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QBREES9 12-15-2010 12:00 AM

Team improves on penalties, 3rd downs
 
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By LES EAST - After last week’s sloppy 34-30 victory at Cincinnati, the New Orleans Saints had a clear-cut series of areas in which they needed to improve. They had been penalized a season-high 11 times for 100 yards, failed on seven of eight third-down conversions, and covered kicks poorly.

Those areas became points of emphasis during last week, and it paid off. In the 31-13 victory against St. Louis on Sunday in the Superdome, the Saints were penalized just five times for 55 yards, converted 11 of 16 third downs, and covered kicks better.

“Just that consistency is what you are looking for,” coach Sean Payton said Monday at his weekly news conference.

He added that “ball security” is a constant point of emphasis, “because that is the one aspect that wins.” Drew Brees threw two interceptions, and Courtney Roby lost a fumble on a kickoff return.

Payton also pointed out that the Saints had “four, arguably five” dropped passes, including two each by Marques Colston and Robert Meachem. “Those are the things you want to get cleaned up,” Payton said.

The key this week is not to allow any slippage in those areas or others that are weekly areas of emphasis. New Orleans, 10-3 after winning its past six games, is closing in on a playoff berth with three games to play — a stretch that begins Sunday in Baltimore.

The Saints received the opening kickoff and drove to a touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Thomas Morstead kicked the ball 2 yards into the end zone and Rams returner Danny Amendola was tackled at the 18 by Leigh Torrence, whom Payton singled out for “really productive” special teams play.

“I thought the way we covered the first kickoff was very encouraging,” Payton said. “We had very good energy. We rallied to the ball, made the tackle inside the 20.”

The Bengals averaged 29.8 yards on six kickoff returns and 15.0 yards on two punt returns last week. On Sunday, the Rams averaged 22.3 yards on six kickoff returns and had one punt return for 10 yards.

“Our coverage units were much improved,” Payton said. “I thought a lot of guys stood out, great efforts. That’s good as we hit the stretch here.”

Morstead took over the kickoff duties from place-kicker Garrett Hartley. Payton said the choice of which one kicks off in a given game is based on what type of kickoff they want.

“If we are looking for more hang time and location, then that’s probably something that Garrett does better,” Payton said. “With Thomas, it’s more distance. They are different, but we certainly have confidence in both of them kicking off because they both have strong legs.”

St. Louis entered the game ranked second in the NFL in third-down conversion defense (31.8 percent), but the Saints converted 69 percent of the time. New Orleans entered the game ranked just 23rd in third-down defense, but stopped the Rams on 10 of 11 third downs.

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