Saints' John Jenkins finally headed in right direction

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson was blunt in his assessment of nose tackle John Jenkins' struggles earlier in the season. But Johnson and other Saints coaches were clearly encouraged by what they saw this past Sunday as Jenkins finally got his season headed in the right direction.

Jenkins, who was inactive for three of the Saints’ first four games after missing much of the offseason because of a pectoral surgery, played well during 24 snaps in the Saints’ 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“John, you know, missed a lot of training camp ... and he was limited even in the first week of the season. So we played him in the second week, but I thought he played probably one of his worst games he had played against Cleveland. So we let him sit down another week or so,” Johnson said. “But I thought (this past Sunday) he looked more like his old self. I thought he looked quicker. I thought he played strong at the point of attack. And it looks to me like he’s finally got the number of reps it takes for a big man like that to play.

“I just thought he got behind during the preseason ... and I thought the last two weeks he really got better.”

Coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan made similar comments about Jenkins’ performance against Tampa Bay. Jenkins didn’t have any tackles or sacks in the game, but he helped build a wall up the middle that stifled the Buccaneers’ run game while splitting time with fellow nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

Tampa Bay finished with a total of 66 rushing yards on 21 carries (and one of those was a meaningless 16-yard run as time expired in regulation).

Jenkins had a standout rookie season last year after being drafted in the third round out of Georgia, with two of his best games coming in the playoffs (a career-high four tackles against Philadelphia and his lone career sack at Seattle). And he was expected to build off that by making that “Year 2 leap” this season. But then the pectoral injury wiped out all of OTAs and the first couple weeks of training camp.

Weight never seemed to be a big issue for the big man, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 359 pounds. He said he and the Saints prefer he plays in the 340s, and he said he was 347 when he returned to practice in August.

But as Ryan said, missing all that offseason work is even harder for bigger guys, in general. And clearly it took a while for Jenkins to get back to full speed.

“Everybody knows at this point I had that injury, and I’m just trying to work on it and get right and trying to do my job,” Jenkins said. “I’m not looking far down the road or anything, just taking it one day at a time, improving in practice and doing what I need to. And get back on the field and whatever they need me to do.”

Jenkins was held back from the Saints’ Week 4 trip to Dallas for an undisclosed reason. When asked if it was a disciplinary issue, Jenkins said only that it was Payton’s decision.

But in general, Jenkins seemed to keep a positive attitude while he was benched. When I talked to him last month, he said all the right things about being ready when needed and using the opportunity to learn how to get better after he relied on “pure instincts” and “want to” last season.

And now Jenkins said he was definitely encouraged by the way the coaches quickly gave him another opportunity.

“Of course,” Jenkins said. “We’re here to play games and have fun. So I was encouraged and excited at the same time.”