Figuratively, Cameron Jordan was the rose that against the odds, inexplicably sprouted and bloomed among the weeds through the cracked, weathered concrete last season.
That's the equivalent of being the best player on the worst defense in NFL history. And it wasn't exactly a title he proudly wore, no matter if it celebrated the fact that led the New Orleans Saints defensive line in tackles (76), led the team in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (three) and tied for the team lead in fumble recoveries (two).
What couldn't be overlooked – wouldn't be overlooked, despite Jordan's presence, production and willingness to play leaps and bounds above the score – was the fact that New Orleans surrendered a league-record 7,042 yards, 440.1 per game, in a 7-9 season that might've been several games worse if the Saints' hadn't somehow managed to outscore opponents overall 461-454.
This season, the Saints' defense is better – exponentially so. Opponents' scoring is down (17.8 points per game), their yards are down (310 per game) and the defense's acclaim is up.
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/Top-10-Defense-Photos-Saints-at-Falcons/60b677d6-e0ab-4687-862e-5bbc3cb88c2a "defense photos")
And Jordan's star appears to be rising alongside it, as he becomes one of the league's premier defensive linemen. His team-leading 9.5 sacks already is a career high, and he has three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries to go along with that.
As good as he was last year, he possibly could be that much better this year.
"I think we've seen a bigger jump because, No. 1, the players around him are having success," Coach Sean Payton said. "You can excel in a season like a year ago and there's no attention that's going to be drawn to that.
"I think he's in great shape and I think he's got an exceptional way of getting on the edge of an offensive player. He's close to 100 percent back from that ankle that he tweaked a few weeks back, and had a huge impact in (Thursday) night's game."
Thursday, Jordan wreaked havoc in Atlanta's backfield in a 17-13 victory by the Saints.
He finished with 2.5 sacks, six tackles, a pass defensed and four quarterback hits. All told, the Saints sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times and hit him 10 times.
But Jordan, as he has all season, led the way. At times he has appeared impossible to block and Thursday was another one of those times, among several this season.
It's the kind of play that teammates saw last year, as he sprang through the cracked sidewalk.
"Last year he was one of those guys for us who kind of jumped off the tape when you watched him," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "His effort is phenomenal and that's the biggest thing that we saw last year – his effort to the ball, every play.
"He's one of those D-linemen that can play, literally, every down of a game and not be tired. Last year we saw that come out. This year, with everybody else kind of getting added into the pass rush, we're seeing Cam win all of those one-on-one battles, he's making those plays. We already kind of knew he was going to have a big year. He'll get better and better as the years go on.
And when Jordan is better, the entire defense elevates.
"Our D-line is playing phenomenal," Jenkins said. "It feels good as a (defensive back), when we're playing man coverage, after about 2.5 seconds you see the quarterback go down. It makes our life a lot easier on the back end and it allows us to do a lot more.
"This defense really goes as far as the D-line takes us. When they play well against the run, we make teams one-dimensional and then they get to do what they want to do, and that's pass rush. They can all get to the quarterback."
Especially, their rose.