Saints roll in looking to turn takeaway trend

The 49ers have won the game of takeaways all season, and that's been a key part of the formula that thrust San Francisco to a 13-3 season and has the Niners hosting the 14-3 Saints in Saturday's NFC playoff semifinals. New Orleans was on the other end of the spectrum, and that's something the Saints may need to change to gain the upper hand versus a team that led the NFL in turnover differential.

Lamenting his unit's uncharacteristic lack of takeaways during the regular season, New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams – a man known throughout his career for his pressure schemes and blitzes and for an ability to wrest the ball from the opposing offense – wryly noted: "I have guys (who) couldn't catch a cold butt naked in a rain storm."

True enough, Williams' defense had just 16 takeaways in the 2011 regular season and, as a result, the Saints were a minus-3 in turnover/takeaway differential. The 16 takeaways are the second lowest recorded by a Williams defense playing with him as its coordinator.

In his previous 11 years as a coordinator, Williams' teams averaged 26.0 takeaways. Only the 2006 Washington Redskins (12 takeaways) finished with fewer interceptions and fumble recoveries than this year's Saints. This season was only the fourth time in a dozen years that a Williams-coordinated defense had fewer than 20 takeaways.

In the past, no matter where a Williams defense ranked statistically – and he had just five top-10 units in his first 11 seasons – it always seemed able to take the ball away. But not this season.

"It's not us," Williams recently said.

The Saints are hoping that will change in Saturday's divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park against a 49ers team that has been dominant in taking away the football this season – and protecting it.

The 49ers tied a NFL record this season with just 10 turnovers, and they tied for the league lead with 38 takeaways. Their NFL-leading plus-28 turnover differential is the second-best in the NFL since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

The New Orleans defense scored three touchdowns via takeaways, actually one more than last season, but didn't impact games quite as much. In 2008, led by free safety Darren Sharper, who had three interception returns for touchdowns, the New Orleans defense scored eight times. That defense ranked just 25th in the league.

Part of the problem in 2011 was that the Saints' secondary dropped at least eight would-be interceptions by unofficial count. But that wasn't the only shortcoming for a New Orleans defense that finished ranked 24th in the NFL in total defense.

"The thing just didn't bounce our way this year, and that's rare, especially with what Gregg has done in the past," free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had zero interceptions and one fumble recovery, told The Sports Xchange. "We talk all the time about making your own chances, but we didn't."

Despite missing only one start, Jenkins played hurt for much of the season. But another New Orleans defender allowed that the Saints, no matter who was on the field, lacked the "(turnover) mentality as a group" that the defense had possessed in the past.

The team's corners were also injured during the season, but no one seems to be using that as an excuse. The Saints simply didn't take the ball away.

Said one player: "We probably blitzed just as much, and had the same number of sacks, but we weren't 'takeaway hungry' enough, I guess."

Indeed, the Saints' defense had the same number of sacks (33) as in 2010, but nine fewer takeaways. Even in 2009, when the unit registered 39 takeaways and were a plus-11, New Orleans had only two more sacks than in 2010 and 2011. So sacks weren't the lone catalyst for the ability to create turnovers. In fact, New Orleans had only two fewer takeaways in 2009 than in '10 and '11 combined.

"You have to create chances, then take advantage of them and get the ball, and we just weren't very good at the second half (of the equation)," said middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had three fumble recoveries this season.

The Saints' 16 takeaways are the fewest by any of the eight teams still playing. The seven other defenses in the final eight averaged 30.3 takeaways, nearly double the New Orleans' output, during the season. Four of the seven teams, led by San Francisco and Green Bay with 38 apiece, notched 30-plus takeaways.

Of the original 12 clubs in the playoff pool this year, only Pittsburgh (15) had fewer takeaways than the Saints did.

"Normally, that would be us," said nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson, who led the Saints with four interceptions, referring to the teams with 30 or more steals. "We're used to being among the leaders. Maybe we'll get it going (in the playoffs)."

The Saints forced two Matthew Stafford interceptions in last week's wild card win over Detroit, but could face a more difficult time taking the ball away from the 49ers. San Francisco lost just five fumbles and five interceptions in 2011 and is very careful with the football.

"We've got to get the (takeaway) feeling back," Vilma said. "Usually one (takeaway) leads to a kind of feeding frenzy. That hasn't been the case so far this year. We have to get it going again."

The 49ers have had it going all season, and that could give them an edge on Saturday – particularly if the Saints can't take the ball away from them.

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