Backtrack to 2009: The Saints started off 13-0 behind an explosive offense and an extremely opportunistic defense that produced 39 takeaways. A big part of the defense's success was ball-hawking free safety Darren Sharper, who the Saints signed for next to nothing after being tossed into the scrap heap by the Minnesota Vikings. Sharper led the NFL in interceptions (nine), interception returns for a touchdown (three) and interception return yards (376). It seemed as though Darren Sharper was back and just as good as ever.
However, Sharper had to undergo microfracture knee surgery following the 2009 season, and the Saints saw how he was beginning to wear down in his late 30s. They were faced with a decision. Sharper was due to miss the first few games to start the season, bumping former cornerback and first-round draft pick Malcolm Jenkins into the starting role. They had to decide if they wanted Sharper back in the starting lineup after resigning him to a one-year deal, or to roll with Jenkins. Sharper barely saw the field in 2010, a choice that the Saints are now more than happy they made.
Darren Sharper has since been forced into retirement last week after not receiving an offer from any NFL team. Malcolm Jenkins is thriving since taking over the starting job, quickly developing into what we saw from Sharper in 2009. The impressive interception numbers may not be there for Jenkins as they were for Sharper, but Jenkins has developed a real nose for the ball.
In Week 13's victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday night, Jenkins was in on a few key plays that won't appear on the stat sheet, coming out of nowhere to make an improbable play. The first example was a deep pass across the middle in which Jenkins came from off the screen, sprinting to knock away the pass, and nearly intercepting Matthew Stafford. A second came when Calvin Johnson appeared to haul in a first-down completion, but Jenkins came in from seemingly nowhere to lower his shoulder into Johnson and jar the ball loose, nullifying what would have been a big second-half first down for the Lions.
It is these types of plays that make Malcolm Jenkins one of the true unsung heroes for the Saints. His play-making ability, something that cannot be measured or translated onto a stat sheet, is beginning to sharpen and become more polished with each passing week. And it is plays like those that make Malcolm Jenkins a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks, and make the Saints, as well as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, relish the day they decided Jenkins was their guy.