It just so happened that when New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins made his 2019 debut Sunday against Dallas in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, in his first game since rupturing his Achilles in the NFC divisional playoff game against Philadelphia on Jan. 13, that the Saints (3-1) played their best defensive game of the season.
With Rankins getting snaps in the defensive line rotation, the Saints held Dallas to 10 points and 257 yards of offense in a 12-10 victory, their second consecutive victory over a team that was unbeaten at kickoff.
"Don't put that on me. Don't put that on me," Rankins said, laughing. "I mean, listen, everybody went out and executed the gameplan to a 'T.' And I said this last year: When everybody is on the same page on this defense, we're pretty hard to move the ball against, period. We'll say it's that. I definitely won't put it all on me.
"I didn't go out there and have eight sacks or something. Now if that would've happened, I'd have gladly taken (the credit). But, no, this defense, when we're clicking on all cylinders, teams are going to have to find ways to move the ball on us. We pride ourselves on that. For us moving forward, it's all about playing with that same type of consistency."
The possibility of that happening increases with the return of Rankins, who had a career-high eight sacks last season. He had two assisted tackles and a quarterback hit against Dallas.
Rankins played limited snaps against the Cowboys, but said he felt fine afterward and was ready for any level of workload the staff wanted to give him.
"I did good," he said. "(I) was rusty, that's to be expected. I haven't played a real football game in eight months, so a little rusty. But the more I played, the more I felt my way through the rust. I'll just continue to improve and I just need to improve every time I'm out there.
"Cardio-wise, I was good. You just can't replicate that speed, can't replicate those movements any other way than playing actual football in a live game. It'll get better.
"I just went out there, played as much as they would allow me to play. If I'm going to go out there, I'm going to go out there. I'm not sitting there worrying about how many plays I'm playing, I just play."
It was a scene that teammates were happy to absorb. Rankins is one of the most popular Saints in the locker room, productive and gregarious, a leader whose voice carries significance.
"Sheldon, I've been knowing him since our college days," said quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was one of Rankins' teammates at Louisville in 2012 and '13. "He's always been a guy who's just been quiet, gone about his business and worked extremely hard.
"To see him bounce back and return to the playing field last week, it was huge, it was huge. For the defense to see a guy like him – we all understand what he went through last year and how much of a great season he was having and it ended the way it did. But to see him return and be out there with his brothers, with all of us, it was huge for us."
And for Rankins, the setting couldn't have been more appropriate: Against a first-place team, on the field where he injured his Achilles.
"It was crazy," he said. "That's where it all happened. To be able to go out there, play a game, help this team get a big win against a team that was rolling at the time, is good.
"I think the good part is, I can watch tape and clearly see things that I need to improve upon and as a defense we need to improve upon. That's the good part. It's always good to be able to watch the tape and not feel like you played your best game, and knowing you can go back and clean things up and continue to get better. I'm happy with me being a part of that defensive effort, and I know that we'll continue to put efforts like that on tape."
And Rankins will continue to get back to being the player he's accustomed to being.
"At times I was explosive, I was strong," he said. "I was able to kind of use my hands well at times. It's just some of the more nuanced things about the position, things that you have to be able to actually feel in live action, those are some of the things I just know I need to improve upon.
"But that'll come with reps and playing in games. I have no doubt that I'll be back to doing everything I know I can do, at a consistent rate, and being the player I know I can be."