A look at the New Orleans Saints' defensive line through the first six weeks of the 2013 season:
Looking back: The Saints’ defensive line play has been outstanding this season -- especially considering how many young players have stepped up through a barrage of injuries. They’ve arguably been New Orleans’ most valuable unit during the team’s 5-1 start.
End Cameron Jordan was excellent last season, but he’s been even better in his third NFL season, earning a lot of national attention for his play. A power rusher and a standout run defender, he has five sacks and a forced fumble this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Jordan also has five quarterback hits and 24 hurries.
Second-year end Akiem Hicks and rookie nose tackle John Jenkins have also been very good as the primary starters in the Saints’ three-man front. Both are stout run-stuffers, but they’ve also shown an ability to push the pocket back on passing downs, sometimes leading to sacks on the edges. Hicks has one sack of his own. Backup ends Tyrunn Walker, Tom Johnson and Glenn Foster have taken turns producing while rotating in and out of the lineup because of injuries. They each have one sack this season. And veteran nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley just returned in Week 6 from a Week 1 injury.
Looking forward: It’s hard to imagine we’ll keep seeing the same level of dominant production that we saw from this group in September -- especially now that the secret is out around the league. But there is nothing fluky about the individual performances. Jordan has been on this steady rise since his rookie season. Hicks and Walker showed flashes of this kind of talent as rookies last season. And Jenkins and Foster showed signs of this type of ability in the summer. Now that all of the injuries are healing, the Saints are suddenly overloaded with depth.
It will also help the pass rush if they keep things unpredictable. After relying heavily on a four-man rush in the first four games, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan caught offenses off guard with more frequent blitzes over the past two weeks.
Snaps played (out of a possible 375): Jordan 349, Hicks 238, Jenkins 207, Foster 93, Johnson 65, Walker 59, Bunkley 14, defensive end Keyunta Dawson 11.
ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “I love their defensive line. I think Jenkins was a find (in the third round out of Georgia). Hicks has come on strong in his second year. Jordan is a star in the making. They have depth. Bunkley is a good player. And they’re better suited to a 3-4. I think it’s one of the better 3-4 defensive lines out there, and they’re really the unsung heroes of this whole success story.”