Saints de­fend­ing bet­ter than last game vs. Bucs

The Sun Herald - - Sports - BY BRETT MAR­TEL METAIRIE, LA.

No mat­ter how much New Or­leans’ de­fense may have im­proved since this sea­son’s open­ing week, line­backer Alex An­za­lone doesn’t see the ben­e­fit in dis­miss­ing as ir­rel­e­vant the 48 points the Saints sur­ren­dered in a Week 1 loss to the Buc­ca­neers.

“In the back of our minds, if any­thing, it’s just mo­ti­va­tion to be on your Ps and Qs this week,” An­za­lone said this week, as New Or­leans pre­pared for the re­match in Tampa Bay. “They do have a re­ally good of­fense. They have a bunch of play mak­ers, so we know what they’re ca­pa­ble of. There’s a lot of mo­ti­va­tion for this game, but as a de­fense, that could def­i­nitely be one of them.”

In Week 1, New Or­leans’ busted cov­er­ages led to a 529yard day for the Buc­ca­neers’ of­fense, high­lighted by touch­down passes of 58 and 36 yards to DeSean Jack­son and 50 yards to Mike Evans. Tampa Bay’s of­fense ac­counted 41 points, with one Buc­ca­neers TD com­ing on safety Justin Evans’ fum­ble re­turn.

Yet the Saints de­fense that was on the field that day scarcely re­sem­bles the one play­ing prac­ti­cally lights out for the past month.

The Saints have held each of their last four foes to be­tween 7 and 17 points.

“That’s huge in this league when you can hold a team to un­der 20 points, es­pe­cially with the of­fense we’ve got,” Saints de­fen­sive tackle Shel­don Rank­ins said. “I’m go­ing to bet on us most times.”

Con­fi­dence is surg­ing. Botched as­sign­ments are few. Sacks and turnovers have risen sharply. New Or­leans has sacked op­pos­ing QBs 13 times in the past two games, dur­ing which they’ve also taken the ball away six times.

“It’s been im­pres­sive,” Saints coach Sean Pay­ton said. “As a coach, you’re en­cour­aged be­cause we’re re­ceiv­ing good end play, but we’re also re­ceiv­ing great tackle play and I think in­side we’ve re­ally been able to push the pocket.”

Those re­cent per­for­mances have made New Or­leans’ sea­son-open­ing stum­ble look more like an­cient his­tory.

“That was a lot of firstgame er­rors that we had to work out,” An­za­lone said. “It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily who we were as a de­fense. It was just some­thing that we weren’t locked in enough or didn’t ex­e­cute enough to get the job done.”

Rank­ins, a first round draft choice in 2016, is hav­ing ar­guably his best sea­son with seven sacks. Five of his sacks have come since Week 8. Like the rest of the Saints de­fense, he did not have a sack in Week 1.

If the Bucs study game video from their pre­vi­ous meet­ing, Rank­ins said, they’ll see the same scheme New Or­leans us us­ing now, but vastly dif­fer­ent ex­e­cu­tion.

“With the way we’ve been play­ing, I think they’re go­ing to have to try to at­tack us in a dif­fer­ent way,” he said.

Buc­ca­neers coach Dirk Koet­ter said he sees a Saints de­fense that has “evolved,” both in terms of young play­ers im­prov­ing as well as with some key per­son­nel changes, such as a mid-sea­son trade to bring in cor­ner­back Eli Ap­ple from the New York Gi­ants. Ap­ple quickly took over as starter in place of Ken Crawley.

“Their de­fense is play­ing pretty well at this time, all the way across,” Koet­ter said.

If New Or­leans’ de­fense has been consistent in one area, it has been against the run. The Saints have been near the top of the NFL in that depart­ment all sea­son and rank first through 12 games, and that’s not sim­ply be­cause op­po­nents are choos­ing to pass more against them, Koet­ter said.

“They’re play­ing with the lead a lot, and teams are throw­ing the ball,” Koet­ter be­gan. “Still, when you watch the tape you go, ‘Man these guys are pretty good against the run.’ I think their front seven is re­ally play­ing hard.” Notes: WR Michael Thomas prac­ticed fully on Thurs­day af­ter rest­ing his sore an­kle on Wed­nes­day. … Of­fen­sive tack­les Ter­ron Arm­stead (chest) and Ryan Ram­czyk (shoul­der) were listed as lim­ited on the prac­tice re­port.

BILL FEIG AP

Saints line­backer Alex An­za­lone (47) in­ter­cepts a pass in­tended for Los An­ge­les Rams run­ning back Nick Hol­ley dur­ing a pre­sea­son game Aug. 30 in New Or­leans. The Saints are pre­par­ing for a re­match Sun­day against the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers, against whom the New Or­leans de­fense sur­ren­dered 48 points in a Week 1 loss. “It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily who we were as a de­fense,” An­za­lone said this week.

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