It is not often that the defense bails out the offense for the New Orleans Saints. Usually the team can rely on quarterback Drew Brees and his plethora of weapons to light up any scoreboard.
But Week 12 of the 2013 NFL season was the turn of the defense to be the game-winner for the now 9-2 Saints. The unit has been reinvigorated by new coordinator Rob Ryan, and the key to that success has been a dominant defensive line.
The Saints front is getting better every week and destroyed the Atlanta Falcons. The line accounted for four of the team's five sacks and allowed the Saints to escape the home of their NFC South rivals with a 17-13 win.
Two burgeoning stars led the way, in the form of end Cameron Jordan and monster tackle Akiem Hicks. The pair notched the line's four sacks between them and routinely crushed the pocket and filled rushing lanes all night.
Hicks got things started on the third play of the second quarter with the Falcons at their own 25-yard line. The Saints aligned in their base 3-4 alignment, with Hicks at left defensive end.
At the snap, the mammoth second-year pro obliterated an attempted double-team by Atlanta's right guard and tackle. He split both blocks and powered through to envelop quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him for an eight-yard loss.
It was a stunning display of the frightening combination of initial quickness and strength the 6'5", 324-pound Hicks possesses.
But he wasn't finished there. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Hicks struck again, combining with Jordan for another sack.
This time Ryan deployed his defense in a nickel alignment, which meant Hicks and Jordan were together on the same side of a four-man line.
Hicks was lined up as a 3-technique defensive tackle, ready to attack the gap between the right offensive guard and tackle. Jordan was positioned at end, outside the right tackle.
Once the ball was snapped, Hicks shoved guard Garrett Reynolds back into the face of Ryan. That forced the hurried passer to step up where Jordan was waiting to complete a seven-yard loss.
On the very next play, the Saints showed the strength in depth of their defensive line rotation. Hicks went out, replaced by 359-pound rookie defensive tackle John Jenkins.
Tom Johnson, a 288-pound, fleet-footed interior pass-rusher also came in. He got the initial pressure inside, commanding a double-team from both the left guard and center.
That meant rush end Junior Galette only had to beat one block off the corner. He did just that and again forced Ryan to step up, where Jordan, who had flown off the other edge, was waiting to dump him for a 2-yard loss.
This two-play sequence was the highlight for a defensive front that took over in Atlanta. They prevented the Falcons from turning long drives into points and pulling away from a struggling Saints offense.
With his line winning like this, Rob Ryan doesn't have to risk as many blitzes. Noted for his fondness for bringing the blitz, Ryan is able to take less chances in coverage thanks to his line's ability to dominate the pocket.
That has helped the Saints go from 31st to third in pass defense.
Many critics, including myself, may have felt Ryan's defense will inevitably let the Saints down when it counts.
But with so many weapons along the front and two dominant playmakers in Jordan and Hicks, this line, and the defense as a whole will only get better.
A Saints team with both an offense and defense capable of winning games is a scary thought for the rest of the NFC.
image: © David Reber Hammer Photography