The New Orleans Saints will travel to Kansas City to face off against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday; and when they do so, the spotlight will be shined on the team’s defensive line — it will be for reasons than one.
First and most importantly, the D-Line is dealing with the personal loss being experienced by veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who missed the team’s first two practices this week as he grieves with family after the death of his mother, Paula D. Rogers.
Rogers, 51, died Wednesday. A person close to the family said the death was sudden, and the cause is still unknown.
Fairley missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but is expected to return to New Orleans later today (Friday) and play in Sunday’s game against Kansas City.
And then of course, there is the other reason the spotlight will shine on the Saints D-Line in K.C. — which is how they match-up with the three key players that will be in the Chiefs offensive backfield.
Dec 14, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) hands off to running back Jamaal Charles (25) during the first half against the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
One of the reasons why the Chiefs are such a difficult challenge for the Saints, is the trio that they will ultimately have to face in head coach Andy Reid’s formidable offense: running backs Jamaal Charles and Spencer Ware, along with quarterback Alex Smith.
While Charles has only been back for two games after suffering a season ending injury last year, the Saints are the 25th ranked defense in the NFL against the run — and they don’t want to be the team that Charles has a “welcome back” party against.
Meanwhile, Ware — the former LSU Tiger star under Les Miles — is in his third year in the league, and even though he was a sixth round pick, he has been very impressive in Charles’ absence.
Charles has been slowly eased back into the line-up over the last two weeks, and Reid has used both players on a rotating basis in the past 2 weeks.
Against the Raiders, Ware exploded for 131 rushing yards and 2 TD’s; while Charles got the most extensive action yet (9 carries, 33 yards) in his first action since blowing out an ACL in his knee a year ago at this time against the Chicago Bears.
Sep 25, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (32) runs the ball during the second half against the New York Jets at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 24-3. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
As for Smith, while he has done well passing the ball, the Saints cannot forget that he can run the football.
Especially since he’s coming off a season where he rushed two yards shy of 500 rushing yards.
The Saints are used to running quarterbacks since they play Cam Newton twice a year, and while the Saints haven’t seen many quarterbacks take off yet this season, doesn’t mean they can let their guard down.
They’ll also have to look out for the halfback screens, since that was K.C.’s big yardage plays last week against Oakland — with two huge gains coming from Smith on throws to Ware and Charles off of those screens.
But even more importantly is the fact that with half of their overall touchdowns coming from the ground game, the Saints need to get in the backfield in a hurry and stop the run; which has been the biggest part of the Chiefs offense.
Aug 13, 2016; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) hands off to running back Spencer Ware (32) against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Seattle won the game 17-16. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
For most Saint fans, that can be a worrying task to ask the defense. While they have shown improvement, they have had their share of lackluster performances and don’t give fans much confidence.
But that is exactly how the Saints defensive line needs to play: with a lot of confidence.
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The big guys up front haven’t been playing horribly, but they haven’t really “shown up” when they were needed either.
Collectively as a unit, they’re hoping to change that.
Cam Jordan is still an All-Pro caliber player, but has struggled somewhat in the first 5 games (more on that in a moment).
Paul Kruger was non-existent in his first few games and then was injured briefly; but has been “feeling good” and came back to practice this week.
Tyeler Davison appears to have made a quantam leap forward in his development and shows a great amount of star potential. David Onyemata remains a work in progress, as he continues the transition from the Canadian version of the sport, to the NFL.
Nick Fairley clearly has been the unit’s best player thus far; and is on pace for a career year and leads the defensive line in sacks (3.5). It remains to be seen how his mother’s passing will impact his performance on Sunday.
Aug 20, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler (17) looks up after being sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley (90) in the first quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Many players use such tragic events as inspiration for a career-defining performance, most famously former Green Bay QB Brett Favre back in 2003, in an unforgettable and emotional performance against the Raiders in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football.
Perhaps the rest of the D-Line and the entire Saints team, can pick up their grieving teammate in his time of need.
But perhaps the best news of all for the D-Line recently was the return of first round draft pick Sheldon Rankins.
However, even with all this good news, there are still MANY questions that have yet to be answered.
Can Rankins play like a first round pick after the injury that sidelined him for the first 7 weeks?
Can the Saints give more pressure on quarterbacks to produce sacks?
But to me the biggest mystery is: where has Cameron Jordan gone?
Aug 26, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) in the second half of the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Jordan is coming off his second highest sack season with 10 of them in 2015, but he only has 2.5 sacks as of now. With the half way point coming up soon, Jordan needs to resume being the leader of the defensive and produce something more.
If the Saints defense wants to start winning on their side of the ball, it needs to start with the guys up front.
There hasn’t been enough pressure or sacks against opposing QB’s, nor has there been enough fundamentally sound tackling in the run defense; which clearly needs to be ‘turned up a notch’.
While the struggles on the defense are not all on the defensive line, there are strong leaders on the line who need to step up and rally the defense.
The performance they had against the Panthers in the second half of the game is inexcusable. Something needs to change, and the destiny of the defense is in the hands of defensive line.
Perhaps the return of Rankins in a few weeks can provide that impetus for change.
Jun 14, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (99) during the first day of minicamp sessions at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The tandem of Fairley and Rankins could prove to be one of the best interior rushes in the league. Fairley is on pace for a 10+ sack season, which he has only done twice in his six years in the NFL.
And, in case you forgot, Rankins’ senior year at Louisville he had 58 tackles, most in his college career, 8 of which were for a loss, and 6 sacks.
Bottom line: together at the tackle spots, the two could be a tandem that The Who Dat Nation has waited to see since the Saints drafted Rankins.
Jordan and Kruger have to control the outsides, and they are perfect for the job as they have the experience necessary to “lead” the defense.
Kruger has a Super Bowl ring and knows what a playoff-caliber defense looks like from his time in Baltimore, where he had 15.5 sacks.
That post-season experience is clearly what Sean Payton — no doubt under the heavy influence of Dennis Allen in his ear — was looking for when he brought Kruger aboard.
May 26, 2015; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns linebacker Paul Kruger (99) during organized team activities at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Jordan has been “Mr. Reliable” for years now; but without his explosive presence, it has been hard for the line to get to get going.
He needs to jump-start his guys on the line and produce the numbers we all expected from him, especially coming off a Pro Bowl season the year before.
Even with all the problems the defense has had over the last few years, they do look to have improved slightly.
However, they are still one of the worst defenses in football right now.
If they want to change the way that the rest of the NFL looks at them, they can start by “getting the job done” in Kansas City.
The RB tandem of Jamaal Charles and Spencer Ware and the cerebral Alex Smith under the tutelage of Andy Reid, provides a unique challenge.
And the spotlight will specifically shine upon the Saints D-Line — and we’ll find out very quickly on Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead, if they’re up to the task….