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Saints program cover story: Sheldon Rankins

Third-year defensive tackle having best season of career

Sheldon Rankins is in the business of breaking opponents physically and/or mentally.

This season, his business is expanding. The trail behind Rankins is littered with fractured psyches.

True, entering Sunday' game against Philadelphia in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints' third-year defensive tackle has a full repertoire on which to rely. It's hard for an opposing center or guard to know just how he might be involved in a play that he'll not want to have dissected during the following day's film session.

But the bull rush? For Rankins, call it the "bully" rush. When he runs through grown men, either pushing through in order to sack a quarterback or manhandling them into the quarterback's lap, it's a level of physical domination that causes him to smile at the recollection.

"One of the most demoralizing things in this game is to be able to run right through a guy," Rankins said. "Guys can take being beat around the edge, guys can take being kind of – if I spin on a guy, it's something he's just not used to seeing.

"But if you allow a guy to run right down the middle of you and put you on your ass, or dump you right into the quarterback, or something like that, it's demoralizing. The fact that I'm able to do that, not only to kind of get into the head of my opponent but help this team make quarterbacks go off reads and have to break and run to my guys so that they can make tackles and different things like that, it's big. And I know if I continue to do that, good things will happen for this team."

When good things are happening for the Saints (8-1), bad things are happening to the guy lined up in front of him.

Rankins punished Vikings center Matt Elflein so quickly and thoroughly that quarterback Kirk Cousins didn't have time to release on a three-step drop on Rankins' sack. It wasn't the only time he menaced Minnesota in a two-sack performance, and his punishment hasn't been reserved for that one team.

He enters the Eagles game with five sacks (second on the team), seven tackles for loss (tied for second), nine quarterback hits (first) and 23 tackles.

The jump in his level of play – not just production, but impact – has been noticeable. He already has doubled last year's sack total (two)

"I would say (it's) my dedication and my attention to detail," Rankins said. "I think no matter what, I've always approached each and every week like I'm going to go out there and make as many plays as the best player in the league.

"No matter how it ends up, I'm always going to approach each week the same, and I always try to go above and beyond to put myself in the best positions to be able to make those plays. I think those two things are something that I notice that stand out with myself. No matter how well I play, no matter how bad I play, I'm going to continue to do those things.

"I feel like I'm playing well. I can feel myself growing each and every time I'm out there, I can feel my confidence growing. I get the feeling that each time I put my hand down, I can make something happen. I think I'm getting better, I think I'm playing well and I'm going to get better and I'm going to continue to be a play-maker for this defense."

But Rankins isn't a one-trick demoralizer.

He has patented a spin move that some NBA point guards might envy, and that 6-foot-2, 305-pound defensive tackles ordinarily might the too cautious to try.

For Rankins, though, no biggie. He played basketball in high school. And if you've seen the balletic way he moves in the trenches, you already know he's no ordinary bull in a china shop.

"Guys would try to take charges and different things like that, so it was always an easy way for me to use someone anticipating a power or aggressive move," he said. "I've always been light on my feet, always been a pretty good athlete so it was always a way for me to kind of switch things up and be able to get by guys and get easy buckets and dunks.

"I just remember one day I went and tried it on the football field at practice in high school and it worked – I'd obviously seen (former NFL defensive end) Dwight Freeney do it but it was just something I never really thought I would be able to do on the football field. But once I tried it and it worked, I've pretty much been using it as my slider, my curveball, my knuckleball ever since."

His knuckler is a knee buckler.

It's not the only nod he gives to basketball.

"Definitely hand-eye coordination," Rankins said. "If you're going to handle the ball, you've got to be able to – people use this term with (Celtics guard) Kyrie Irving – have the ball on a string. You've got to be able to kind of lure guys to going one way and then be able to bring it back to your other hand and get by guys.

"So hand-eye coordination is big. That kind of goes in with pass rushing – being able to set a guy up, stutter my feet, give a head fake this way, he throws his inside hand, I'm able to come back across him. And then another thing is just awareness, change of direction.

"When you think about a lot of these sports, they kind of all go hand in hand. I was able to go right from playing defensive end in football, and go right to basketball and be able to handle the ball, cross guys over, get to the basket, the spin move. And even when I'm telling guys about pass rushing, things I always tell people, it's like one-on-one basketball.

"If I want to be able to go inside of a guy, I've got to be able to do something to get him leaning. So if it's a head fake, if it's an elongated step or a slow step to make him think I'm going that way, then I come back across his face. So for me, football and basketball have always kind of gone hand in hand."

Now, his hands are part of his means to get to quarterbacks and disrupt offenses. They're part of the process that leads to quarterback sacks and if you think sacks are overrated, don't tell it to Rankins.

"Not at all," he said. "Not at all. Affecting the quarterback, getting pressures and hits and those types of things are big, but sacks can win games, sacks can change games. I won't say they're overrated, I'll just say they're not everything."

What they are, though, are indications of how business is going. And how well the expansion process is progressing.

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