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BillyCarpenter1 10-23-2003 07:08 AM

Saints' defense is starting to stack up

Saints' defense is starting to stack up

Unit is allowing fewer points; league ranking improves to 12th

Thursday October 23, 2003

By Brian Allee-Walsh
Staff writer

The Saints' defense appears to be getting its act together in time for a crucial two-game stretch against the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

-- For the first time since midway through the 2000 season, the Saints have held three consecutive opponents to less than 20 points -- Carolina (19), Chicago (13) and Atlanta (17).

-- Quietly and methodically, the Saints have jumped from 24th after a 55-21 shellacking by the Indianapolis Colts in Game 4 to 12th in team defense.

-- After yielding 13 touchdowns in their first four games, the defense has allowed four in the past three games.

Yet, despite the steady improvement, Saints defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said he is leery to speak too glowingly of a unit that continues to be a work in progress.

"I don't want to carbonate this thing," Venturi said. "There's a very fine line in the NFL between success and failure or winning and losing. Hey, we're walking on the edge of the cliff every week here. Right now we're on the right side of the cliff, but . . ."

His voice tailed off.

"I'm not big on stats, because I think you can justify, rationalize, sell and spin anything you want in this league," Venturi said. "But to me the key statistic is points allowed, because you keep games winnable if you can keep an opponent under 20. Including the Houston game (the Saints won 31-10), we've had four this season out of seven."

The Saints yielded 20 points in every game but one last season, a 10-6 loss to the Panthers in Game 16 that eliminated New Orleans from playoff contention.

Under Coach Jim Haslett, the Saints are 17-7 when holding their opponent to 20 or fewer points, including 3-1 this season. The loss came Sept. 28 at Carolina 19-13.

"I'm probably wearing this word out to the public, but the biggest difference in our play right now and in the first month is cohesion," Venturi said.

"That is so critical to this league. It's important that guys play with, and off, one another, and we're doing that."

That cohesiveness was lacking in September after a rash of injuries had depleted the defense.

Slowly but surely, injured players are returning to the lineup, although defensive end Darren Howard (wrist) and strongside linebacker Sedrick Hodge (knee) remain sidelined.

The Saints will start the same players on defense for the third consecutive week Sunday against the Panthers.

"I used to hear people talk about the Cowboys' offense in the '90s like they were a machine," Saints weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers said.

"All the parts worked together for one goal, one cause.

"Cohesiveness, chemistry, working together, they're different words but they all mean the same thing. Once people got used to the system and started trusting in each other, then all that comes together. If we all do our jobs correctly, good things are going to happen."

Veteran linebacker Darrin Smith said the Saints' coaching staff has simplified the defense, enabling players to play instinctively and do less thinking.

"We had a lot of changes and adjustments early, but now we've been together for a few weeks and we're playing better," Smith said.

"We understand where each other belongs, and everybody is doing their part."

Saints strong safety Jay Bellamy said the team has stuck together through some early adversity, which could bode well down the road.

"We're taking it game by game," Bellamy said.

"We're not doing a lot of exotic stuff. Guys can count on other guys being there. We can look at each other when something goes wrong and say, 'I was supposed to be there.' A couple years back it was like, 'Who had this?' and 'Who had that?' We're just playing together right now. It's unbelievable."

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[Edited on 23/10/2003 by JOESAM2002]

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