A NEW SAINT SACKER
What's the difference between this year's Saints, who were 11-3 after Sunday's 37-14 win over the Rams, and last year's, who went 11-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs? For the most part New Orleans still gets by with a sputtering, ultraconservative offense. And its defense, led by superb bookend outside linebackers Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling, has maintained its No. 2 ranking in the league.
In fact, the only difference might be the play of defensive end Wayne Martin, the least-appreciated pass rusher west of Philadelphia's Clyde Simmons, who leads the NFL with 16.5 sacks. Martin, 27, who had four sacks against the Falcons on Dec. 3, is third in the NFC, with 14. The Saints' first-round draft choice in 1989, Martin storms over guards and tackles the way defensive tackle Keith Millard did a few years ago when he was busting up pockets for the Vikings. Martin also is a threat from the outside when he circles around end on line stunts with Jackson. "I'm playing well, but half my sacks come from line games Rickey and I play," says Martin.
A team can adjust for one great pass rusher by sliding its offensive line. Two outstanding pass rushers give a team fits. But three of them, which is what New Orleans has in Jackson, Martin and Swilling? About all you can do is call 911.
The 6'5", 275-pound Martin's gaudy sack total was unexpected. He had only 3.5 sacks last year, and the Saints haven't overhauled their defensive scheme to feature him. "It's a combination of his maturation as a player and the ability of the people he plays with," says New Orleans's defensive line coach, John Pease. "Pretty boring story, really. He doesn't have the 4.6 speed of a Bruce Smith or the quickness and the strength of some other guys. But he's very intelligent. He has a great work ethic, and he studies his opponent as much as anybody. He has a lot of veteran savvy for a young player."
Martin was an outside rusher at Arkansas, where as a senior he amassed 13 sacks and 18 tackles for losses. "I had to learn a new game, almost from the ground up, when I came to the Saints," says Martin. "I had to learn the pro game and the inside game." But he has now shown that he has enough strength to take on guards and tackles and enough quickness to elude them. Equally important, he has Jackson and Swilling to attract much of the opposing offense's attention.
Martin doesn't mind that he has received little recognition for his play this season. He grew up in Cherry Valley, Ark. (pop. 659), and he recently bought 80 acres of land just outside of town, where he and his wife, Gladys, plan to settle, raise a family, hunt in their woods and fish on their man-made lake. "I live a simple life," says Martin. "I never wanted a fleet of cars or houses all over the place. We have stars on our team, but I don't need the fame. Five years after football, nobody but my family will remember me."