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Thursday, 28 November 2013

Cameron Jordan: The Latest Monster From 2011

By the end of last year, people were already hailing the 2011 draft class as potentially the best defensive class in NFL history. You had Von Miller & Aldon Smith terrorising QB's, JJ Watt had just submitted one of the best seasons by a defensive player ever. And it wasn't just pass rushers, both Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman came out of the 2011 draft.

This year's defensive studs include those 5 players but they've been joined by 4 more of their draft mates; the Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is dominating every offensive line he plays, St. Louis' defensive end Robert Quinn trails only JJ Watt in QB Hits this year, Kansas City's outside linebacker Justin Houston lead the NFL in sacks until recently, and then there's the focus of this piece, New Orleans' 3-4 defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Throughout the pre-draft process in 2011 I liked Cam Jordan a lot, but as a 3-4 DE (the position he played in college) and when he was drafted by the Saints at 24th overall I was disappointed. He would be going to a 4-3 team where he would be a square peg in a round hole. For the first two years of his career Cam Jordan played defensive end in the Saints 4-3 defense, and he was ok. He didn't have the blinding speed to be a monster out there and got a little lost in space on occasion. He picked up just 9 sacks and 14 QB Hits in his 2 years at that position. This spring the Saints hired Rob Ryan as defensive co-ordinator, many Saints fans didn't like this choice but I did because he'd be switching the Saints to a base 3-4 where Cam Jordan could play as a 5-tech defensive end far more often and just go crazy. Cue his best season yet.

In 2013 Cam Jordan leads the Saints in sacks, tackles for loss and QB Hits. He's been a one man wrecking crew in the heart of a defense that has had a massive turn around since being historically bad in 2012. How has he done it? Part of Cam's success comes from the nature of Rob Ryan's defense. The big-blitzes, the "exotic" looks that can confuse offenses and result in easier paths to the football for Jordan, but to attribute it all to Rob Ryan however would be idiotic. The move inside has also come with more double-teams, less space to work in and more run responsibility, so it's not unleashed him as to be a dynamic pass threat.

There have always been flashes of greatness from Jordan, but this year those flashes have come more and more frequently. There's the relentless drive to the ball, the quickness and speed that seems unnatural when it comes from a guy who's listed at 6-4, 287lbs. Jordan doesn't have a great array of moves to get off and around blockers, but he uses his athletic abilities in tandem with great technique and leverage. Let's go to the tape and see just what Cam's all about:

The above play, a 3rd & 7 against the Bucs in week 2, comes from one of Ryan's exotic looks. However all the action is happening to the left of the offense, Cam Jordan (94) is lined up all alone to the right and is immediately double-teamed, despite this he's the first to the QB. The inside jump & swim move he uses to get around the block is so reminiscent of JJ Watt it's scary.

In this play Jordan is lined up as the right DE in a 4-man front, his old position with the Saints. When Rob Ryan does go to a 4-man front in his sub-packages Cam Jordan is asked to play this roll, and it's where all his 2.5 sacks came from in this game. You can see his great use of hands here to maintain separation from the LT while also having enough speed to get around the edge to Matt Ryan.

All this quickness and athleticism is great, but it's nothing when compared to the likes of his draft-mates Aldon Smith or Robert Quinn who make many more plays than Jordan does off the edge. When consistently lining up outside the athleticism he possesses just isn't enough, but now he's playing inside as a 5-tech more often, that quickness is a bonus. But it's not all about speed and agility, to be a great 3-4 DE you need power as well as quickness, and Jordan has that too, and in spades.

On this run play Jordan is lined up heads up on the left tackle Cordy Glenn (77), because of an assignment mix up he gets triple-teamed. But Jordan is barely shifted off his spot. He's holding his ground against the enormous Cordy Glenn and his buddies. Impressive.

Here's Jordan as the 2nd Saint from the left lined up wider than normal, but heads up on Nate Potter (76) who's in as an extra blocker. Jordan's able to squeeze Potter inside to take away that lane from Mendenhall, he then matches Mendenhall's move to the outside and comes back in to get in on the tackle. He's controlling 2 gaps here on a 3rd & short. Mendenhall just converts but Jordan is so strong he's able to push and pull Potter around to take away any chance of extra yards.

From the same game, here he displays a powerful bull rush from the left hand side, driving Eric Winston back into Carson Palmer's lap before disengaging and crushing Palmer for his 2nd sack of the game.

The Saints improvement from 440 yards allowed per game in 2012 to 309.9 this year, from dead last in defensive DVOA to 12th this year has been a mixture of things, from rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro making plays to Junior Galette playing a massive 81% of defensive snaps compared to just 26% in 2012, as well as the switch to Rob Ryan. But it's Cam Jordan, the compact ball of destruction, who's been absolutely key to the Saints resurrection on defense. His ability to apply pressure on passers from across the formation has helped the secondary, his strength at the point of attack in the run game has allowed Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and the rest to make plays around him.

If the Saints are to make a deep run in the playoffs this year they need to wrestle home field advantage out of the hands of Seattle, who they visit this weekend and beating the Seahawks begins with stopping Marshawn Lynch and containing Russell Wilson. Seattle's offensive line has been killed by injuries and ineffectiveness all year but they got left tackle Russell Okung back in week 10 which has allowed Paul McQuistan to move back inside to left guard. Jordan needs to produce big time against the 'Hawks on monday if the Saints are to come away with the upset win and control the NFC. Seattle boast the 4th best ground game by Football Outsiders DVOA, compared to the Saints 30th ranked run defense, that's not the best match-up to be taking on the road to Seattle. But if Jordan and his buddies up front can make one or two plays to put the 'Hawks behind the chains? Then maybe they could force an upset.

Cam Jordan's game has come together beautifully in 2013, but this is a golden age for large defensive ends. As good as Jordan has been this year his all-round game doesn't near JJ Watt's yet, Muhammad Wilkerson is a masterful run-stuffer who's been just as productive as Jordan against the pass, and that's just his draft-mates. Calais Campbell in Arizona is another 3-4 DE who is moved around the formation and creates issues for every blocker he faces. The old guard of Justin Smith and Haloti Ngata are still playing at a very high level.

Can Jordan draw himself level with these guys, and maybe even surpass them? Perhaps. Jordan's main strength is that he's a well-rounded player. He doesn't just defend the run, or just rush the passer but can legitimately play both. Sometimes that hurts a players exposure levels, it's better for your profile to have massive sack numbers but be a liability against the run than vice versa (See Bennett, Michael). This season he's still behind Watt and Wilkerson in my opinion, but the gap is much narrower than it was this time last year. As Jordan continues to familiarise himself with Ryan's defense and his role in it he should become more productive. The NFL needs to watch out, because the 2011 draft class seems to have produced yet another defensive monster.

- Toby Durant (@TDOnSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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