Speaking to a reporter in the visitor’s locker room of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., last Sunday, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan sounded annoyed.
He had gotten a sack earlier in the evening that resulted in a Saints takeaway, and his team had just improved its record to 2-0 after beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16-14 on a last-second field goal. But foremost on Jordan’s mind was that his sack was the sole one New Orleans’ defense managed against the Bucs (0-2).
“We have to do better ... with more pressure,” said Jordan, in his third year with the Saints. “We have to get in the backfield.”
The good news for Jordan and his teammates is that a Saints defensive line that recently saw four of its members suffer injuries is getting healthier ahead of its game against the Arizona Cardinals (1-1) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, and the unit has contributed to two consecutive victories despite the reduced manpower.
Defensive ends Tyrunn Walker — who hurt his knee in the first quarter of the 23-17 win against Atlanta (1-1) in Week 1 — and Glenn Foster, an undrafted rookie who tallied four preseason sacks before tweaking his ankle in the final exhibition, were on the practice field Wednesday. Second-year man Walker practiced in a limited capacity, and Foster stretched, though the team said he did not participate in drills.
Walker, Foster and veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who injured his calf in the first quarter against Atlanta and hasn’t returned to practice, sat out the Bucs contest.
Then, in the first quarter against Tampa Bay, third-year end Tom Johnson strained a hamstring, leaving Jordan, rookie nose tackle John Jenkins and second-year end Akiem Hicks as the only players listed as defensive linemen on the roster available to finish out the game.
The 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks had two solo stops in the 53 snaps he played on defense. The 6-foot-3, 359-pound Jenkins had three solo stops in 51 snaps. The 6-foot-4, 287-pound Jordan lined up on all 59 defensive snaps, getting in on five tackles (three solo) and forcing a sack-fumble outside linebacker Junior Galette recovered for New Orleans, which held the Bucs to just 273 yards of offense.
Johnson on Wednesday said Hicks, Jenkins and Jordan kept their composure after losing yet another man to injury because they had prepared themselves to play many more snaps than usual anyway.
“We were already thin, so everybody already knew how the game was going to go,” said Johnson, who didn’t practice Wednesday and might miss a few weeks of action. “We already had it planned that everybody had to know how to play everybody else’s position to a certain extent.”
Coach Sean Payton on Wednesday said that the cooler temperatures brought on by a rainstorm aided the depleted defensive line’s cause against Tampa Bay. The Bucs also ran fewer than 60 plays on offense, and the Saints were able to mask their scant numbers on the defensive line with “enough packages and flexibility that allow ... different personnel on the field,” Payton added.
“Those guys battled,” Payton said about Hicks, Jenkins and Jordan. “I thought they handled it well.
“Fortunately, we’re getting some guys healthy, too.”
The performance against the Bucs followed an outing against the Falcons in which Hicks had three solo tackles and one of the Saints’ three sacks on quarterback Matt Ryan.
Jordan — who’s generated more quarterback pressure than any other defensive end playing in a 3-4 scheme so far this season, according to the NFL analysis website Pro Football Focus — assisted on three tackles and landed a hit on Ryan. Jenkins had a tackle and chipped in on another stop.
“We just go out there like a band of brothers, and we have to have each other’s backs at the end of the day,” Jenkins said in response to a question about the extra work he, Hicks and Jordan have been tasked with. “For us, this is the moment we trained for.”
Count Cardinals coach Bruce Arians as an admirer of New Orleans’ young defensive line, whom he’ll be trying to keep away from his quarterback, Carson Palmer.
“They’re fast, they’re big, they’re powerful,” Arians said Wednesday. “They’re very well-coached, and ... they have great instincts.”
They may soon have Walker and Foster back as well.