It hasn't taken long for the New Orleans Saints defense to shed its reputation as a laughing stock of the NFL.
One season after giving up a league-record 7,042 yards, the Saints are now among the leaders of several key defensive rankings — and providing their share of highlights in the form of sacks and turnovers.
On Monday, following a 35-17 win over Buffalo, Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said he wasn't surprised the Saints (6-1) held six of their first seven opponents to 18 or fewer points. Still, he understood why outside observers might not have foreseen such improvement under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
"When you have the league's worst defense a year ago and you have the same players, people think that those players that were playing in that scheme were terrible," Lofton said. "So you get a new defensive coordinator that comes in and plays to the strengths of players in this locker room, and guys are playing out there confident, playing fast ... like it's a whole different team."
Heading into their Week 9 visit to the New York Jets, the Saints rank fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, giving up 17.1 points per game. New Orleans has forced 15 turnovers, nine on interceptions and six on fumbles, and their net turnover differential of plus-eight ranks third. Their 24 sacks rank sixth, tied with New England.
"It's a highly motivated group," said Ryan, who arrived in New Orleans after being fired as Dallas' defensive coordinator last winter. "We all have egg on our face from last season and take that seriously. We want to be a hell of a lot better than what people think we are, so we're just working hard to be a little tiny part of our success."
Ever since head coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have been known primarily for their prolific offense. Even when they won the Super Bowl in the 2009 season, helped by an opportunistic defense which created game-changing turnovers, the Saints still ranked 25th in yards allowed.
This season, New Orleans is a respectable 12th (332.4 yards allowed per game), taking pressure off a New Orleans offense that averages 396 yards and 28 points.
Payton watched the Saints' hapless 2012 defense from afar because he was suspended in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation. When he returned, he replaced defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Ryan, who installed a new 3-4 scheme. Payton also urged his staff to emphasize what they could do on offense and special teams to make it easier on the defense.
Payton calls it "complementary football." Examples include offensive series which maximizes time of possession, giving the defense more rest and time to make needed adjustments. It includes sound kick coverage which improves field position.
"That scoring defense statistic, there's a lot that goes into it," Payton said. "Definitely, it's encouraging. We're playing better. The players are playing with more confidence."
When the regular season began, the Saints couldn't be sure how their defense would fare. Not only was the scheme new, but key players went down with season-ending injuries, including projected starting outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler.
So the Saints turned to some hungry young players, such as outside linebacker Junior Galette (four sacks), defensive ends Cameron Jordan (six sacks) and Glenn Foster (two sacks), and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (three tackles for losses).
"We're all buying into rushing the passer as a unit instead of individuals and communicating well as a defensive line," said Foster, an undrafted rookie. "That's the biggest thing, just communication."
Meanwhile, new cornerback Keenan Lewis, acquired in free agency, has three interceptions. Hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro, this year's first-round draft choice, has made plays all over the field.
Saints right tackle Zach Strief said the improved defense has given Payton more flexibility in his offensive play-calling. Sometimes it might mean trying to convert a fourth-and-short on the Saints' side of the field, confident that the defense will mitigate the damage should the play fail. Other times, it means calling clock-eating plays to protect a lead.
"It certainly lets you take some more chances," Strief said. "At the same time, late in some of these games, it gives you a chance to be a little more conservative and protect the ball a little bit better because you don't feel like you're up 17 points and you've got to get another" score.
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