NEW ORLEANS -- Hau'oli Kikaha made his presence felt Saturday night, starting with the first snap of the game.
The New Orleans Saints' rookie linebacker powered through a block attempt by New England Patriots receiver Brandon Gibson, knocking him back on his heels. Then Kikaha stuffed running back LeGarrette Blount for a 5-yard loss on the play.
“It was awesome (to start the game that way),” Kikaha said. “It’s really cool to have plays early that are in your area. It was a great opportunity, and I’m glad I didn’t miss.”
Kikaha didn’t stop there. He stood out to me more than any other Saints defensive player, both when I watched the game live and reviewed it again on tape.
The second-round draft pick from Washington started at Sam linebacker. He consistently flashed energy and athleticism throughout the first half as New Orleans jumped to a 21-0 lead when the starters were in the game.
Kikaha got one of the Saints’ few hits on the quarterback when he put a good lick on Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo to force an incomplete pass on fourth down late in the first half. He did a great job chasing down a screen pass from behind. And he consistently penetrated the backfield on both run and pass plays.
The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder remains a work in progress, especially when it comes to playing off the line, since he primarily lined up as a pass-rusher with his hand in the dirt in college. He hasn’t locked down a starting job yet with the Saints as he competes with the likes of second-year pro Kasim Edebali and injured veteran Anthony Spencer.
But Saturday’s performance was certainly “encouraging,” as Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Kikaha said the old cliché about being able to play faster once you start to know what you’re doing and don’t have to think as much is “the truth.”
“You’re settled down, you have more trust. You’re able to be calm in the mind and make plays in front of you,” said Kikaha, who noted “there’s not one single moment” where things started to click for him in camp.
“It’s the accumulation of practices that add up together,” Kikaha said. “And each day, one or two things will click.”
“Kika is coming on strong,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan -- who had a strong performance himself. “Kika is clearly headed in the direction that the team wants him to, did great tonight. We still have Edebali, who can be a dominant Sam 'backer for us.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys on this defense, and I’m getting pretty excited about where we’re headed. ... But we’ve still got a long ways to go.”
Some other notables from New Orleans’ dominant defensive performance in the first half Saturday night:
Jordan, linebacker David Hawthorne and defensive tackle Kevin Williams also consistently flashed on film as the Saints consistently got penetration up front. The Patriots had a total of zero rushing yards on their first 11 carries, thanks to runs of minus-5, minus-4, minus-3 and minus-3.
The only thing missing was a consistent pass rush. “I don’t know that we hit the quarterback all night. That is a little concerning,” Payton said. Kikaha and Jordan each had a couple hurries. Bobby Richardson had a near sack that turned into a TD when Garoppolo escaped his grasp. And the Patriots had to settle for mostly check-down passes until Garoppolo led that hurry-up TD drive in the final minute before half. “Pressures are cool, sacks are always better,” Jordan said. “That being said, we played Tom Brady pretty well, and that’s saying a lot right now.”
The Saints’ depleted secondary held up extremely well despite missing all four starters and their nickel cornerback because of injuries. Veteran Kyle Wilson, who played the nickel corner, stood out multiple times, including a great pass breakup on third-and-short. It was the best he’s looked since joining the Saints. Stanley Jean-Baptiste mostly held up well as a starter, but he lost coverage on Garoppolo’s 24-yard TD to receiver Chris Harper after Garoppolo escaped.