METAIRIE, La. (AP) Times like these are gratifying for veteran Saints right tackle Zach Strief, who brushed off doomsday story lines and continued to express faith in his team when it was winless through three games.

''The general world at this point in time, and our society, is as negative as we could possibly be, so what people want when you're losing is: `Let's fire, let's blame, let's point a finger, let's incriminate.' Somebody wants a head to roll,'' said Strief, a locker room leader who is now in his 11th NFL season. ''The reality is, in here, if you want to be successful, if you have people in this locker room that are kind of guiding the team in the right direction, the message is you have to work harder the next day. Because all the other stuff is worthless.''

Increasingly, there is evidence that Strief's message was echoed by team leaders - and heeded.

Three victories in four games - with the lone loss in that span coming down the wire - have the Saints heading to San Francisco as road favorites this week. New Orleans (3-4) also has a chance to climb back to .500 and into the conversation in the NFC South Division race.

Optimism stems from several areas.

Quarterback Drew Brees consistently has put up elite passing numbers - and his efficiency might improve now that New Orleans has recently discovered more of a running game.

Meanwhile, two key defensive players - cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins - are closer to returning from injury to a unit that has exhibited signs of improvement during the past month.

The Saints have slowly improved in NFL defensive rankings from 31st to 28th, with its totals of yards allowed per game significantly lower during the past four games than the first three.

Rankins, the Saints' first-round pick last spring, has yet to make his debut because of a broken fibula during training camp. But he's eligible to return from injured reserve as early as this Sunday - if the Saints decide he's ready. Breaux, who has not played since also breaking his fibula in Week 1, was encouraged enough by his own work in practice on Wednesday to label his health at ''115 percent.''

''I feel great, man. Got a couple reps at practice just to see how everything will go,'' Breaux said, but stressed that when and how much he plays will be the coaching staff's call.

The Saints do not appear to be taking their recent reversal of fortune for granted.

''You're constantly fighting human nature in this business,'' said Brees, whose 2,366 yards passing ranks third overall in the NFL, and first among quarterbacks who've played fewer than eight games. ''You probably overreact when you lose and you underreact when you win, and we want to make sure we're not that team that's up and down - win, loss, win, loss, win, loss - because we fall into the trap of human nature.''

So far, the Saints' passing offense has been consistently good, with young receivers Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and Michael Thomas all thriving. But the Saints see potential for more production from tight end Coby Fleener, a key free-agent acquisition in the offseason. And it was a physical running game that received much of the credit following a victory over Seattle last Sunday as Tim Hightower became the first Saints player to rush for more than 100 yards in a game this season.

''We haven't had our best performance yet,'' Brees asserted in discussing a Saints offense that ranks second in the NFL and averages 415 yards per game. ''I'm excited about the evolution of this offense and this team. Each week I feel that we learn something new about us - and in a good way. That's why I get excited to step on the field just to see what steps forward we can take this week.''

Notes: Four players sat out practice on Wednesday: LT Terron Armstead (knee), S Kenny Vaccaro (knee), LB Dannell Ellerbe (quad) and LB James Laurinaitis (quad). The Saints have not said if any of those injuries are serious enough to sideline those players at San Francisco.


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