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New Orleans Saints defensive line in a rush to get to quarterbacks

Saints defensive linemen have 25 of team's 32 sacks, led by Trey Hendrickson's 9.5

Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons matchup in Week 11 of the 2020 NFL season.

David Onyemata, the New Orleans Saints' speak-softly-but-administer-big-sticks defensive tackle, said there isn't a secret sauce to it.

"Just executing the game plan," Onyemata said. "That's how I see it."

Don't debate the man's humility, just appreciate the production.

The Saints, 8-2 entering Sunday's game against the Broncos (4-6) at Empower Stadium at Mile High in Denver, have benefited from loads of it provided especially by the defensive line this season.

Sacks are the glamour stat, not always indicative of overall effectiveness. But that doesn't make it any less impressive for the Saints, whose defensive linemen have supplied 25 of the team's 32 sacks, led by defensive ends Trey Hendrickson (career high and league-leading 9.5) and Cam Jordan (5.5), and Onyemata (5).

New Orleans hasn't had three defensive linemen with at least five sacks in the same season since 2012, when Jordan (eight), the late Will Smith (six) and Junior Galette (five) managed the feat.

"I think overall, the group's done a really good job," Coach Sean Payton said. "You can point to David Onyemata, you can point to Trey, you can point to a handful of the different tackles that have been in there: Sheldon (Rankins), when he was healthy, (Shy) Tuttle, (Malcolm) Roach, there's a number of those guys that are getting snaps.

"Carl (Granderson) is getting snaps and I think that rotation has helped us, and I think that we've tried to come up with the best way of how to play those guys and how to play the defense we're playing."

The depth shows from the standpoint that seven defensive linemen have combined for the 25 sacks. New Orleans has come on strong with its pass rush – 25 sacks have come during its seven-game winning streak, including a season-high eight in Sunday's 24-9 victory over Atlanta in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

And the quality of the line has begun to rear its head.

Jordan, a three-time All-Pro, totaled three sacks against the Falcons after having spent the bulk of the season being double teamed and chipped, with quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly.

"Sometimes your packages might come from an even front, sometimes it might come from an odd front that can affect the end, especially a guy like Cam over on the right side," Payton said. "It was good to see his production and yet there was a lot of hidden production sometimes in rushing the passer and you don't always necessarily get to see the end result, which is a stat line like a sack.

"There's hurries, there's hits, there's all those other elements that go into it. You keep working and going harder. It's tough to rush the passer, especially in a game where it becomes a little one-dimensional, that takes energy. The one thing Cam's had throughout his career is his stamina and he's always in good shape, so I think more importantly I'm just pleased with how we're playing defensively."

The quarterback hits list totals 61 for the Saints, including 17 by Hendrickson, 13 by Onyemata and seven by Jordan. And the three have combined for 24 tackles for loss, eight each, of the team's 54 total.

"They're relentless, unselfish," left tackle Terron Armstead said. "They are an impressive group to watch and to go up against in training camp. You see it every day. The production is not by accident."

Neither, the Saints say, is Hendrickson's rise.

In his first three seasons he had 6.5 sacks, including a career high 4.5 last season. But his offseason of gaining weight and strength, coupled with growing experience, has helped Hendrickson make a gargantuan leap in production. One of Hendrickson's two sacks against Atlanta came with him carrying left tackle Jake Matthews into quarterback Matt Ryan and, literally, one-arming Ryan to the turf while Matthews clamped his right side.

"Well, it's really game plan and execution," Hendrickson said after the game. "Sacks come when defensive backs are covering, linebackers are covering or blitzing, and then D-linemen are finishing or rushing. It's a team game for a reason. Nothing can get done if we're not working on 11 guys together."

And Hendrickson has shown the ability to prosper from the cohesion.

"I know he's a tremendous worker, I know he's in outstanding shape," Payton said. "I know he's healthy. All those other things contribute to what you're seeing now and it's a credit to him and the players around him.

"I'm happy for him. I think he would tell you it's important to win. I think it starts with the other elements of how he works, how he trains, all those things."

"Getting more reps, opportunity," Armstead said of Hendrickson. "But at the same time growing as a player and as a professional, understanding the rush, understanding the depth of the pocket, learning more about the playbook. His approach to how he goes about his business speaks to his production."

Hendrickson's approach, and that of the entire defensive line, has been one that has contributed to New Orleans' recent defensive surge. In the last three games, the Saints have 13 sacks and seven interceptions (one by Onyemata), while allowing 8.3 points, 36.3 rushing yards and 241 yards per game.

It has been a drastic turnaround from early this season, when New Orleans allowed 31.3 points, 100 rushing yards and 351.3 yards per game during a 1-2 start.

"I feel like we got disrespected as a whole," defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson said. "The D-line isn't receiving as much credit as they should, from everybody. But, we don't care, you just see what they can do up front.

"We have Cam, Trey, Malcom (Brown), David, Malcolm Roach, you got Shy Tuttle, Marcus Davenport, you got a lot of guys that come in off a high end. When these guys come in they know they have to get to the quarterback."

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