Saints Inside Slant

The key to the Saints' improved play following a 1-4 start is not the offense, which is what you would certainly come to expect after last season, but a patched-up defense that's come a long way despite a lengthy injury list. It's safe to say that a better effort on the defensive side of the ball has been one of the things that helped save the Saints' season after it looked like they were going downhill in a hurry.

And heading into the final seven games with a 4-5 mark after their bye week, they're still in the playoff race. Points, missed tackles, mental mistakes and few takeaways all added up early, and the Saints were wallowing around at 1-3 after being torched for six touchdown passes by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning in a 55-21 loss on Sept. 28. At that point, the Saints had already given up 20 points or more for the third time in four weeks and it looked like it was going to be a repeat of the 2002 season -- when it seemed like they couldn't stop anyone. While the rough start was exacerbated by injuries to several starters, defensive coordinator Rick Venturi's group began to come around a little after falling to the Colts and earlier to the Seattle Seahawks (27-10) and Tennessee Titans (27-12). "We played some real good teams early and we probably played a little bit better than people think we did," Venturi said. "Tennessee has not scored fewer than 30 points since they played us and Seattle proved to be really, really good. We had one bad quarter in that game. Indianapolis was an aberration for the entire football team." It also may have been the wakeup call the defense needed after Manning ripped them for his career passing day. The Saints gave up one touchdown in their next game in a 19-13 setback to the Carolina Panthers and the defense has gotten better and better as the team won three of its next four. Venturi's defense still isn't where it wants to be, but they're starting to play the way he thought they could even though starters have missed a total of 31 games. "This is a credit to the resolve of the guys that we have," Venturi said. "After the Indianapolis game, it was a tough, tough situation. But the guys have steadily come together. We're doing things a lot better, and there's been steady improvement." Because of various injuries to six of his starters, Venturi has had to cut some things out of his scheme and add others. He's had to plug players in at key positions, particularly at strong safety when starter Mel Mitchell was lost for the season in the exhibition finale with a knee injury. And right end Darren Howard, his best pass rusher, was sidelined in the first quarter of the opener with a dislocated right wrist -- an injury that has forced him to miss eight straight games. Venturi looks to three key areas as the reasons for the improvement: points allowed, red-zone defense and takeaways. The Saints gave up 13 touchdowns and 29.8 points a game in their first four outings, but cut that to only eight TDs and 17.2 points a game in the last five contests. Also, in the first four games, opponents scored touchdowns 62.5 percent of the time (10 of 16) when they got inside the Saints' 20; in the last four games, the Saints have cut that to 33.3 percent (5 of 15). Finally, they had only three takeaways in the first four games, but have come up with 10 in the last five. "You look at two things statistically over the course of time, in all the years of football, and you're going to see two real important statistics," Venturi said. "And that's points given up and the turnover ratio. "So when your points given up is reasonable and solid and you win the giveaway-takeaway battle, you're going to be a good team. That will always hold up."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES

--RDE Darren Howard, who had surgery on his dislocated right wrist on Sept. 8, practiced on Wednesday and Thursday for the first time since his surgery and expects to play against the Falcons.
--LCB Dale Carter injured his left quadriceps muscle and knee against the Bucs on Nov. 2 and is listed as day-to-day.
--SLB Darrin Smith injured his right hamstring and groin against the Bucs and will likely miss the game with the Falcons.
--LG Kendyl Jacox injured his right knee in the fourth quarter of the Bucs game and is day-to-day.
--RG LeCharles Bentley hyperextended his left knee in the fourth quarter of the Bucs game and is day-to-day.
--LT Wayne Gandy has hamstring and groin injuries, but should be ready for the Falcons.
--WR Joe Horn is still bothered by a sore knee, but should be ready for the Falcons game.
--RT Victor Riley injured his ankle against the Bucs, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--DT Kenderick Allen has a strained MCL in his right knee and is listed as day-to-day.
--WR Donte Stallworth has missed two straight games with a strained left quadriceps muscle, but coach Jim Haslett expects him to be ready for the game with the Falcons.
--SLB Sedrick Hodge, who fractured a small bone in his lower right leg in Week 2, should be able to play against the Falcons after practicing the last couple of weeks.
--RB James Fenderson has a sprained ligament in his left foot and will be out another one-to-two weeks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think anybody has really panicked, even after the 1-4 start. I didn't see panic. Guys knew they had to work harder to get to this point. We thought going into the bye week we would be 5-4, and we fell short. But we're still in the hunt." -- Saints coach Jim Haslett on his 4-5 team's chances in the final seven games of the season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
REPORT CARD AFTER 9 GAMES
PASSING OFFENSE:
C-minus -- It hasn't been great, but it hasn't been entirely bad. The thing that keeps the grade down a little is the potential the Saints have based on what they did last year. Quarterback Aaron Brooks has played at a high level most of the season in completing 59.2 percent of his passes with 13 TDs and only six interceptions, but Saints' receivers have been too inconsistent with too many dropped passes. Even wide receiver Joe Horn, who is having another Pro Bowl-type year, has had some drops along with fellow wideout Donte Stallworth and tight end Ernie Conwell. The pass protection has been good with Saints' quarterbacks being sacked just 16 times in nine games.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- The Saints don't even in the top one-third in the league stats in rushing, but that doesn't begin to tell how well they have run the ball. Deuce McAllister has rushed for 100 yards in six straight games, a club record, and has 871 yards and a 4.5 average. McAllister is only five yards shy of having eight 100-yard efforts in nine games as he ran for 99 and 96 yards in two other games. He is on pace to rush for almost 1,548 yards, which would leave him with the second-highest single-season total in franchise history behind George Rogers' 1,674 yards in 1981.
PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- Even though they lost strong safety Mel Mitchell to a knee injury in the preseason and free safety Tebucky Jones hasn't made much of an impact, the Saints have done a decent job against the pass in eight of nine games. The exception was Peyton Manning's six-touchdown performance in a 55-21 win over the Saints on Sept. 28. In their other eight games, the Saints have allowed eight TD passes and are giving up 189.1 yards per game through the air. They have only five interceptions, but have not given up a lot of big plays in the passing game.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- The Saints have been thin all season at defensive line because of injuries and they've been gashed for both big gains and big games. They're allowing 129.4 yards per game after giving up more than 100 team yards in seven of the nine games. Carolina's Stephen Davis ripped them for 159 and 178 yards in his two games against the Saints, which is disconcerting to the coaching staff because they knew he was going to get the ball and still couldn't stop him.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Michael Lewis hasn't returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this season after getting three last year, but he's been close on a number of occasions. He has been slowed by a groin injury, however, which also hurt the Saints' cover teams because he's one of their top tacklers going down the field. They've allowed kickoff returns of 70 and 100 yards and a punt return of 46 yards. John Carney continues to be one of the best money kickers in the game with 13 field goals in 16 tries with one of the misses being from 57 yards. Mitch Berger is among the league leaders with a net punting average of 38.8.
COACHING: B -- Some people may think this grade is a little high since the record is 4-5 with a 1-4 start, but that's just the reason why. The Saints have been hammered by injuries since the final game of the exhibition season, especially on defense, and the coaches did a good job of keeping the team together during trying times. They also faced a tough early-season schedule that included games with Seattle, Tennessee, Indianapolis, Carolina (twice) -- accounting for four of their losses -- and Tampa Bay, which was an upset win on the road. They could have easily gone the other way, but Jim Haslett and his staff deserve credit for not letting it get away from them.


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