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METAIRIE, La. – For Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints, time of possession is of the essence.
"It's an important statistic," Payton said Monday, acknowledging the role that his team's ability to control the clock has played in its 5-0 start.
The Saints' fourth-ranked offense has had the ball for an average of 34:37 per game, which led the NFL heading into Monday night's game. The ability New Orleans' 11th-ranked defense to force some quick punts or turnovers has had something to do with that as well.
"Time of possession is really a team stat," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It's everybody. It's special teams, it's defense, it's offense, and that's showing you that we're winning as a team in all of our games."
Indeed, it was Jenkins' sack and strip of Jay Cutler — recovered by defensive end Cameron Jordan — that limited Chicago to a single play on its second drive Sunday, and helped New Orleans take an early 6-0 lead en route to a 26-18 victory.
The Saints, who play next at New England, had the ball for 36 minutes in Chicago — 12 minutes more than the Bears. New Orleans managed that despite rushing for only 66 yards.
The Saints entered Monday ranked 26th in rushing, averaging 78.2 yards.
Conventional football wisdom says teams must run well to control the clock. Apparently, that goes out the window in the case of Payton's innovative and prolific offense, which is built around the concept of isolating play-makers in mismatches and letting record-setting quarterback Drew Brees throw as often as needed.
"That's definitely unique — not doing it with a consistent run game," right guard Jarhi Evans said. "But coach Payton and Drew have those timing routes where he gets the ball out quick and those short throws actually go for big gains. We just try to stay on the field and keep converting, and that's what happens when you are converting on third downs, fourth-and-1, like we did."
Payton still sees himself as more of an aggressive than methodical play-caller. Late in the first half, he thought a 36-yard pass attempt intended for Robert Meachem in the end zone was well set up, and that the incompletion could have been ruled pass interference when defensive back Chris Conte pulled Meachem's jersey. Because of the Saints' ability to continue moving the ball after that — even converting a fourth-and-short on Pierre Thomas' run — the Saints kept the ball for an additional minute-and-a-half and still got in the end zone when Thomas scored on a 25-yard screen.
"It's just being productive with your down and distances," Payton said. "It meant taking advantage of a check-down as opposed to an incomplete down the field.
"You want to score every time you have it, so we're not purposely trying to create long drives. But be efficient with your plays, and if you're winning on third down, for instance, you're staying on the field. If you're turning the ball over, conversely, all of a sudden the drive ends," Payton continued. "There's a lot of things that factor into it."
For Payton, time of possession figures prominently in "complementary football," a concept stressed by coaches and often repeated by players at Saints headquarters. In other words, offenses must keep in mind the various things they can do to make the game easier on their defense, and vice versa, with special teams also playing its part to create favorable field position.
That is why Jenkins is quick to credit Brees & Co. for helping keep the Saints defense fresh.
"We're not very tired at all," Jenkins said. "It's not like our offense is going three-and-out and we're back on the field. They're sustaining drives. We're getting a good rest, being able to adjust on the sideline and then coming back out and playing fast."
Notes: Jenkins said the Saints are ignoring a statistic, distributed this week by the NFL, which shows that 90 percent of teams which have opened 5-0 have advanced to the post season under the current playoff format. "You'd be an idiot to listen to that stat and think that you're automatically going to the playoffs," Jenkins said. "Winning five games literally gets you nothing but five games. So people are going to throw that around and look forward, but right now we're just trying to get six."
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org