Sheldon Rankins' impact on Saints goes much deeper than numbers

METAIRIE, La. -- Sheldon Rankins wanted that end zone bad.

The New Orleans Saints’ 305-pound defensive tackle flashed back to his previous life as a running back (when he was a high school freshman) by showing off some pretty nifty moves after his first career interception on Sunday.

Alas, Rankins’ 27-yard return fell three yards short of the goal line. And Mark Ingram scored on the next play.

It was basically a microcosm of Rankins’ entire season. The No. 12 overall pick in the 2016 draft has been playing very well for New Orleans’ dominant defense this year -- even better, by most accounts, than he did as a rookie, when he had four sacks in nine games.

But he doesn’t have many flashy stats to show for it. Rankins, who also had his first sack of the season in Sunday’s 47-10 rout at the Buffalo Bills, mostly has been setting up others with pressure up the middle or by calling out adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

“Man, listen, I needed every bit of that end zone,” Rankins said. “It sucks I couldn’t get in. But to come up with a pick like that and do what I did with it, I’ll take that any day.

“To be a part of a defensive game like we had today, and then to be able to make the plays I made today, was big. ... We’re just confident right now. We’re playing good, we’re meshing, and things are going in the right direction.”

Rankins has just 10 tackles, one sack, one interception, three tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and one forced fumble this season. But the analytic service Pro Football Focus indicated he had ranked fifth among defensive tackles in terms of pass-rush productivity over a six-game stretch leading up to the contest in Buffalo.

Rankins has shown his versatility while rushing as both a 3-technique tackle in four-man fronts and the nose tackle in three-man fronts. And he showed his athleticism on Sunday’s interception -- after he had dropped back to cover tight end Charles Clay.

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who is putting up some gaudy individual statistics, repeatedly has credited his teammate for the pressure Rankins creates, the double teams that Rankins takes on and those adjustments Rankins calls at the line of scrimmage.

Jordan recently told the New Orleans Advocate that Rankins is “becoming the mastermind of the defensive line.”

“If you’re around him long enough, he’s just one of those guys that doesn’t always say a lot, but he’s definitely someone that understands the whole scheme,” Saints coach Sean Payton said recently. “Rarely is he missing assignments. Some guys pick things up quickly, and he’s one of them. He has a good feel for his gap, but also his responsibility as it pertains to run or pass.

“He was one of those rookies that came in with kind of the understanding or savviness that some players in Year 3 or 4 might have.”

Rankins was admittedly frustrated with his lack of explosive plays before Sunday’s game, since that is how he made his mark at Louisville, where he had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons.

But Rankins said he thinks he has become “progressively better” each week.

“Probably my worst game of the year was Minnesota [in Week 1],” Rankins said. “But each game after that, I think I’ve been getting a lot of pressure, a lot of disruption, causing a lot of havoc. It may not show up on the stat sheet, but I’m there.

“So I think just over this whole trend we’ve been going on, I think I’ve been getting better each week, and I think I took another step this week.”