A year after being the worst defense in the NFL by allowing the most yards per attempt through the air (7.4) and on the ground (5.2), the New Orleans Saints had a dramatic turnaround last season as they returned to the playoffs. Under top defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints improved their run defense by allowing 0.6 less yards per carry, and they had one of the top ten pass defenses in the NFL thanks to a solid pass rush led by the talented duo of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, as well as some improved pass coverage due to the play of first-round rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and stud press-man corner Keenan Lewis.
Those four players have become big names on the Saints defense, but one of the more unsung heroes on a defense that had the tenth-lowest amount of points per game allowed is Akiem Hicks. The 3-4 defensive end opposite of breakout star Jordan, Hicks had a breakout season of his own by recording 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks in just his second season in the league. After flashing in training camp, Hicks increased his number of tackles by 180% (nearly tripled from 20 to 56) in 2013, and those 4.5 sacks came after he recorded a grand total of zero sacks as a rookie. It’s not that he was bad as a rookie (he was decent after showing some flashes of talent across 14 appearances), but he really took his game to the next level as a starter last season.
While the Saints made some strides against the run last season, they still have to make some more improvements, as they were 28th in the league with 4.6 yards per carry allowed. Hicks’s breakout was a big reason for their improvement against the run, as he plugged up holes with his 6’5″, 324-pound frame and made plenty of plays on his own in run D (those 56 tackles really do stand out).
Hicks had an interesting career path to the NFL, as he was deemed ineligible to play in the NCAA after recruiting violations from the LSU Tigers. Instead of playing in the CFL, Hicks decided to play college ball at Regina, thus continuing his education as well, and obviously starred there before gaining ground in the pre-draft process. The New Orleans Saints took a flier on the high-upside defensive line prospect in the third round, and Hicks has definitely become more polished during his career, with Ryan getting plenty out of him last season.
The 2014 season should be a year of even more success for Hicks, who is only getting more comfortable in the NFL. With more experience with Ryan and the defenders around him, Hicks is somebody to keep an eye on as a guy who could break out on a national scale, just as Jordan broke out on a national scale last season. He is quite clearly the Saints most dominant run defender, and he made the lives of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne much easier last season by plugging holes and blowing up running plays himself.
Probably the quintessential game that gives you a good idea of just how dominant Hicks can be is his performance in Week 12 against the rival Atlanta Falcons. His most famous play from that game was a vicious hit on Matt Ryan, but the entire game was littered with big plays from Hicks, who used brute strength, quickness, and his ability to shed blocks to stamp himself on the Saints 17-13 victory. He had eight tackles and 1.5 sacks, thus also opening up holes for the likes of Lofton to record nine tackles.
Watch how he’s able to just rip by Falcons tackle Lamar Holmes before tossing down Ryan, and it’s simply a showcase of explosive hands and brute force. By the way, this play is from the Saints Week 1 win over the Falcons, so it wasn’t a part of that ridiculous display in Week 12.
How good is Akiem Hicks at ripping past offensive linemen and bottling up ball-carriers on his own? Instead of explaining it, I’ll just give you an example. Here is a man-handling of Buffalo Bills right guard Kraig Urbik before engulfing veteran back Fred Jackson, and it’s the kind of play Hicks was involved in at several points last season. Hicks pretty much destroys this play all on his own by following his blocker, following the play with his eyes, shedding Urbik, and then performing an excellent tackle.
The final GIF (so I don’t overload this piece and cause your browser to bug out) is another one of my favorites, as it involves Hicks destroying Falcons overmatched right guard Garrett Reynolds one-on-one before sacking Ryan. This play came in that Week 12 contest and counted as a half-sack for Hicks, who drives Reynolds back several yards before using his arms to reach over the guard, disrupt Ryan heavily, and give some time for Cameron Jordan to bring down the Falcons star quarterback. Another thing worth noting about this play is that Hicks closes down the passing lane by getting his arms up, thus forcing Ryan to pull the ball back down again.
Hicks is a dominant run defender, and that’s pretty clearly illustrated by his run-stop percentage, which is a statistic tracked by the Pro Football Focus that measures the percentage of tackles of a defensive player that are net gains for the defense, thus weeding out “garbage” tackles. Per PFF, Hicks was third in the league in this stat last season, and that’s a major testament to his ability to dominate in the running game on his own. He also has the strength and mental aptitude for rushing the passer, and the plays above against the Falcons illustrate this ability. With two seasons under his belt, Hicks should be able to break out as an interior pass rusher next season. He wasn’t a consistent source of pressure last season, and so he’ll need to improve in that aspect. But he did dominate as a pass rusher at times, and that potential as a pass rusher could finally manifest itself in more consistent pressure. As it stands right now, Hicks already does a more than credible job of freeing up other players to get after the quarterback, and he will help edge rushers such as standout Galette and the now-healthy Victor Butler in that regard.
A major hat-tip for the GIFs in this piece goes to “gosaints2345″ for creating this video, which was easily the best one on the web for some examples of Hicks’s ability.