When the New Orleans Saints defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-10, on Sunday, it marked the third consecutive game in which they allowed 17 or fewer points.
It was also the fifth time during the Saints' six-game winning streak that their opponent failed to exceed 17 points.
"We started out being one of the youngest defenses in the league," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "I could not be prouder of our defense and the way that they are playing. We are attacking offenses. We are trying to assert our identity in the football world."
Jordan has certainly asserted himself. He had 1.5 sacks against the Buccaneers to increase his team-leading total to seven. Fellow end Alex Okafor had half a sack to increase his total to 3.5, second on the team.
New Orleans allowed only 200 yards and Tampa Bay's longest drive was 42 yards and resulted in a punt. The Bucs' touchdown came at the end of a 19-yard drive after Willie Snead IV fumbled a punt.
"Yesterday's game I thought we really played the run well and they became one-dimensional," Saints head coach Sean Payton said Monday. "I thought we really did a good job covering them. We did a good job of contesting (passes), keeping the ball in front of us and not allowing a big play. Third-down numbers were really good (4-of-13).
"(Overall) I think we've done a good job of contesting throws and I think that we've done a good job of disrupting the timing whether it has been the quarterback or the routes."
Left tackle Terron Armstead, who missed the first four games of the season because of offseason shoulder surgery, left Sunday's game with a chest injury. Andrus Peat moved from left guard to Armstead's spot and Josh LeRibeus took Peat's spot. The Saints already were playing their second game with right guard Senio Kelemete starting in place of injured Larry Warford. Rookie Ryan Ramczyk is starting in place of injured right tackle Zach Strief.
The Saints have been less productive in turnover ratio of late, but it hasn't slowed them down. They have turned the ball over twice and taken it away once in each of the last three games. Prior to that they were plus-6 through five games after going the first four games without committing a turnover. They have now won three straight in which they turned it over more than they took it away after having lost their most recent 10 such games.
"It's tough (adjusting to so many changes)," said center Max Unger, the only lineman to play every snap. "It's a testament to the depth we've been able to build for guys to be able to play out of position and have no drop in production."
The Saints took advantage of a stretch of three home games out of four during their six-game win streak. Now they go on the road for just the second time in five weeks when they visit Buffalo on Sunday. After that they get four of six games at home before closing the regular season at Tampa Bay on New Year's Eve. "We had a second quarter (of the season) here where we knew in this four-game stretch that we were going to have three of four at home," Payton said. "Fortunately, we were able to take advantage of that."
OLB Hau'oli Kikaha had a sack against the Bucs after being a healthy inactive for the previous two games.
S Chris Banjo is a special teams fixture who doesn't play much on defense. But against Tampa Bay he saw additional playing time on defense as Rafael Bush was inactive. Banjo made one tackle and recovered a fumble.
K Wil Lutz had a below-average day. His extra-point attempt after New Orleans' first touchdown was blocked and he was replaced by P Thomas Morstead on the ensuing kickoff. Lutz later missed a 43-yard field-goal attempt, though he resumed his kickoff duties and had five touchbacks on five kickoffs.
MOST VALUABLE ROOKIE
CB Marshon Lattimore. This could easily have been RB Alvin Kamara or even T Ryan Ramczyk, who have both been significant contributors, but Lattimore is playing at an All-Pro level. He has two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown, and opponents generally have thrown away from him.
WR Willie Snead IV. After catching 69 and 72 passes in the last two seasons, Snead seemed poised to have an even bigger season this year because New Orleans traded Brandin Cooks in the offseason. But Snead missed the first three games while suspended for an offseason DWI arrest and he sustained a hamstring injury when he returned to practice. That has limited his playing time and he has caught just one pass for 11 yards. On Sunday, he replaced Ted Ginn Jr., who has surpassed him as the No. 2 receiver, on punt returns and lost a fumble that led to the Bucs' only touchdown.
MIDSEASON REPORT CARD
PASSING OFFENSE: A
Drew Brees hasn't had to carry the team as he generally has, but the passing game still has remained one of the primary reasons for the team's success. Even with virtually no contribution from Willie Snead IV, Brees have been consistently efficient connecting with Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. and RBs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B
The Saints quickly figured out there was no room for Adrian Peterson because of the productivity of Ingram and Kamara, so they traded Peterson to Arizona. The Saints rushed for fewer than 100 yards in three of the first four games, partly because of injuries on the offensive line and large deficits in the first two games, but they have run the ball significantly better in the last four games.
PASS DEFENSE: A-minus
The combination of very good coverage from the cornerbacks and a strong pass rush, especially from the line, has made this the most improved area of the team compared to last season. Cam Jordan has been outstanding and Alex Okafor has been very good, making things easier for CBs Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley and the rest of the secondary.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus
Occasional long runs have blemished an otherwise solid performance. Takeaways and playing with a lead have helped, but an upgraded group of linebackers has been the primary reason for improved play against the run compared to last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus
P Thomas Morstead has been outstanding and Justin Hardee's blocked punt and return for a touchdown against the Buccaneers Sunday was a huge play. But K Wil Lutz has been inconsistent and Ginn has been shaky on punt returns.
Head coach Sean Payton and his staff deserve a lot of credit for the dramatic turnaround after poor performances during a 0-2 start. Payton and Pete Carmichael have coordinated a more balanced offense and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has deftly blended the rebuilt linebacking corps and the young secondary with judicious use of blitzes.
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