At Saints OTAs, shuffle on offensive, defensive lines and 2 players who really stood out _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux (40) intercepts a ball intended for Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns (88) in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015.

The best signing of the Saints’ offseason has largely been overlooked outside of New Orleans, a diamond hidden among the muck and mire of a defense that has been historically bad.

But Delvin Breaux, the hometown gem New Orleans plucked out of the Canadian Football League, has established himself as the kind of No. 1 cornerback the Saints desperately needed, a player capable of ruining entire sections of an opponent’s game plan if given the chance.

Breaux proved it again by wiping out an explosive Jacksonville passing game for the better part of the first half Sunday. Targeted again and again by quarterback Blake Bortles and his explosive pair of receivers, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, Breaux denied Jacksonville time and time again, making four tackles, breaking up four passes and creating a pair of interceptions that allowed the Saints to race away early and hold on for a 38-27 win.

“I looked forward to (the matchup) all week,” Breaux said. “Robinson and Hurns, they’re both great.”

Jacksonville decided to test Breaux more than he had been targeted in weeks, particularly in the first half. Breaux made the Jaguars pay repeatedly. Challenged by Robinson downfield early in the second quarter, Breaux broke hard on the ball and batted it into the air, allowing defensive end Bobby Richardson to make a diving interception.

Bortles failed to learn his lesson. On the Jaguars’ next series, Bortles tried to test Breaux deep with Robinson, only to see his offering batted away. Then Jacksonville tried to get Robinson going with a quick hitter, but Breaux drove hard on the route and dropped him for a 2-yard gain, setting up a Kenny Vaccaro sack and a punt.

The next time the Jaguars were on the field, Jacksonville tried to get Hurns open on a deep out route, but Breaux covered Hurns as if he were running the route himself, cutting to the sideline to make his third interception of the season. In the span of five offensive snaps, Breaux broke up two passes, picked off another and snuffed a short throw before the receiver had a chance to get started.

Bortles racked up 368 yards by throwing elsewhere later in the game, but in the eight times he targeted Breaux, the Saints’ best cornerback gave up just two catches for a paltry 4 yards.

“I told you all before the season started that this is who this guy was and that it was just a matter of time,” Vaccaro said. “He’s been playing like that all year.”

Breaux’s performance made Jacksonville’s decision to repeatedly test him surprising. By both traditional statistics and advanced rating metrics, Breaux has been one of the league’s top cornerbacks all season. The first-year cornerback ranks fifth in the league with 19 passes defended, and NFL Network ratings place Breaux fourth in the NFL in terms of lowest “burn percentage” — the percentage of targets that result in catches — at 43 percent, trailing only the New York Jets’ Darrelle Revis, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and Washington’s Will Blackmon.

A lot of teams on the Saints’ schedule have avoided Breaux because of those numbers. Jacksonville chose to go right at him, a decision the Saints said wasn’t surprising.

“Sometimes, a lot of it is progression or what you are in coverage-wise,” coach Sean Payton said. “A lot of it is what is taken away by scheme.”

Breaux himself understood Jacksonville’s decision to test him early. As good as he has been, Breaux has had his fair share of growing pains.

“I’m still a rookie. I still have my mess-ups,” he said Sunday. “Today, I was just having one of those great days. They kept trying me, and I just had to make play after play.”

The Saints’ diamond in the rough is making those days a regular occurrence.