Cameron Jordan, Saints defense surge to No. 1: 'It's a we thing'

METAIRIE, La. -- Whatever it is about Matt Ryan that brings out the best in New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, he isn’t saying.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about this week. This week I’m only focused on the next W,” said Jordan, who will get another crack at the Atlanta Falcons quarterback on Sunday after sacking him three times in Week 11, four times last Thanksgiving and a whopping total of 21 times in his career.

That’s more than any player has sacked any one quarterback since it became an official statistic in 1982, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Jordan surpassed Hall of Famers such as Bruce Smith (17.5 against Ken O’Brien) and Derrick Thomas (17 against John Elway) to earn that unique spot in NFL history.

“I think it’s gonna take a collective team effort to not only keep Matt Ryan in the pocket, as well as contain the likes of Julio [Jones] and Calvin [Ridley],” Jordan added.

Jordan’s answer was a tad disappointing -- considering he has one of the league’s most colorful personalities and is rarely shy when it comes to throwing a little shade toward the rival Falcons.

But it was also revealing. Because the secret to Jordan’s recent sack success truly has been a “collective team effort.”

The Saints now have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense this season (284.9 yards per game) because every unit has been thriving at the same time over the past month.

“I think we’ve put together a stretch where our secondary, our linebackers, our defensive line have really elevated our play. So it’s not more of an ‘I’ thing, it’s more of a ‘we’ thing, where we’re all elevating our play at the right time,” said Jordan, who has five sacks over the past five games after he had just 1.5 sacks in the first six games.

The Saints’ overall defensive numbers over the past five games are absurd.

They rank No. 1 in the league over that stretch in points allowed (10.2 per game) total yards allowed (232.8), rushing yards allowed (61.0), opponents’ Total QBR (27.3), opponents’ passer rating (55.3), third-down defense (25.0% conversion rate), red zone defense (28.6% touchdown rate) and interceptions (10). They rank second in passing yards allowed (171.8 per game) and sacks (19).

To be fair, that includes this past Sunday’s unusual 31-3 win at Denver -- when the Broncos were playing without any of their quarterbacks because of COVID-19 protocols and the Saints' defense allowed a franchise-record 112 total yards.

But that stretch also included a dominant 38-3 win at Tampa Bay, a 27-13 win over San Francisco when Drew Brees left at halftime with injuries and the 24-9 win over Atlanta without Brees in the lineup.

“I think this unit is playing with much more juice,” said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who did a deep dive on New Orleans’ defense for this week’s NFL Matchup show. “There’s much more energy on the field when you watch them on tape. And I think where it starts is in the back end of the defense.

“We talked earlier in the year about alignment and assignment responsibilities. You saw coverage busts, you saw guys getting loose off the line of scrimmage, you saw lack of communication in the secondary. That has changed dramatically in my opinion, just from watching the tape. You watch when a team lines up in a bunch or a stacked set or when there’s pre-snap movement, these guys are communicating like crazy in the back end.

“Then the talent can take over, then you add in what [Saints defensive coordinator] Dennis Allen is doing in terms of his scheme [a good mix of pressure packages and simulated pressures].”

Indeed, the Saints had issues earlier this year with deep pass interference penalties and zone-coverage breakdowns that left receivers wide open. During a stretch from Weeks 3-8, they allowed seven passes of 48-plus yards.

Since then, safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Williams, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson have been much more cohesive.

“It started from when we sat down and said, ‘Listen we ain’t doing this no more. We ain’t getting beat.’ We feel like we’re the best secondary in the league,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I feel like these past couple weeks -- you notice it -- everybody’s doing their job.”

Saints coach Sean Payton pointed to the elimination of those deep passing plays. He also stressed the importance of the Saints’ situational defense, where they have also made drastic turnarounds. Through the first seven weeks, New Orleans ranked last in the NFL in red zone defense and 29th in third-down defense.

“It had to [improve],” Payton said. “It couldn’t have gotten any worse.”

Jordan and Bowen both also credited the surging play of fellow defensive linemen such as tackle David Onyemata and ends Trey Hendrickson and Marcus Davenport for increasing Jordan’s opportunities. Linebacker Demario Davis has been playing at an All-Pro level again. The addition of linebacker Kwon Alexander has added athleticism to the position.

Last but not least, Bowen pointed to the aggressive play of New Orleans’ safeties. Bowen said the Saints are currently leading the NFL in snaps played in two-man formations -- which means two deep safeties with man coverage underneath.

Most of the Saints’ whopping total of eight sacks against Ryan two weeks ago were coverage sacks because he was forced to hold the ball too long.

“What they’re doing with those safeties is not only protecting over the top, but using them to drop down like robbers, cutting crossers, taking away middle-of-the-field throws and forcing the quarterback to come off his primary read,” said Bowen -- who said that was especially effective against less mobile QBs like Ryan and Tom Brady. “What happens to a quarterback when you do that -- especially the ones who lack movement traits? The pass rush gets home.”

Like Jordan said, it’s a “we” thing.