Role reversal: Saints' D-line takes control in Drew Brees' absence

METAIRIE, La. -- This week’s matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears is taking on the feel of a heavyweight fight.

The Bears’ reputation up front on defense is well established. But if you haven’t been paying close attention, you might not realize that the Saints’ defensive line has also become a driving force during Drew Brees' absence.

The Saints are now 5-1 after All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan's two sacks powered their 13-6 knockout win at Jacksonville -- just two weeks after they won a 12-10 slugfest over Dallas.

And defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said he wouldn’t mind it one bit if both defenses become the headliners leading up to Sunday’s game at Chicago.

“No doubt. If they want to talk about it that way, that’s fine with me,” Rankins said. “That just means the onus is gonna be on us to show up and continue to do what we’ve done these past couple weeks. So I’m here for it.

“If they want to talk about Cam Jordan vs. Khalil Mack and different things like that, that’s cool. I’ll ride with my guy every time and I’ll take my guys against any offensive line and any team. So, yeah, it’ll be fun.”

The Saints have been particularly dominant over the past three weeks, where they rank third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed (245 per game) and top five in run defense, pass defense and points allowed. They also extended their streak to 32 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher by corralling both Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette during that stretch.

As Rankins suggested, it starts with Jordan, who has only continued to gain steam since he finally became a first-team All-Pro in his seventh season in 2017.

Jordan has five sacks through the first six games this year after he had 13 sacks in 2017 and 12 in 2018. The 6-foot-4, 287-pounder is also a standout run defender who plays more than 90% of New Orleans’ defensive snaps and is tied for the league lead with 12 batted passes over the past two-plus seasons.

“He’s special,” Rankins said. “From the moment you cut the tape on, you see a guy who’s playing 100 miles an hour. Every play. For a guy who’s done as many great things in this league as he has, usually at some point in a guy’s career they start to pick and choose when they want to turn it on and turn it off … But it’s special.”

New Saints nose tackle Malcom Brown, who spent his first four years with the New England Patriots, said Jordan’s relentless energy has been infectious.

“Man, he’s just very energetic and he has a motor that doesn’t stop. He’s aggressive. He does everything right that you want out of a player. He motivates me to play harder out there too,” Brown said. “When I see him going hard at practice or in a game or wherever, I just try to meet his tempo and his attitude about the game.”

Jordan, who turned 30 in July right around the time he signed a three-year contract extension worth between $17.5 million and $18.5 million per year, said he has no intention of letting up anytime soon.

As Rankins was talking about him, Jordan shouted from his nearby locker that he won’t start taking it easy until “Year 20! Year 20! We ain’t there yet.”

“It’s the peak of my career. I’m in my prime,” insisted Jordan, who pointed to other standout defensive linemen like Calais Campbell and Cameron Wake who did some of their best work in their 30s.

Jordan also said the competition with the rest of New Orleans’ talented defensive line -- including emerging second-year defensive end Marcus Davenport -- keeps him fresh and motivated.

“We’re always racing to the quarterback. I gotta lead that charge, baby. I need that. This is my passion,” Jordan said. “I mean every down, first, second, third, if they have to do a fourth-down stand, this is my passion, this is what I’ve geared myself for. I fought a long time ago for just the ability to get on [the field on] third down. I’m not relinquishing anything.”

The Saints’ defensive line was also excellent last year, when the team ranked second in the NFL in run defense and tied for fifth in sacks.

But what’s even more remarkable about their continued success this year is how they’ve done it with several changing parts. Former starting defensive end Alex Okafor left in free agency. The Saints decided to switch nose tackles from Tyeler Davison to Brown. And Rankins missed the first three games of the season while recovering from a torn Achilles.

But Brown has proved to be a great addition so far against both the run and pass. Fourth-year defensive tackle David Onyemata has continued to develop into a huge asset, which will make his pending free agency very interesting. And Davenport has rapidly developed in his second season after the Saints used two first-round picks to get him in 2017 (trading their 2018 first-rounder to move up from No. 27 to No. 14).

Davenport has three sacks this year. He is tied for third in the NFL with 12 quarterback hits. And he ranks fourth in the league in pass rush win rate against double-teams, according to ESPN Stats & Info and NFL Next Gen Stats.

“He’s evolving,” said Jordan, who said he has always believed that players make the biggest leap in Year 2.

That was expected from the lanky 6-foot-6, 265-pounder, who was considered a bit of a raw, developmental prospect out of Texas-San Antonio. But it has been more than just physical growth with Davenport, who admittedly needed to gain confidence and a belief that he belonged at the NFL level early last season.

“I feel like my confidence has improved. But it didn’t come all together. It’s just been a process,” said Davenport, who said the work on the practice field has really carried over to games this year.

Rankins said he has talked a lot with Davenport, and his biggest advice to the fellow first-round draft pick was not to overthink things and to “just play.”

“This group is as talented as I’ve been around,” Rankins said. “And you see guys each and every week progress and continue to get better -- even Cam, as good as he is.

“And I think that’s scary for a lot of teams.”