Cam Jordan doesn’t want to hear what the stats say about Sheldon Rankins.
He’s out on the field. He has gathered enough evidence to know the New Orleans Saints defensive tackle has taken a massive leap in his second season. But Jordan didn't learn this only because of what he sees. Sometimes it's what he hears.
“Whatever the stats don’t show and do show, this guy is clearly evolving into a better pass rusher," Jordan said of Rankins. "He’s able to call out a lot of different things for us. I don’t want to give it away. I’m simply saying he’s becoming the mastermind of the defensive line.”
Rankins knows what the stats say. He hasn't yet recorded a sack this season and has 13 pressures through six games. His pressure rate is up from his rookie season, but the difference is that he had four sacks in nine games last year.
Rankins' greatest value, however, is his mind. The things he sees, recognizes and calls out have played a big enough role in the defensive line’s success that his teammates credit him for some of their success.
“If you’re around him long enough, he’s just one of those guys that not always says a lot, but he is definitively someone who understands the whole scheme,” coach Sean Payton said. “Rarely is he missing assignments. Some guys pick things up quickly, and he’s one of them. He’s got a good feel for his gap but also his responsibility as it pertains to run or pass. He was one of those rookies that came in with the understanding or savviness, if you will, that some players in Year 3 or 4 might have.”
Rankins plays a vital role each Sunday. It starts by knowing what every player is supposed to do on a given down. He then pays attention to the things the center and quarterback call out, and he gets a feel for what they’re trying to do.
For instance, if the offensive line is trying to slide a protection, he’ll call a rush to the other side.
“If I hear something out there, I immediately come to the sidelines and say, ‘Hey, look, they’re saying this. I’m going to switch this if they say this,’ ” Rankins said. “It’s just basically trying to play the chess game with the opposing offensive line.”
These adjustments have helped open up the Saints' pass rush. After a recent game, Jordan lamented that he robbed Rankins of a sack with some unexpected movement, forcing the defensive tackle to cover for him.
But Jordan also knows these adjustments, and Rankins’ savvy, have helped him get off to such a hot start. Knowing that Rankins will always be there and see things the same ways as him has allowed Jordan to take advantage of things at the moment without leaving the defense exposed.
“If you jump-set me, I just swim inside,” Jordan said. “If you decide to be foolish enough to be aggressive, then you better be covered with help, because the great thing about our D-line is, I’ve got a smart enough player in Sheldon Rankins — he feels off of me. If I shoot inside, he wraps around so fast I don’t even have to worry about it. That’s one of the great things off of my mind.”
And even for the people who aren’t heavily involved in the pass rush, Rankins’ input has been invaluable.
“As far as calling games, and getting the D-line to check in things, Sheldon’s great at that stuff,” nose tackle Tyeler Davison said. “Great at reading the offense. He’s a really good teammate to have on the D-line, getting us all lined up, all the little things situated.”
Rankins would like it if the stat sheet reflected all of his contributions. He knows the value he brings by recognizing things on the field and doing things to free up Jordan to get after quarterbacks.
And he’s also one of the big keys to the three-man fronts the Saints like to mix in. His versatility allows him to play in the nose, at five-technique and sometimes all the way out at seven-technique defensive end in those looks. Not many other players have that kind of versatility.
But it’s a numbers league, and Rankins is still waiting to get some notches down.
“I would love to be free all the time with seven, eight sacks, lots of tackles for a loss,” he said. “Those will come. That’s a part of the game. That’s part of playing inside.
“You’re going to go through spells where nothing is coming to you; then you’ll hit a three-, four-game stretch where it’s like the floodgates have opened and everything is going to right to you. I’m just going to continue doing what I’ve always done. Go out there, play hard, play every snap like it’s my last and those plays will start coming.”
Until then, Rankins is going to keep doing what he’s doing. And the Saints’ defensive line will keep eating because of it. He’s fine with being the “mastermind” of the group until that happens.
“It’s just something I’ve been doing,” Rankins said. “I like the nickname. I’ll take it.”
The Saints will take it, too.