Saints defense playing better than the offense really needs

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NEW ORLEANS – As good as their offense is, the New Orleans Saints could afford a worse defense than they have.

The way Drew Brees is directing an explosive, balanced and nearly mistake-free offense, the Saints have been setting a scoring pace that opponents can’t keep up with.

They entered their Thanksgiving night game against the Atlanta Falcons as the highest-scoring team in the NFL with an average of 37.8 points per game.

They had scored at least 45 points in their last three games, a franchise-record stretch.

It was a pace they couldn’t maintain for a fourth game, but it didn’t matter because of the way the defense is playing.

The margin wasn’t the same as it was in a 48-7 victory against Philadelphia four days earlier or in a 51-14 victory against Cincinnati a week before that. But New Orleans’ 31-17 triumph on Thanksgiving night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was nearly as easy as the previous two because the defense had a handle on this one from the start.

The Saints sacked Matt Ryan six times, limited the Falcons to 26 rushing yards and created four turnovers in a wire-to-wire win.

“We’ve played some good offenses,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Cincinnati’s a good offense. The Eagles are a good offense. I feel like we’re playing a complementary game. Tonight was no different.”

The only different was that the offense had a modest rather than insurmountable point total in the first half, leading 17-3 at halftime.

Ryan threw two touchdown passes, but they mattered mostly to people eyeing their fantasy team or the point spread. The first came with New Orleans leading 24-3 in the final seconds of the third quarter, the second came with New Orleans leading 31-10 and less than two minutes remaining.

They accomplished little other than to prevent the Saints from allowing a season-low point total for a third consecutive game.

Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple had fumble recoveries and A.J. Klein made an interception for New Orleans.

Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan had two sacks and Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis, P.J. Williams and Marcus Williams had one each.

“We made them one-dimensional,” Klein said. “By the time the third and fourth quarter rolls around, they’re in passing personnel. We still don’t want to give up that many passing yards.

“But to get them into third and fourth and longs is big. They’re taking more and more chances.”

The victory was the 10th straight by the Saints after that head-scratching loss to Tampa Bay in the season opener.

The Buccaneers outscored the Saints 48-41 as the season began as though Brees would have to pass and pass and pass to try and overcome a porous defense.

But the defense has gotten progressively better and the Saints haven’t lost since.

This winning streak is now all alone as the second-longest in franchise history. The only other Saints team to win as many as 10 games in a row was the 2009 team, which began the season 13-0 on its was to winning New Orleans’ only Super Bowl.

By the way, that streak ended with a loss to Dallas and this team’s next destination is Dallas to face the resurgent Cowboys in another Thursday game next week. But that’s another story.

This story is about the defense.

“Obviously the turnovers were significant, the rushing yards,” Payton said. “It certainly helps when you can hold an opponent to 20-something yards. It helps when you know what’s coming, if they are one-dimensional. That was the case tonight.”

Three of the Falcons’ turnovers were fumbles in the red zone.

“When you have one, it feels like a lot,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said, “but when you have three down there, I thought that was the real story of the game.”

New Orleans has created nine turnovers in the last three games.

“Getting turnovers is a big thing for us,” Klein said. “I think this is going to pay dividends as we push forth into this late part of the season.”

In the 100th meeting between these long-time division rivals, the Saints completed a sweep of the season series and eliminated Atlanta from the NFC South race.

New Orleans will hold at least a three-game lead over second-place Carolina after the Panthers home game against Seattle on Sunday.

The defense set the tone against the Falcons and the offense was more methodical than explosive. Nonetheless, Drew Brees threw four touchdown passes – to four different undrafted free agents (Tommylee Lewis, Austin Carr, Dan Arnold and Keith Kirkwood) no less.

“I love that stat,” Brees said.

It was the first career touchdown for both Arnold and Kirkwood.

Brees completed 15 of 22 for 171 yards, though he did throw his second interception of the season.

Perhaps the most insightful stats from the game were these: Ryan passed for 206 more yards than Brees did, but Brees’ passer rating was nine points higher than Ryan’s.

That’s because Brees was working with, rather than against, the better defense – one that’s getting even better than he really needs.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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