For two years, since they were selected 11th and 24th in the first round of the 2011 draft, combo-platter defensive ends J.J. Watt of Houston and Cameron Jordan of New Orleans had a large gulf between them. Watt was the record-breaker, the pass-deflector and sack machine, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan was a nice defensive end, but miscast in the Saints’ futile 4-3 scheme.
At 6-4 and 287 pounds, Jordan needed to be a Watt, a 3-4 end who moved inside and played some 3-technique depending on the down and distance. That’s how Watt got his 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections in 2012. It was one of the best seasons a defensive lineman ever had.
Someone saw. Someone knew the impact Jordan could make playing as a 3-4 end on running downs and playing inside against the pass. Veteran defensive coach Rob Ryan knew, and when Sean Payton replaced coordinator Steve Spagnuolo—a 4-3 guy—with malleable 3-4 maven Ryan after the Saints’ disastrous defensive season in 2012, Ryan pushed Jordan to his more natural spot. And Ryan essentially told him to go get the quarterback and forget everything else on passing downs. It was perfect for Jordan. Watch him play, and you see a Tasmanian devil, a powerful and slippery twister-and-turner with 17 quarterback disruptions (sacks, pressures and knockdowns) through three games. Watt has 14.
Jordan was the 37th-rated 4-3 end by Pro Football Focus, the service that rates every play by every player. Through three weeks in 2013, he’s the second-rated 3-4 end, second only to Watt. In an interview from New Orleans on Monday, Jordan said of Watt: “He’s a high-motor individual.”
It is exactly how Jordan plays. It’s easy to play with a high motor when you know you can play instinctively instead of thinking a lot.
“The new scheme we’re running is more user-friendly,’’ Jordan said. “When you’re more comfortable with the scheme, that eliminates the hesitating movement.’’
Ryan has made Jordan what the young rusher called the “jackknife’’ of the Saints defense. Maybe “Swiss Army knife’’ is more appropriate, seeing that Jordan plays all over the line. But where he feels best is inside, where he’s comfortable slicing through the guard-tackle and guard-center gaps to take a shorter path to the quarterback. “I definitely like my role,’’ he said. “I feel it’s more cemented than last year. I used to feel I was just a left end. Now I do some 3-technique, and I bounce outside. Rob does a great job of figuring out everyone’s best role—speed guys, power guys.”
Jordan illustrates what many Saints’ defenders said about Spagnuolo’s scheme in 2012—they were thinking too much and not in their best individual roles. In 2012, the Saints sent a record for defensive futility, allowing the most yards of any team in a season in NFL history: 440 per game. The Saints signed free-agent outside linebacker Victor Butler from Dallas in the offseason to ramp up the non-existent pass-rush. But Butler and veteran Will Smith, the best pass-rush prospects for Ryan, both were lost for the season due to summer ACL tears. And a spate of other injuries left the Saints with the youngest defensive front they’ve had in years; the average age of the men in the front seven who played the most snaps Sunday is 24.3. The most impactful rushers, Jordan and Junior Galette, are 24 and 25, respectively. Coach Sean Payton said Monday it “wasn’t by design’’ that the defense got young so quickly. “The young players earned their spots,’’ he said.
“Everyone talks about [the Saints losing] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma,’’ Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said after his team’s 31-7 loss Sunday in New Orleans. “But Cameron Jordan is really good. Junior Galette is really good. They both stop the run and rush the passer. That is a really good combination.’’
Through three games New Orleans opponents have had 33 possessions and scored four offensive touchdowns. Of the other 29 possessions, 20 ended in punts and six in turnovers. That is what’s called a dominant defense. The Saints kept the Cards scoreless for the final 50 minutes and 10 drives on Sunday.
Now comes a significant three-week test. In 14 days beginning Monday night, the unbeaten Saints host 3-0 Miami, then travel to 3-0 Chicago and 3-0 in New England. There might not be a tougher three-game stretch any team will face in this season of early surprises. But those teams are going to have to worry about the New Orleans defense now, and not just Drew Brees. Times are changing in New Orleans.
Want more Jordan? The Saints defensive star will be the guest on this week’s “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” posting at TheMMQB.com on Wednesday.