No one is happier than Malcolm Jenkins with the Saints’ change at defensive coordinator from Steve Spagnuolo to Rob Ryan.
A year after languishing in a one-note role as deep safety, Jenkins is doing a little bit of everything for a resurgent unit that has gone from NFL laughingstock to potentially the best defense in coach Sean Payton’s eight-year tenure.
Football is fun again.
“It’s fun because I’m playing the positions I want to play,” Jenkins said. “Rob is using me in a way that I can be effective.”
Jenkins is splitting time between free safety and nickelback. At nickel, he lines up close to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to blitz regularly for the first time in his NFL career and perform a variety of roles that weren’t open to him under Spagnuolo.
“I call him Mr. Versatility,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “He can play in the slot, he can play deep, he can come in the box, he can blitz. Some systems make players look terrible, and some systems can make them look like the stars they should be. This is the kind of system Malcolm should play in.”
The difference shows in his numbers.
Last year, he had no sacks and did not force a fumble. His signature play was fitting for a defense that gave up more yards than any team in NFL history: He ran down Tampa Bay receiver Vincent Jackson from the opposite side of the field and stopped him a yard short of the goal line after a 95-yard gain.
Although his tackle total is lower this year (34 through seven games), he had more sacks in consecutive games against Chicago and New England (2½) than in the first four years of his NFL career (two). He also has forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
“When I first met with Rob in the offseason, I told him I wanted to play the nickel (and) I wanted to get moved around because that’s when I’ve been most productive,” Jenkins said. “He had enough faith to put me in there even though we had some pretty legitimate corners that could have slid in there. It’s allowed me to use my skills in multiple ways. I like to be near the line of scrimmage, be able to cover and still control the defense from a call standpoint.”
This is the guy the Saints envisioned when they drafted Jenkins with the 14th pick in 2009. He came into the NFL with the label of being able to play cornerback or safety, but other than occasional forays to nickel in 2010 and 2011, he stayed almost exclusively at safety.
Ryan changed that job description significantly, and he credits much of the Saints’ success to Jenkins.
“His role is so vital,” Ryan said. “He’s played just about every position but nose tackle. He’s great. He’s smart. He loves the game. No one is more committed on defense than Malcolm is. He does tons of film work. He studies everything you can give him and more. The guy has been fantastic.
“He makes every coach, me included, do a great job. We’re so fortunate to have him. Not only is he smart, but he’s also tough as hell.”
It’s been quite the turnaround. New Orleans ranks third in scoring defense, ninth in passing defense and 12th in total defense after finishing at or near the bottom in all three categories last season. Little went right for Jenkins even though he made a career-high 94 tackles, and his offseason appeared to start poorly when the Saints drafted Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.
With Jenkins in the final year of his contract, a natural assumption was the Saints had drafted his replacement. Instead, the two have worked well together as starters while veteran Roman Harper sits out with a knee injury.
“When somebody gets drafted at your position, there’s some concern, and there is kind of a little fire that’s lit up under you,” Jenkins said. “At the same time, in the big scheme of things, I knew that he was going to make our defense that much better. You add him to the mix, that’s just one more person you have to account for.”
Jenkins’ toughness is being tested this week: He’s dealing with a knee injury he suffered during the first half against Buffalo last Sunday. He sat out the second half and still was not back at practice Thursday.
On Wednesday, though, he did not rule himself out for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets, indicating he could have returned against Buffalo if needed.
“We didn’t want to do anything to make it worse,” he said. “I was in coverage and made a move and felt something tweak, so I just wanted to shut it down.”
He said he was playing it safe in what is shaping up as a huge opportunity for the Saints (6-1), who are tied with Seattle for the fewest losses in the NFC. Last season’s 7-9 struggle without Payton — and with Spagnuolo — is a distant memory.
Jenkins’ potential payday if he maintains his level of play is not his focus, either.
“This is one of those years where I feel we have something special, and I want to be a huge part of that,” he said. “Being a captain, I’ve just got to lead by example. I’m not really concerned about the future. I know that will all play itself out.”