(AP) Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins compared his comeback to Novocain.
The full effects of his injection into the lineup might not have been evident in his first game back from an Achilles tendon tear, but will be soon enough.
The tell-tale sign will be his shoulder-shaking sack dance, the Sheldon Shimmy, which he has yet to perform.
''At times I was explosive. I was strong. I was able to use my hands well at times. But some of the more nuanced things about the position - things that you have to be able to actually feel in live action - those are some of the things I just know I need to improve upon," said Rankins, whose eight sacks last season were the second most on the team. ''I have no doubt that I'll be back to doing everything I know I can do at a consistent rate and be the player I know I can be."
By Rankins' standards, his statistics were relatively pedestrian in New Orleans' 12-10 victory over Dallas last Sunday night: two assisted tackles and one quarterback hit. But his first game since January also coincided with the Saints' best defensive performance of this young season. And that, say Rankins' Saints teammates, was no coincidence.
''We're kind of back to our normal selves having him out there," middle linebacker Demario Davis said. ''He's a tremendous player for us and we're better when he's on the field, so I think that was a big part of it."
Defensive end Cameron Jordan credited Rankins for not allowing blockers to move him out of his gap. Dallas, which came in ranked third in the NFL in rushing with an average of 179 yards per game, managed just 45 in New Orleans.
''He made plays that came to him. He's not trying to rush anything," Jordan said. ''As we go on, he's just going to get better. We're going to get the see the Shimmy."
Last season, Rankins' presence on the interior of the defensive line helped New Orleans rank second in the NFL against the run, allowing 80.2 yards per game. Through the first three games this season - which Rankins missed - the Saints ranked 26th against the run.
Asked if his return was responsible for how much better the defense looked in Week 4, Rankins said, ''Don't put that on me. Everybody went out there and executed the game plan to a T.
''When everybody's on the same page on this defense, we're pretty hard to move the ball against. Period," Rankins said. ''I didn't go out there and have eight sacks or something. Now if that would have happened, I would have gladly" taken credit.
Rankins played 38 of 58 defensive snaps in his first game of this season. He said he was not told he was on a specific snap count and felt ready to play as often as asked. He said he also felt normal on Monday.
''I'm happy with me being a part of that defensive effort and I know we'll continue to go out there and put efforts like that on tape," he added.
This week, he'll line up against Tampa Bay, whose coach, Bruce Arians, described Rankins as ''a load in the middle."
Generally, it takes eight to 12 months for major professional athletes to return form a torn Achilles tendon. When training camp opened, the Saints placed Rankins on their physically unable to perform list. If Rankins had remained on that list when the regular season began, he would not have been allowed under NFL rules to return until Week 7. But Rankins was taken off the club's PUP list and returned to practice before the preseason ended. Coach Sean Payton said that decision was made because Rankins' rehabilitation was ahead of schedule and it was evident he'd be ready to play before Week 6.
Rankins was New Orleans' first round draft choice in 2016. In college, he played at Louisville with Saints back quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has started the past two games in place of the injured Drew Brees.
Bridgewater described Rankins as a player who works ''extremely hard" and quietly goes about his business.
''We all understand what he went through last year, how much of a great season he was having and how it ended," Bridgewater said. ''But to see him return and be out there with his brothers - with all of us - was huge."
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