Saints’ defensive jump has NFL foes on notice

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As we put the finishing touches on our weekly newspaper this past Monday afternoon, the New Orleans Saints were busy taking the field in anticipation of their primetime battle with the Miami Dolphins.

So it is for that reason that I write my column this week with my fingers crossed and bated breath.

Everything that I say in the following 800 or so words may be outdated and stale depending on the outcome of the game – that’s a risk you have to be willing to take sometimes in a weekly publication.

But this message is strong, so I believe that it’s worth the risk to put it in print. This message will also be relevant pretty much no matter how Monday’s game plays out, which makes it even easier to go ahead and dedicate Casey’s Corner to the topic.

So here goes: The Saints’ defense is good.

No really, that’s not sarcasm. That’s not a joke. That’s not me trying to stir the pot because I am a Dallas Cowboys fan and a closet Saints’ hater.

No, these guys are really, really good – easily the most improved unit in the NFL.

The rest of the NFL should be on notice. If things hold up, the road to the Super Bowl may end up going through New Orleans.

Everyone knows that the Saints can score points by the dozen. With Drew Brees under center, a stable of halfbacks, explosive wide receivers and the best tight end possibly in NFL history, the Black and Gold pretty much walk into every game knowing that they are more than likely going to score 20 or more points in each game – even if things go poorly.

But last year, that wasn’t good enough and the team struggled to a losing record and a playoff-less season.

Why? The Saints’ defense stunk like rotten shrimp. The unit routinely gave up 30-40 points in a game – ridiculous numbers that even the great Brees couldn’t overcome.

But with Sean Payton back from suspension, the first thing the esteemed coach did was look to the struggling unit and give it some tender love and care.

He fired 2012-13 coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who just simply seemed overwhelmed in his one year with the team.

Payton replaced Spags with Rob Ryan – a veteran that shifted the team’s scheme from a 4-3 to a 3-4 – a move that Ryan felt better fit New Orleans’ roster.

So far, the switch has paid off.

Under Ryan’s tutelage, New Orleans has been much more stingy in keeping opponents out of the end zone.

New Orleans allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their first three games to start the season. They allowed 20 or fewer points just two times in all of 2012-13 throughout 16 games – an obvious mark of improvement.

Besides the obvious change in coordinators and scheme, it is the Saints’ defensive line that is sparking the surge. In years past, opposing quarterbacks had time to make a sandwich before throwing the football – there simply wasn’t any pressure to make decisions.

No pressure means more open receivers down the field. More open receivers down the field obviously mean touchdowns and points by the dozen.

But this year, the New Orleans front has fought back in a big way and has made things uncomfortable for opposing signal callers. The Saints’ front has routinely gotten massive pressure straight up the gut without needing to blitz. The ability to do so obviously is beneficial to a team’s coverage because it means more defenders can be left back to cover an opponent’s allotment of receivers.

The Saints’ front has also been stouter in stopping the run – a trait that has been really beneficial in putting opponents in predictable third and long situations. Third and long usually means punts. And punts mean more possessions for Brees to go back to work putting points on the board.

Heck, it’s harsh to say it this bluntly, but the Saints’ defensive turnaround was also aided by luck, as the team is better off without Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith – both of whom are out with lengthy injuries. The truth hurts and the results speak for themselves. The two players are many years past their prime, and are just statues. Without them, younger, faster, stronger players have stepped up and have risen to the occasion, a move that has provided the team with the depth that it has so desperately missed in years past.

It’s all early and the season is just 25 percent complete – things can change in an instant in the NFL. The Saints will face road tilts with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots in the next two weeks – games that will show the world more clearly where the team stands.

Likewise, the Saints will play the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks in consecutive weeks from Nov. 10-Dec. 2 – a stretch of games that will definitely have a major impact on postseason seeding in the NFC.

But as it all stands right now, things are looking good and the Saints are looking awfully hard to beat.

If the defense keeps up the good work and the offense keeps purring, another deep playoff push may soon be in the team’s future.

Who knows? Maybe a Super Bowl season could be afoot. Of course, to win the big game, the Saints would need to brave New York’s wintery cold – one of the stupidest things the NFL has ever done in Roger Goodell’s tenure that has been filled with stupid things. But that’s an argument for another day.

The game is now in the first quarter and our deadline is inching even closer.

Geez, I hope the Saints played well against the Dolphins.

Because all of this will be moot if not.