Brian Allee-Walsh

Irony of ironies! Resurgent defense helps Saints stay in the NFC South race

New Orleans Saints' Ken Crawley (46) knocks pass from Carolina Panthers' Devin Funchess (17) in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.
New Orleans Saints' Ken Crawley (46) knocks pass from Carolina Panthers' Devin Funchess (17) in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016. AP

I’m reluctant to pop open the bubbly because 10 games do not make a season.

But the much-maligned New Orleans Saints defense appears to be coming of age under budding miracle worker/coordinator Dennis Allen going into Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

League statistics don’t lie.

Neither does the scoreboard.

Fewer yards yielded per game (382.8). Fewer points yielded per game (28.6). More pressure on opposing quarterbacks (19 sacks). An occasional, game-changing stop and takeaway. Grit and spit inside the red zone. The return to health of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, No. 1 cornerback Delvin Breaux and rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

It’s all good.

And while the Saints (4-6) continue to look up at the division-leading Atlanta Falcons (6-4) in the NFC South, the separation anxiety doesn’t feel so overwhelming in part because New Orleans’ defense has played respectable football the past five games.

Respectable football as in fewer than 28 points have been scored against the Saints defense in each of the last five games. Hey, don’t laugh. That number has been north of 30 for eons. It should be noted some of those points were scored as a result of offensive giveaways and special teams’ blunders.

Now, if Coach Sean Payton can just get his offense, defense and special teams on the same page, the Saints might be able to make some noise going down the stretch. Recently, it seems when one unit zigs, the other two zag. Or, all three go their separate ways.

The crux of their current problems lie with the offense and special teams, both of which have harmed the greater cause in close losses against the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. The costly gaffes across the board on special teams prompted the hiring of veteran coach Kevin O’Dea, who will assist special teams coordinator Greg McMahon going forward.

One must assume future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and the offense will get their act together after committing six turnovers against Denver (4) and Carolina (2).

If Allen’s defense can keep on, keepin’ on, and if special teams’ advisor O’Dea can help right a listing ship, then maybe, just maybe, the Saints can overtake Atlanta and win the NFC South.

Winning the division represents the Saints’ best and, perhaps, only chance of making the postseason in the NFC where they rank 11th of a possible 16 in the latest rankings.

In other words, it’s One or Done.

Brian Allee-Walsh is a long-time Saints reporter based in New Orleans. He can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.

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