One of the low points for the Saints came when the team gave up a deep pass during the fourth quarter during Thursday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns.
If you were just watching the ball, all you probably saw was DeShone Kizer hit wide receiver Richard Mullaney down the left sideline for 52 yards and New Orleans safety Erik Harris trailing in coverage. But if you look closely there is an encouraging moment encompassed within the play.
Watch the lines. On the right side, you’ll see rookie defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad unleash a spin move on a pair of Browns players and flush Kizer up in the pocket. He doesn’t finish the play, and the tackle doesn’t play to his help as well as he could have, but that detail is beyond Muhammad’s control. He took advantage of what is given at the line and flashed a move that is worth getting excited over.
“It gives you a little bit of confidence,” Muhammad said. “But there are some plays out there that I probably could have got a sack on if I just did something a little bit better. It’s just kind of getting the rust off. It’s only the beginning. Just have to tighten some things up.”
One of the big questions the Saints need to answer this season if they hope to turn their fortunes on defense is at defensive end. Cam Jordan is set in stone. It’s wide open after that, with Hau’oli Kikaha and Alex Okafor emerging as the early frontrunners. But rookie Trey Hendrickson, who has been out of action for a week with an undisclosed injury, Darryl Tapp and Muhammad are all in the mix for jobs.
As things stand now, Muhammad is still behind many of the players mentioned. But he showed against Cleveland that he’s worth keeping an eye on and has plenty of potential.
Outside of the aforementioned play, he had three other pressures, a sack, and shared credit on another sack with defensive tackle Mitchell Loewen. He logged 50 snaps, many of which came against Cleveland’s second- and third-team offenses, and took advantage of the opportunity.
But even with the highlights, there is still room for improvement.
“He’s going to receive a lot of work in the next couple weeks,” Payton said. “He plays with a little bit more power than edge, but he is picking things up. A lot is going on. The first challenge to ability is availability. He’s grinding through it and working through the mistakes, but he is doing well and handling it.”
There are a few spots in the Cleveland film where Muhammad appears exposed. One of them came on a read-option, when he chose wrong, and allowed Kizer to get out of the pocket and run for a gain. Another came when he got too wide in his rush and again allowed the quarterback to run free.
Muhammad admits that there are times when he could play with a better pad level, which would help him achieve better consistency. And he says he’s in constant search for other areas in which he can improve.
“You got to really focus, and you got to put the time in and study,” Muhammad said. “It can be a lot at times. Just adjusting to time management. I think that’s the biggest adjustment on this level. You have to use your time wisely, and sometimes you have to squeeze stuff in, extra studying and stuff like that.”
As for his availability, that often wasn’t working in Muhammad’s favor during his time at the University of Miami. He was suspended for a season after being involved in an incident at the team’s 2014 spring game and later dismissed from the program in 2016. All of that led to him only appearing in only 17 games during his time in college.
But the sixth-round pick says all of that has made him hungrier for what’s ahead of him.
“Some of the things I went through in the past it definitely makes me appreciate the opportunity that I’ve been given,” Muhammad said. “It’s awesome.”
And Muhammad is going to try to take advantage of it over the next few weeks. The goal is to lock down a job and earn a role. And he already knows the areas he needs to key in on to make it happen over the next few weeks.
“I think I could pay attention to detail a little bit better,” Muhammad said. “Just tighten up a couple things and put myself in position to help the team and make some more plays. Alignment and assignments. Overall, I think I did pretty well (against Cleveland). I think I did what I needed to do. I think I played really hard, and that’s a start, playing hard, running to the ball and being physical.”
It is a start. Once he gets all the details down and pairs it with that spin move, good things could follow.