The New Orleans Saints defense has maintained its above-average play even as injuries have sidelined a significant number of starters.
The Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, 23-13, on Sunday in their first game since linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro went on injured reserve.
That brought to six the number of defensive players who either were starters at the beginning of the season or were projected starters during the offseason before being lost for the season.
Defensive end Alex Okafor and linebacker Alex Anzalone went on injured reserve earlier in the season. New Orleans lost defensive tackle Nick Fairley (heart ailment) and cornerback Delvin Breaux (leg) during the summer.
Still, the Saints are 11-4 and have clinched a playoff spot. New Orleans can win the NFC South if it wins at Tampa Bay or Carolina loses at Atlanta on Sunday.
"There have been a lot of backup players, maybe guys that didn't start the season as starters that are a part of this," Saints head coach Sean Payton said Tuesday.
"There's a lot of guys that started off the year at one position, but have been able to step in and fill in, and that's been rewarding."
Tyeler Davison replaced Fairley and rookie No. 1 draft choice Marshon Lattimore emerged as a Pro Bowler in Breaux's absence.
Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o have solidified the linebacking corps and the Saints have played additional nickel and leaned on safeties Marcus Williams, Vonn Bell, Rafael Bush and Craig Banjo.
The Falcons had just 67 rushing yards among its 331 total yards Sunday. They were only 2-of-13 on third-down conversions and didn't reach the end zone until 2:40 remained in the game.
New Orleans is tied for eighth in scoring defense and is 15th in total defense.
The Saints were much more disciplined in the rematch with the Falcons after two games in which they were penalized significantly. They were penalized just three times for 30 yards Sunday.
It was significantly better than the first game against the Falcons two weeks earlier, when the Saints were penalized 11 times for 87 yards and Atlanta gained nine first downs by penalty. In between the two games against the Falcons, New Orleans was penalized eight times for 92 yards against the Jets.
"We needed a clean game," Running back Mark Ingram II told NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune. "We just needed to play our football. Penalties are on the players, so we got to go out there, play clean, play with good technique and not beat ourselves."
NEED TO RUN THE BALL BETTER (BELIEVE IT OR NOT)
Mark Ingram and fellow running back Alvin Kamara have both had Pro-Bowl seasons, but the Saints likely will have to run the ball better than they have the last three games if they are going to make a playoff run.
Both Ingram and Kamara had fewer than 50 yards and the Saints averaged 2.8 yards per carry against Atlanta. Against the Jets, Ingram's last-minute 50-yard touchdown elevated a run game that had averaged 3.0 yards the rest of the game.
The Saints have had to rearrange the offensive line because of injuries on numerous occasions and Kamara missed virtually the entire first meeting with the Falcons (a 20-17 defeat Dec. 7) because of a concussion as the Saints averaged 3.3 yards per rush.
QB Drew Brees has surpassed 4,000 passing yards for the 12th time in as many seasons in New Orleans. The Saints have not been as dependent on Brees this season as in some others because of the improved running game and defense.
Brees, who has five 5,000-yard seasons, has thrown for 4,089 yards and needs 300 in the finale to surpass his lowest season total in New Orleans, which came during the Saints' Super Bowl-winning season in 2009. Brees never threw for as many as 4,000 yards in his five seasons in San Diego before coming to New Orleans.
WR Ted Ginn Jr. has gained only 754 of his career receiving yards in his first season with Drew Brees and the Saints, but he has reached a milestone also. Ginn caught four passes for 76 yards Sunday, pushing him past 5,000 yards for his career.
REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS
PASSING OFFENSE: A
QB Drew Brees completed 21-of-28 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown. He had one interception on a tipped pass that gave the ball to the Falcons at the Saints 2, but the defense came up with a fumble recovery that prevented points. Brees' 54-yard touchdown pass to Ginn right before halftime was one of the biggest plays of the game, increasing New Orleans' lead to 13-0. Michael Thomas had four catches for 66 yards, but didn't score a touchdown for the first time in five weeks.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus
The Saints rushed for just 86 yards and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. The biggest running play was Mark Ingram's 26-yard touchdown run that gave the Saints a 20-3 lead in the third quarter. The line got back guards Andrus Peat, Larry Warford and Senio Kelemete from injury, but Peat had to move to left tackle after Terron Armstead was sidelined by a thigh injury. Kelemete replaced Peat at left guard.
PASS DEFENSE: A
The Saints kept Matt Ryan and the Falcons explosive passing game in check. Ryan completed 22-of-36 passes for 288 yards and a late touchdown. Lattimore made an acrobatic interception that preceded Ginn's touchdown. DE Cameron Jordan had two of the Saints' five sacks of Ryan.
RUSH DEFENSE: A
Atlanta rushed for just 67 yards, averaging 3.4. The Falcons offense took the field for the first time trailing 3-0 and Atlanta played from behind the rest of the way, which didn't help the running game. The Saints defense forced and recovered Devonta Freeman's fumble at the New Orleans 2 and made another goal-line stand inside the 1.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A
Wil Lutz made all three of his field-goal attempts and both of his extra-point attempts. The punting was solid as Thomas Morstead's six punts yielded a gross average of 44.7 and a net average of 39.8 with one punt being downed inside the 20. Tommylee Lewis averaged 10.8 yards on four punt returns and Alvin Kamara averaged 36.0 on two kickoff returns.
Head coach Sean Payton and the staff put an emphasis on reducing penalties and the players responded with a very clean game. The game plans were solid on both sides of the ball and New Orleans was superior to Atlanta in all three phases to win more easily than the final score might suggest.
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