New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has become increasingly known for two moves this season: his spin and his shimmy.
The spin, executed with a nimble quickness not entirely typical of 305-pound linemen, has helped Rankins disrupt quarterbacks the way the Saints hoped he would when they made him their first-round draft choice in 2016. Rankins shoulder-shaking shimmy is his trademark celebration after a sack, of which he’s had a career-high eight this season.
Moreover, his considerable improvement is seen as one of the reasons the Saints have already clinched the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC with one regular season game left on Sunday.
“It’s been significant,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s a guy that you can just see his impact plays go up. The confidence level he’s playing with now (is apparent) and he’s having fun playing. When you watch him, I think he’s in real good shape. And I think overall, he’s a great example of a guy who’s improved not necessarily just from year one to year two, but later in the process and he’s a fantastic worker.”
Rankins isn’t bashful about highlighting what he thinks separates him from others at his position — namely, a quickness and all-around athleticism that he traces back to his days as a high school running back and basketball player, before he was transformed into a defensive tackle during college at Louisville.
“I move about as well as anybody at my position,” Rankins said.
Few in the NFL seem inclined to argue.
Rankins sealed New Orleans most recent triumph — a 31-28 victory over Pittsburgh — by dropping back off the line of scrimmage when he anticipated a quick passing play over the middle, wrangled receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster after the catch and punched the ball loose as he pulled the receiver down on top of him. Linebacker Demario Davis recovered, ending the Steelers’ threat in the final minute.
“You can tell” Rankins played running back when he was younger, Davis said. “He doesn’t move like a defensive lineman. He’s just like a skill player playing defensive lineman with a big frame.”
Davis, who joined the Saints this season, said playing behind Rankins for the first time gave him an appreciation of the lineman’s relentless hustle.
“It’s not just plays where he can be stopping the run or in the backfield and get a sack,” Davis said. “He’s trying to make plays on every play, whether it’s a reverse or a screen, a pass down the field, he’s just running to the ball.”
Rankins missed nearly half of his rookie season because of a fibula fracture during training camp. He was healthy last season and had a solid campaign as a full-time starter. He had an interception and forced fumble, but didn’t get to quarterbacks as often as he would have liked, finishing with two sacks.
Rankins said he “went back to the drawing board” last offseason, trying to build on moves that had worked for him — and get quicker.
“Last year, I don’t think I used enough power. This year I’ve done a great job of using my power to kind of set up everything else about the way I rush, about the way I play,” Rankins said. “If I can get guys thinking power, getting ready to brace for that impact, and I can get around them with spins and different things like that, it just plays right into my hand.
“I’ve always prided myself on being athletic and being able to be light on my feet and being able to do things that most people my size can’t do,” Rankins continued, adding that he still plays pick-up basketball as part of his offseason training. “It’s something that comes natural but also something you’ve got to work on.”
The Panthers, who visit New Orleans on Sunday, had to contend with Rankins just two weeks ago and sounded impressed by the challenge he presented during a 12-9 Saints win that was largely a defensive struggle.
“He’s a high-effort guy; he’s got great energy,” Carolina guard Greg Van Roten said. “He’s really dynamic off the ball. He’s quick. He’s not a guy that you know what you’re getting every time. He mixes it up. So you need to make sure you don’t get too comfortable because he’ll flash and make a play on you if you don’t take him seriously every play.”
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AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report