Sharper Is A Game Changer For Saints
Some things can’t be quantified with numbers.
We can log tackles, assists, fumbles caused and recovered, interceptions and return yards — especially, for Darren Sharper, interceptions and return yards.
Those don’t register on a sheet, only in the mind. And there’s no doubt that the New Orleans Saints‘ defense has more of all of them and is in a better mental state when Sharper is playing.
Now, in fairness, New Orleans’ defense wasn’t muddling along as the free safety missed the first six games while on the physically unable to perform list, recovering from offseason knee surgery.
Standout defense has been the Saints’ lone constant this season entering the bye week, and it bailed out the team when the offense struggled and the special teams were pedestrian.
Even while playing musical defensive backs — along with Sharper, starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter have missed time, and backup Randall Gay is out for the season — the Saints (6-3) have been better defensively this season than they were last season.
And last season’s unit was good enough to help the team win the Super Bowl.
But it’s undeniable that Sharper adds a certain pizzazz, that the guy just seems to have a sixth sense, that more often than not he knows where to be in order to make a play.
On Halloween night in host New Orleans’ 20-10 victory over Pittsburgh, it was appropriate that when linebacker Marvin Mitchell stripped the ball from Steelers tight end Heath Miller after a 25-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter — with the Steelers driving to tie the score at 13 with a field goal or take a 17-13 lead with a touchdown — the ball popped into the hands of a charging Sharper, who plucked it out of the air and returned it 11 yards as if it was a pitch intended for him.
On Sunday, it seemed just about right that he delivered the concussive blow — literally — to Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart in the first quarter. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was credited with the fumble that led to a touchdown and 7-3 lead in the 34-3 road win, but Sharper was responsible for knocking out one of the Panthers’ few offensive threats (Stewart didn’t play again) and contributing to a second game-changing turnover in as many weeks.
Not bad work for a 35-year-old who was playing in his third game this season and only has been on the field part time.
“When you see the hit, the end result is that the ball comes out, ” said New Orleans Coach Sean Payton, who challenged the play after officials didn’t rule a fumble and had the call reversed. “The trick with the challenge is that you have to have evidence that you recovered it.
“In other words, the angle might show that it was a fumble, but if the angle doesn’t show that you recovered it, they’re not going to give you the ball. We felt like we had a couple of angles that showed that, but I would say Darren Sharper had a lot to do with that (fumble).”
Sharper has had plenty to do with creating turnovers since he joined the Saints.
His record-breaking 2009 season — nine interceptions for an NFL single-season record 376 return yards and a team single-season record three touchdown returns — set an unimaginably high bar. Obviously, he wasn’t going to approach it by missing the first six games and then working his way back into the groove.
But the veteran vowed that the Saints would be a better team when players got healthy. So far, nothing has happened to cast doubt on that.
Sure, Malcolm Jenkins played about as well as could be expected in Sharper’s absence. The Saints won’t be destitute at the position when Sharper is gone.
But, too, it’s a good thing Jenkins is capable of playing cornerback. That versatility allows him to stay on the field, and it creates a space for Sharper’s playmaking skills.
“It would be more challenging if Malcolm played only free safety, but Malcolm can play in the nickel over the slot, ” Payton said. “He can go out and play corner. He can still play free (safety) in the base and give Darren snaps off.
“I think the key is just monitoring the pitch count for Darren and making sure that he’s healthy and fresh. I think the position flexibility in the secondary, specifically with Malcolm, makes for a good fit for Darren and what he’s doing. (Sharper) can give us red zone snaps at nickel safety, snaps at free safety. He played a little bit more (Sunday) in the base (defense), and that’s a good thing.”
It’s always a good thing when Sharper is on the field, and it probably will be even better when he’s 100 percent.
In addition to recovery from the knee surgery, he injured his hamstring against Carolina. That one is expected to be healed in time for Sharper to play against the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 21 at the Superdome.
“Yes, he’s close (to rounding into form), ” Payton said. “Forget the hamstring for a second. I think you could see he had a jump on one or two balls (against Carolina) that weren’t thrown, but were very close to being thrown, and I think it’s coming. I think if you asked him he’d say he feels pretty good.
“Obviously, he missed training camp, so you start trying to look at weeks back. But I think if it’s not 100 percent, I think he’s close to it.”
That’s a number we can understand. The other things that Sharper adds aren’t nearly as quantifiable but are just as tangible.