OK, I know the New Orleans Saints have given up 400-plus yards in a record nine games this season. The Saints are, in many regards, a historically bad defense.
But you'd have to say that, minus the Week 8 effort at Denver, the defense really has improved mightily throughout the season. In fact, not only has it improved, but it is the key reason for the team winning four of its last five games and regaining some semblance of hope for the 2012 NFL season.
What seemed unfathomable at the beginning of the season has become somewhat standard. The Saints defense is the epitome now of a bend-but-don't-break defense. Steve Spagnuolo's unit gives up yards about as liberally the United States government spends money.
The difference is that the Saints defense has learned how to control teams when doing so. The Saints' red-zone defense has become one of the best in the game. Sunday against Atlanta it stopped Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons for a game-winning goal-line stand.
Roman Harper's coverage skills in tight spaces have been a key. (Who thought we'd ever utter Harper and coverage skills in the same sentence and not be speaking negatively?) Malcolm Jenkins seems to step up immediately in the running game in the red zone.
The rest of the Saints defense seems to get invigorated down low. The team seems to gain an attitude similar to the New Orleans Hornets' motto this season, "This is Our Game". For the Saints defense, it seems to adjust that to "This is Our End Zone."
Of course the Falcons did score in the red zone Sunday. In fact, the "Dirty Birds" got across the goal line multiple times from in close.
But the game-winning goal-line stand and another earlier in the fourth quarter were the primary reason the Saints knocked off the previously unbeaten Falcons. It was defense.
The question is "How?" and perhaps also "Why?" I would even add, "When?"
I'll answer all of these questions in reverse order.
It would be going too far to suggest the defensive re-invigoration coincided with the return to the sidelines of Joe Vitt. Vitt returned for the Week 8 contest at Mile High Stadium. That was actually the team's worst defensive performance of the season.
But the defense began this streak of winning games in Week 5 at Tampa Bay. That was of course the first game Jonathan Vilma stepped on the field for New Orleans. Vilma seemed to bring with him a new attitude and level of expectations.
And his play has nearly matched his attitude and leadership quality. Clearly the unit has been much better since he returned to the field.
Frankly, pinning an answer on this one is more than difficult. How should I know why the unit started stepping up in Week 5 and has mostly improved since then?
But I can speculate. It seems the team knew that if it did not step up this season, it could have gone down as one of the most epically bad seasons not only in franchise history, but in the entire history of the NFL. The Saints have been too good for the past six seasons to have that ugly mark on their record.
It should be noted that the improved play of the defense has coincided with a more efficient Drew Brees, which interestingly has also coincided with a greatly improved running game. In other words, the Saints are playing nearly perfect "Complementary Football" (a Sean Payton-ism).
The easy answer is effort. It seems the Saints have found a river of life on defense.
Again, the improved effort coincided with Jonathan Vilma's return. But the effort extended to Malcolm Jenkins, who ran down Tampa's Vincent Jackson and then almost single-handedly kept Tampa from a touchdown on the goal line.
The fourth-down play on that possession then saw Cameron Jordan chase Josh Freeman down and prevent him from running the ball in the end zone.
In the Sunday night win against the Chargers, the defensive unit struggled for much of the game, but took over in the second half, giving up only 81 second-half yards and constantly hitting Philip Rivers. Martez Wilson ended the game on his own by sacking Rivers and playing smart football on a few other downs.
Two weeks ago, the defense again gave up a ton of yards, but held Philadelphia to minus-one yard in the red zone, due mostly to effort. It really seems to be that simple.
Yesterday, the effort was great all day long. The scheme was mostly good too. Atlanta is just really good. But when all was said and done, the Saints proved they are just as good, if not better than Atlanta.
All it took was maximum effort and understanding the scheme. Then stepping up when it mattered most. That's what did it for the Saints defense in 2012.
Will It Continue?
It must if the Saints are going to become the second team to go from 0-4 to the playoffs. Can it continue?
Of course it can. Effort should never leave a team. Execution may not always be perfect, but the Saints' defensive effort must remain at all times. If it does, the unit has enough talent to overcome execution issues.
We've seen that the past few weeks. This defense is coming together. And the rest of the team is following.
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