure they know that week’s stunts and twists, trying to limit mistakes to a minimum.
“It’s kind of comforting to have him there,” Kikaha said.
Breaking out on the field took more time. Used as the Jack, Jordan had just one sack in the first five games, a number that frustrated him even though Ryan kept saying his star player was having a fantastic season.
Then the Saints decided to make a change. Beyond Jordan, the top two pass rushers on the team had been Kikaha and Edebali, two players best suited to playing the edge, where Jordan was already lining up most of the time. Desperately needing more pass rush after seven sacks in the first five games, the Saints started moving Jordan around the formation.
“Any time you start the way we did, we started 0-2, 0-3, whatever. ... you’re going to start trying to figure out various ways to bounce back,” Jordan said. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. I’ll play nose if I have to. My role is anything that needs to be done.”
Big plays started coming in bunches.
With Jordan lining up at nearly every position on the line, he produced six tackles, three sacks, three tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble against Atlanta, then backed it up with two more sacks, two tackles-for-loss and two batted passes against the Colts last week. Now, Jordan’s six sacks on the season trail the NFL lead by just a half-sack as the season approaches the halfway point.
Jordan, big enough to rush from the inside and quick enough to rush from the edge, has sacks from the 9-technique spot (lined up wide, outside the tight end), the 5-technique (lined up on the outside shoulder of the tackle), the 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) and one sack slanting into the nose position over the center.
Not only does moving Jordan, who has three sacks from the interior and three from the outside, make it more difficult for opposing offenses to identify him, but it pushes the pocket, squeezing the space as Kikaha and Edebali bend the edges.
“We have Kikaha, we have Edebali, and sometimes I’m better suited to go inside than ‘Bali’ is,” Jordan said. “So we switch it up, and it’s definitely proven itself.”
Kikaha, who has four sacks, and Edebali, with two, have benefitted, and the line has responded with nine sacks in the past two games, including five against an Atlanta team that had been drawing rave reviews for its offensive line.
Jordan’s presence drives the entire engine.
“It definitely helps us more as edge rushers to have that guy inside,” Kikaha said. “That’s every edge rusher’s dream, to have interior pressure, and it makes it way easier.”
Jordan has been making his young teammates’ lives a lot easier for a little while now.
Turns out his new role suits him.