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In The NFL it's era of the sack and of the forced fumble, the strangled quarterback and the slow, grinding running game. It's the era of ugly football, and the New Orleans Saints are its darlings. At half-time of their game with the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the Saints were up 7-3 and Rickey Jackson, their left outside linebacker, who came to the team as a rookie 10 years ago, just after the fans started wearing bags over their heads, told quarterback Steve Walsh. "Just get us 10 points and we'll win this thing."
Ten points would be enough to beat the Niners? At one time they would have scored that many getting off the bus. But times change, and San Francisco was down to its third quarterback. Steve Bono, who was getting his first nonstrike start because Steve Young had strained ligaments in his left knee against the Atlanta Falcons the previous week. Sunday's game was in the Superdome, with all that noise, and the Saints were riding high at 8-1 and challenging the Philadelphia Eagles for bragging rights to the best defense in the league.
So on his first possession of the second half, Walsh drove New Orleans to the Niner four, and Morten Andersen made a chip-shot field goal to give the Saints the 10-3 lead Jackson had asked for. Then the game came down to turnovers, a New Orleans specialty. It leads the league in turnovers forced (31), sacks (37), fewest third-down conversions allowed (24.6%) and other nasty statistics.
When the Niners reached the New Orleans 29 with 11:40 to play, right outside linebacker Pat Swilling, the NFL's sack leader with 13½, swooped in on Bono and flicked the ball loose, and inside linebacker Sam Mills recovered it. With four minutes left, San Francisco, shortening its pass routes—and Bono's drop—moved to the Saints 17. Running back Harry Sydney got the carry, but Jackson popped the ball free, strong safety Brett Maxie made the recovery, and the game was over.
Between them, Swilling and Jackson have forced eight fumbles and gotten 21½ sacks. Fifteen NFL teams don't have that many sacks, but splattering the quarterback isn't the whole story of this superb New Orleans defense. To get the sacks, you first have to stop the run and force the enemy into a passing mode, and the Saints are tops in the league in that department. And to make the quarterback take that extra look, you have to have effective coverage downfield, and the Saints have that, too. But sacks set the tone—they get teammates fired up, they bring the crowd into the game—and Swilling and Jackson form the best pass-rushing tandem in football.
Both are in the last year of their contracts, and both are having their best season. They feed off each other's success, and Jackson says that the race to the quarterback has become a kind of competition between them. "My weight is down this year, and my speed is up." says the 6'2", 243-pound Jackson. "It's what I focused on in the off-season. You can go for years being one of the best linebackers in the league, playing against the tight end, keeping from getting hooked inside—a Carl Banks kind of player—but when it's time for the Pro Bowl voting, all they look at is sacks. Pat was always a step faster than me, getting around the corner. I'd have a bead on the quarterback, but he'd get there first. The man was costing me sacks. So I worked on speeding it up."
With six regular-season games remaining, Jackson has eight sacks, more than he had in each of the last three seasons. He's primarily a power rusher, but now he is on a pace to exceed the career-high 12 sacks he racked up in 1984, one of his four Pro Bowl seasons. For Swilling, a 6'3", 242-pound two-time Pro Bowl player, all good things start with his 4.55 speed—"plus an inside power move that I've gone to this year, plus a spin," he says. "You could say that my arsenal is full."
How good are Swilling and Jackson? According to Indianapolis quarterback Jack Trudeau, who faced them two years ago when the Colts needed a win to make the playoffs but got swamped 41-6, "They were just blowing me up on every third down. I thought I could exploit their secondary, but I never got a chance, because I never could protect myself. I was always getting out of this damn guy's way or that damn guy's way."
"They get back there and yell, 'Get used to it, because it's going to be like this all day,' " says Chicago Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "And they're right."
"It's even worse in the Dome, where your offensive tackle has trouble hearing," says Minnesota Viking line coach John Michels. "If he can't get off on the snap count, that's all those guys need. Half a step, and the pocket is gone."