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Saints defensive ends turn up pressure on themselves, NFL QBs

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -It's easy to gauge how much faith the Saints have in defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith.

Coach Sean Payton provides a handy measuring stick.

"We just gave one of them almost $60 million, so obviously we have confidence in them," Payton said Thursday.

New Orleans awarded that seven-year contract to Grant to keep him off the free agent market at the end of the season.

Smith may cost them even more. The third-year pro led the team in sacks for the second straight season in 2006, his first stint as a full-time starter, and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

Asked to hold the corner against the run while rushing the quarterback, defensive ends have one of the most difficult positions in football. Grant added pressure to that job description when he said he and Smith are capable of 30 sacks this season - nearly twice their output last year.

"That's our goal, no doubt," Grant said. "Will's a great defensive end on the other side. Hey, I got the left side on lock. Why not?"

There is reason for that kind of optimism. Each young player has a chance to try out for the role of most prolific pass rusher in team history. Both are off to fast starts in pursuit of Rickey Jackson's mark of 115.

Grant has 36 sacks and started his career with 27 1/2 in his first three seasons. Smith has matched his pace with 26 1/2 sacks to begin his career.

The Saints paid all that money for Grant because he's been a rare player since being taken 25th overall in 2002 out of Georgia. He hasn't missed a game, averaging 70 tackles a season and forcing 13 fumbles. He also has 10 or more sacks in two of those seasons.

Smith, the 18th pick in 2004 out of Ohio State, made Darren Howard expendable after earning a place in the rotation with Howard and Grant as a rookie.

Like Grant, Smith was able to hold down the dual roles expected of an NFL defensive end.

"I think the key to being a great defensive end is being able to play the run and the pass," Smith said. "Nowadays you see a lot of one-dimensional guys that can just play the run or just be a pass rusher."

While the two Saints are able to handle both job assignments, they do it in very different ways.

Grant, an easygoing fellow who had six sacks last year, is a rare physical specimen who stands out even in the NFL. He is 6-foot-3 with long arms that help him stay out of the grasp of the average right tackle. At 290 pounds, he has the grace of a running back who tied Herschel Walker's single-season touchdown record as a high school fullback in Georgia.

The more serious Smith, who had 10 1/2 sacks last year, is listed at 6-foot-3, like Grant, but is not that tall. He has learned to make the most of his bullish physique.

"Even though Will don't like me to say that he's short, he's short," said SaintsPro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown, who often draws Smith in practice.

But Brown said what Smith lacks in height, he makes up for in a variety of ways.

"It's kind of odd because he can work his power as he's doing his speed, so you have to block his speed and power at the same time," Brown said. "Other guys, you either get power or you get speed. With Will you get the combination of both of them on one play, so that makes it kind of tough to block him."

That's something the league's left tackles are finding out.

And before they have a chance to adjust to the Saints' immovable object and irresistible force, the New Orleans coaching staff is making changes coaches think will allow the duo to be more disruptive.

Smith said he and Grant will have more say in what schemes they run on passing downs this season.

"They're letting us go a little more and kind of do our own thing, you know, which gives us a lot more opportunity to make big plays and get sacks," Smith said.

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