Although they are still are a long way from where they want to be, or where they thought they should be at this point in the season, the Saints are starting to play with a little more confidence.
As far as coach Sean Payton is concerned, part of the reason for the two-game winning streak the Saints (2-4) have put together going into Sunday's game with the San Francisco 49ers (2-4) in Monster Park are the offensive and defensive lines.
After a sluggish start, the offensive line is starting to play like the group that was a key to the team's 10-6 record last season. After giving up four sacks in the first three games, the Saints have kept Drew Brees upright with no sacks in the last three outings. The defense has eight sacks in the last two games after getting just one in the first four outings.
"We're playing good football up front on both sides of the ball," Payton said. "Our offensive line has improved, and defensively, I think we are playing much better up front.
"Reggie Bush is starting to find his niche as a running back and he is starting to get more carries. I think in the passing game, Drew has a real good rhythm to what he is doing and understands what we are looking for."
Understandably, no one appreciates it more than Brees.
"They are doing a great job. I think like everything in the beginning, we were probably over-complicating things a little bit," Brees said. "The more we are rolling, the better we are with balance, you know run to pass, keeping the defense neutralized.
"Dropping back and getting rid of the ball quickly, the cadence, all of that neutralizes the defense," he said. "From the offensive line standpoint, that gives them confidence."
The improved play of late on both sides of the ball certainly helped the Saints secure their first win of the season, a 28-17 decision over Seattle. But it was also evident Sunday when the Saints had to gut out a 22-16 win over Atlanta.
"It's a win. The big thing is understanding that at this point of the season, you're still wanting to see improvement and wanting to get better from week to week," Payton said.
Payton, however, wasn't ready to say that the Saints are out of the woods just yet.
"It is a work in progress," he said. "The thing about this league is that you are what your record says you are. Fortunately, we have been able to get a couple of wins. But we have a long way to go. Our players understand that."
Payton didn't have to tell strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, one of the team's defensive co-captains. He said the weight they were carrying on their shoulders from an 0-4 start is still there.
"The weight is still there," Fujita said. "I'm not going to get super carried away with the two wins. It's great to get the two in a row. Now if we will just keep playing and stringing some wins together, down the road we can worry about the postseason -- if it comes to that."
SERIES HISTORY: 69th meeting. The 49ers lead the series, 45-21-2, despite losing the last three matchups with the Saints -- whom they played twice a year from 1970-2001 as members of the NFC West. The Saints have scored at least 30 points in winning the last three games with the 49ers, all in the Superdome. They prevailed, 34-10, in their last meeting on Dec. 3, 2006.
--The San Francisco 49ers certainly remember the last time they went against the Saints in the Superdome last December.
Saints rookie running back Reggie Bush used the game as his NFL coming-out party as he piled up 168 total yards from scrimmage and tied a club record with four touchdowns in a 34-10 romp over the Niners.
Bush accounted for more than half of the Saints' total offense of 375 yards that day with 131 yards (a club record by a running back) on nine receptions and added 37 rushing yards. He had touchdown runs of one, eight and 10 yards and also caught a five-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees.
--The Saints are working a streak of five straight games without allowing an opposing team to rush for 100 yards after holding the Atlanta Falcons to just 75 yards on 24 carries in a 22-16 win last Sunday.
It's the longest such streak for the Saints since the 1992 team held five consecutive opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground. The difference was the 1992 Saints won all five of those games, while the current Saints are 2-3 in their five-game stretch.
It's an important streak nonetheless, for the Saints -- who ranked 23rd in rushing defense a year ago and allowed a whopping 4.9 yards a carry. Since giving up 164 yards in a season-opening loss at Indianapolis, the Saints have kept Tampa Bay (87 yards), Tennessee (98), Carolina (88), Seattle (92) and Atlanta (75) below 100.
In doing so, the Saints are allowing just 3.6 yards an attempt, which ranks fifth in the league. They also rank 12th in yards allowed per game at 100.7.
--It's not exactly a shock, but you can count Saints coach Sean Payton among those who are impressed with how the New England Patriots have dismantled the competition in their first seven games.
Payton said he has watched about six of the Patriots' games.
"I think you pay attention to teams that are having the kind of success they're having," Payton said. "We're able to get all the film, so we take a look during the course of the week at the top offenses and top defenses the same way. They're playing great football.
"It starts with the quarterback, and they're doing a great job up front. When you look at both Indianapolis and New England, they both do a real good job of playing a complementary game on both sides of the ball. They're certainly setting a benchmark for everyone else."
--Saints owner Tom Benson, who served in the Navy during World War II, will be one of four men honored Monday night in Washington, D.C., during the "Lone Sailor" Awards dinner.
Hosted by the United States Navy Memorial, the black-tie gala will also honor celebrated veterans whose service includes duty in the Navy during World War II and the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict. The other honorees are Morgan L. Fitch Jr., Stan Musial and U.S. Sen. John Warner.
The Lone Sailor Award is given to Sea Service veterans who have distinguished themselves in their respective careers while exemplifying the core values of honor, courage and commitment.
--With another West Coast trip coming up this week, to San Francisco, the Saints will follow the same routine they used two weeks ago in traveling to Seattle. They will leave Friday night and practice Saturday at Monster Park.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- Pass plays of 20 yards or more by the Saints in their last two games, both of which they won. They had five in their first four games this season -- all losses.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think when we watch the tape and we make the corrections, the players will understand that there's still improvement on the field and there are still areas that we can improve on. Nonetheless, I felt like we played with real good energy and I thought we played physical. That was encouraging." -- Saints coach Sean Payton, on his team's 22-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Saints may go into Sunday's game at San Francisco without center Jeff Faine, the anchor of an offensive line that has not allowed a sack in the last three games and only four all season,
Faine injured his left pectoral muscle in the first half of last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons and was taken to the locker room. He tried to come back and play later in the second quarter, but was eventually replaced by backup Jonathan Goodwin.
Goodwin, a six-year veteran, received praise from coach Sean Payton in getting more than 30 snaps against the Falcons and would start against the 49ers if Faine can't play.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--RCB Jason David participated fully in Wednesday's practice and should be ready for Sunday's game at San Francisco after missing the last three games with a fractured left forearm. David, who had a steel plate inserted into the arm on Sept. 25, will wear a soft cast to protect the arm. But he doesn't yet know if he'll start or come in on the nickel and dime packages.
--C Jeff Faine did not participate in practice Wednesday because of an injury to his left pectoral muscle. His status for Sunday's game at San Francisco will be determined later in the week.
--C-G Jonathan Goodwin, a six-year veteran, will take Faine's spot in the starting lineup if Faine is unable to play against the 49ers.
--DT Brian Young did not work Wednesday because of a left knee injury that he suffered last Sunday against Atlanta. Young had fluid drained from the knee on Monday and Wednesday, but said he'll be fine for the 49ers.
--RCB Jason Craft made his third consecutive start against the Falcons and will start Sunday if the Saints coaches think David isn't ready to play an entire game.
GAME PLAN: The Saints, who have played much better on offense the last two weeks, will try to play keep-away against San Francisco. Opponents of the 49ers have averaged 33:51 in time of possession to just 26:08 for the Niners, which could be a key to a road win for the Saints. Of course, the Saints will have to run the ball effectively and make key third-down conversions to make that happen. Defensively, the Saints must stop 49ers running back Frank Gore from breaking loose early because of the problems they have had at quarterback. The Niners have also given up 24 sacks in just six games, which is good news for a Saints defense that has turned up the heat and recorded eight sacks in the last two games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Saints RB Reggie Bush vs. 49ers MLB Patrick Willis. Bush had a monster game against the 49ers last year in the Superdome. He ran for three scores and caught another, with his final TD coming with 11:18 remaining in the contest, and had 168 total yards. If he gets going once again, it could be a long afternoon for the Niners.
Saints front seven vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. The Saints have been good against the run since giving up 164 yards to the Indianapolis Colts in the season opener. They have not allowed an opposing team to rush for 100 since then, so continuing that against a quality back like Gore would be huge.
Saints special teams vs. 49ers KR Michael Lewis. The Saints have done an adequate job covering punts this season, giving up just more than 10 yards a return, but they will have to be at their best this week against their former teammate. Lewis' contract was terminated in June, so he'll be trying to prove that they were wrong in letting him go.
INJURY IMPACT: Faine has a left pectoral muscle injury and may not be able to play in Sunday's game with the 49ers.
Goodwin, who played extensively in the exhibition season when Faine was out with a strained calf, will start if Faine can't go.