Vargas: Defensive line forcing mistakes, turnovers

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, right, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, center, watch from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, right, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, center, watch from the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Haber)

by ramon antonio vargas

rvargas@theadvocate.com

Like the rest of New Orleans, even some of the most sought-after members of the Saints can’t talk for long without mentioning the precocious, fearsome defensive line under the command of coordinator Rob Ryan.

Take safety Kenny Vaccaro, the rookie who’s lined up on every one of the 173 snaps the 3-0 Saints have played on defense. It’s tough at the moment to find an NFL rookie who’s hotter than him, after he caused an interception that sealed New Orleans’ 23-17 win against Atlanta in Week 1 and then got his first pick as a pro in the 31-7 pummeling of Arizona on Sunday.

After the Cardinals game, a gaggle of reporters cornered him by his locker and asked him to describe the Carson Palmer pass he intercepted in the fourth quarter. The second word out of Vaccaro’s mouth was “d-line,” which he said “was getting pressure the whole game,” forcing Palmer to throw much sooner than he wanted to.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan, defensive end Akiem Hicks, nose tackle John Jenkins, defensive end Glenn Foster and defensive end Tyrunn Walker no doubt deserve the spotlight. And as long as they keep it, a steady supply of turnovers are headed toward Vaccaro and his pals in the Saints secondary.

Jordan, the veteran of the group with his three seasons in the NFL; Hicks, in his second year; and Jenkins, selected in the third round of the draft in April, were unfazed when end Tom Johnson strained his hamstring and left the defensive line three deep — veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, undrafted rookie Foster and second-year man Walker had all been out with injuries.

Jordan, Hicks and Jenkins helped the Saints limit Tampa Bay to 125 passing yards and defeat the Buccaneers 16-14. But Jordan, despite being responsible for a sack-fumble that outside linebacker Junior Galette recovered, wasn’t too impressed with the outing, perturbed that he and his two teammates had not gotten more sacks.

On Sunday, they had reinforcements that weren’t exactly battle-tested. One (Foster) was making his regular-season debut after hurting his ankle in the last exhibition game. The other (Walker) was playing in his second regular-season contest as a pro after not appearing in a game for the Saints last year and then hurting himself early in Week 1.

But, as Arizona learned the hard way, those reinforcements were all that was needed to cheer Jordan up about his and his teammates’ productivity.

Jordan sacked Palmer twice, once on third-and-9. Foster dropped Palmer behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-7. Galette — who has been as remarkable as his compatriots down on the line — got in on the fourth.

Walker chipped in with one of nine hits on Palmer.

Then, after the sacks and hits resulted in eight forced punts on Arizona’s first nine possessions, came the interceptions. Palmer tried to hit tight end Rob Housler on an out-route on the first one — it’s just his aim had been knocked out of whack, so he instead connected with Vaccaro.

“I saw the ball,” Vaccaro said. “He just didn’t throw it to the tight end.”

On the next drive, Palmer dropped back to pass but felt the man who had already sacked him twice homing in him from the right. He hurriedly stepped up into a shrinking pocket of protection and launched the ball deep right to receiver Michael Floyd. Only Floyd was covered by Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who easily field the ball at New Orleans’ 20 and ran it the other way 20 yards.

A writer on Monday offered coach Sean Payton the opportunity to compliment the opportunistic Saints secondary at a news conference, pointing out that so much had already been said about the defensive line.

Of course, Payton, as countless others in the metro area did Monday, brought up the defensive line and the linebackers who have powered the pass rush one season after the Saints went winless in their first four outings and, while Ryan’s predecessor was around, surrendered the most yards in NFL history.

“When that front is playing well, the clock in the quarterback’s head is different, and it affects the passes,” Payton said. “You saw that ... (Sunday). It is good to see.”

And, as the consistently deafening Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday would attest, this is one good thing there can’t be too much of in this town.