NFC Divisional: Saints at 49ers

While the Packers have thrived on takeaways this season, only one team forced fewer turnovers than the Saints. To beat the sure-handed 49ers and advance to the NFC Championship Game, that's going to have to change.

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 less 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 New Orleans defense scored three touchdowns via takeaways, actually one more than a year ago, 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.

"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)," middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had three fumble recoveries, told The Sports Xchange.

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 off San Francisco in Saturday's division round matchup. The 49ers had a mere 10 turnovers in '11 (five interceptions and lost fumbles each), the lowest in the NFL, and are very careful with the ball.

"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.

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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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