Saints defense stays sound even as takeaways drop

Associated Press
New Orleans Saints defender Will Smith (91) reacts after sacking Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Monday, Dec. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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New Orleans Saints defender Will Smith (91) reacts after sacking Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan …

When Sean Payton's normally prolific offense sputters, there is now a very real possibility that the Saints' defense will be sound enough to bail them out.

Last season during their Super Bowl campaign the defense was a bend-don't-break unit, relying on takeaways to stop opposing teams.

Not anymore. They're shutting people down.

"They're really playing grade-A football across the board," said Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris, who's Buccaneers will test New Orleans on Sunday. Defensive coordinator "Gregg Williams does a great job with scheme. He does a great job with putting his players in position to make plays.

"They're tackling better, even better this year than last year and they're just playing harder," Morris continued. "That's going to make them a better defense all around. That's what they've done. That's what they've become."

New Orleans' defense was the main reason the Saints were able to overcome two Drew Brees fourth-quarter interceptions — including one returned for a touchdown — against NFC leading Atlanta on Monday night, and still rally for a playoff-clinching 17-14 victory.

The Saints were a different team against Atlanta than in their first meeting.

The Saints allowed the Falcons only 215 total yards and seven points on Monday; in their meeting in Week 3, Atlanta racked up 417 total yards, including 202 on the ground.

"Defensively, I did think we executed well," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "You see the third-down stats. You see the rushing stats. You see their two biggest players, (Tony) Gonzalez and Roddy White in the passing game really didn't do too much. I feel like we did a good job of executing this time around."

Atlanta rushed for 75 yards, with Michael Turner gaining only 48 after he'd come in averaging nearly 90.

Matt Ryan passed for 140 yards, nearly 100 below his average, while Gonzalez, the most productive tight end in NFL history, had only two catches for 12 yards. White scored Atlanta's lone offensive touchdown, but was held to 43 yards receiving, well below his average of 92.

The Saints' defense still has hiccups at times.

At Baltimore two weeks ago, the Ravens racked up 208 yards on the ground against New Orleans' defense in a 30-24 triumph.

Such shoddy defensive performances were frequent in recent years. Even last season, which was Williams' first as defensive coordinator, the Saints ranked 25th in total defense, allowing 357.8 yards per game. New Orleans made up for that with 39 takeaways (13 fumble recoveries, 26 interceptions), which ranked second only to Green Bay's 40.

Turnovers also played a role in the Saints winning both their first NFC title game and Super Bowl.

This season, takeaways are down significantly. New Orleans has 23 (14 fumbles, nine interceptions) heading into its regular season finale at home against Tampa Bay. Yet the defense's overall ranking is up to fifth, with 305.5 yards allowed per game, 52 less than last season.

In Monday night's win, the Saints recovered two fumbles in Atlanta territory, one setting up a TD and the other stopping an Atlanta drive on the New Orleans 1.

What Payton praised most, though, was his defense's ability to stop the run on early downs and thereby force Atlanta into a number of third-and-long situations. Atlanta converted only three of 12 third downs, and their last failure on third-and-6 led Falcons coach Mike Smith to call for a punt inside the final three minutes with his team near midfield and down by a field goal.

"We stopped the run well," Payton said. "It's easy to say the third down numbers were in our favor, but I thought we got them into some third-and-7-to-10s ... and our early down efficiency was good."

New Orleans' ability to stifle the Falcons' ground game was an encouraging sign as the playoffs approach.

The Saints have been strongest this season against the pass, in which they rank second (191 yards per game). Against the run, the Saints are 18th in large part because of games such as the one they had against the Ravens' Ray Rice in Week 15. Vilma said the Saints' defense has been conscientious about holding itself accountable for bad outings and remaining committed to improving each week.

"We're definitely not patting ourselves on the back," Vilma said. "When you don't get the job done, it's a problem and we have to watch the film and correct it. When we get the job done, everyone's happy, but we're definitely not going to pat ourselves on the back and say, 'Great job.' This is what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to tackle and stop the running game."

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