The New Orleans Saints' defensive line used to focus more on other things.
There were periods when the players would work on their pass rush. It wasn’t a forgotten detail, but working on technique didn't used to be a priority.
Former defensive line coach Bill Johnson used to have periods during the season to work on pass-rushing technique, but it wasn’t consistent. The defensive line spent the bulk of its time working on other things.
“We still worked on fundamentals and different things like that,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “We definitely didn’t work on pass rush as much. It was kind of one of those things where you had to teach each other, so to speak.”
Rankins summed it up by saying: “You knew you were a run player. You played the run. If you could rush the passer, you rushed the passer.”
That has changed this year with Ryan Nielsen taking over as defensive line coach. The linemen now spend much more time working on the pass rush, with at least one period dedicated to it every week.
It has made a difference. New Orleans has 42 sacks this season compared to 30 last year, and some of the younger players feel as though they're developing more this year.
“It’s really beneficial. The more you practice something the better you’re going to get at it,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “He has a real good philosophy as far as rushing the passer. His technique, he has built around that. Same thing with the run. He has some good technique that a lot of us knew and believed in, and now we’re doing that technique.”
Three days before Sunday’s playoff showdown against the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints signed a new recruit: Harry Connick Jr.
Nielsen was one of many newcomers to the staff this season, and New Orleans made several other moves, including replacing linebackers coach Joe Vitt with Mike Nolan and special teams coach Greg McMahon with Bradford Banta. The Saints have since brought in Mike Westhoff to oversee special teams.
Players say they've been exposed a much more technical approach with each of the new hires. And in almost all cases, they've had rave reviews.
But getting used to Nielsen was an adjustment for some players — especially for Cam Jordan. As a veteran player working with a young coach, who is in his first job in the NFL after working the college ranks for many years, there were times when Jordan felt Neilson was throwing too much information at him.
Jordan also said the coach can take a hard approach, joking: “I think he came from a military background. I came from a more Berkeley” background, referencing his time at Cal, well-known as a laid-back university.
“You sort of have to try to reel him in sometimes,” Jordan said. “He gets very excited. He’s very passionate about the game — even in chalkboard talk, you have to reel him in because he wants to do a lot. But at the same time, he brings so much to you that you can sort through what’s good and what’s a little bit more than needed. It’s become a good mesh.”
Rankins laughed when told about Neilson giving too much information.
“For me, it’s not much of a big deal. I’ve always been a guy who could see the bigger picture, could see all the things that they’re trying to throw at me," Rankins said. "It kind of slows down for me, and I don’t have an issue with it.
“It’s definitely a lot more information than we got last year. I think Ryan’s a bit of a perfectionist. He wants every play to be played exactly as he sees it playing in his mind. If it doesn’t play that (way), he’s got some coaching points.”
Fans in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday for the New Orleans Saints' playoff game vs. the Carolina Panthers should be on the lookout for …
Jordan might have had to make some adjustments and get used to a new style of coaching, but he says Nielsen has helped his game and made him a better pass rusher.
In particular, the coach has helped Jordan with his “hand games” — the art of accurately placing your hands in the right area on an offensive lineman and having a counter to anything the lineman might do.
The coach also keys on other fine details, like the steps a player is taking in the run game, where he’s placing his eyes. He’ll make players go through a variety of pass-rush moves until they find a couple that work for them. He'll then work with the players until they perfect them.
And as far as Nielsen taking a hard approach, there are times when the players admit it is welcomed. Maybe not always in the moment, but certainly in hindsight.
“He sometimes pushes a little bit more than we want to, but that’s what we need sometimes,” Davison said.
The results speak for themselves.
Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson lowered his shoulder for a big hit on Saints running back Alvin Kamara at the goal line early in the teams' …