NFL

Saints' defense bends, rarely breaks when needed

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

When the Saints' defense needs to make a stop, it has - all season.

The last five minutes of the New Orleans-Tennessee game Sunday were a microcosm of the season for the Saints' defense.

Titans rookie quarterback Jake Locker shredded the NFL's 27th-ranked defense for 113 yards and two big plays, but no points. When they had to make a stop, the Saints did. Again.

The defense preserved New Orleans' 22-17 victory.

''That's what we really hang our hat on,'' said New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins, who helped blanket Tennessee's receivers on the last snap. ''The pressure of the game will never be too much for us to handle. When plays need to be made, we will rise up.''

They certainly have in the last month.

While Drew Brees and the NFL's top-rated offense deserve the bulk of the credit for New Orleans being 10-3 and in contention for a bye in the first round of the playoffs, the defense has come up huge when it counted during the Saints' current five-game win streak.

''A lot of people pay too much attention to total defense,'' Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. ''I looked at the total defense the other day and I saw that the Patriots were last and Green Bay was second-to-last and we were close to the bottom.

''You can't put a whole lot of stock in those numbers.''

Against Atlanta in week 10, New Orleans forced three consecutive incomplete passes when the Falcons had first-and-goal at the 9 near the end of regulation. Atlanta settled for a tying field goal, and the Saints won in overtime soon after stopping running back Michael Turner on fourth-and-inches at the Falcons' 29.

In week 12, they held Detroit scoreless on four fourth-quarter possessions after the Lions pulled within 24-17 late in the third.

Against Tennessee, cornerback Tracy Porter made a textbook deflection of a pass to Marc Mariani on a slant route that appeared ticketed for a touchdown on the Titans' second-to-last snap.

''He had no help,'' Jenkins said. ''It was just him and that receiver. If they get that completed, they win the game. For him to knock that down, with that type of pressure, was huge.''

As the clock hit zeroes on the next play, Locker could not find anyone open, scrambling to his right before linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar sacked him.

''Those type of games change the way your season is defined,'' Shanle said. ''When you can do that consistently, it speaks volumes about the guys you have on your team. We don't get panicked in pressure situations.''

The numbers support Shanle's stance. Although New Orleans is allowing more yards (378.3 average) than in any season of coach Sean Payton's six-year tenure, the Saints are among the top seven in the NFL in third-down defense. Opponents have converted only 33 percent of their third-down opportunities. Tennessee was 1 for 10.

The Saints also excel on fourth downs, holding opponents to six conversions in 18 attempts.

''I'm very confident in them,'' Brees said of the Saints' defense. ''They've stepped up when we needed them the most if you look at the stops they made in overtime against Atlanta and last week against Tennessee. Offensively we had some chances to close both games out, but we didn't. The defense went out there and made a play.''

The next step is getting better on first and second downs. Locker had a 25-yard completion on first down and a 40-yard completion on second down during Tennessee's final drive.

Those defensive breakdowns were not unique to last Sunday.

''Teams are making all their hay on first and second down with explosive plays,'' New Orleans safety Roman Harper said. ''It's bad eyes, not looking at the right thing in coverages. It's everything. You name it, we've done it. We have to get it fixed or we'll never get teams in third downs.''

Although the run defense has improved lately, the Saints still allow 4.9 yards per carry, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. They are in the bottom 10 in pass efficiency defense, too.

Shanle sees those statistics, but they don't make him sweat.

''Last year we were a top-five defense and we got beat in the first round of the playoffs,'' he said. ''Two years ago we were in the 20s and won the Super Bowl. There's bigger defensive stats than total defense.''

Notes: Saints coach Sean Payton said linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Jonathan Casillas and running back Mark Ingram did not practice Wednesday. Vilma has played the last two games after recovering from arthroscopic surgery. Casillas (knee) and Ingram (toe) were inactive against Tennessee. The Saints play at Minnesota this Sunday. ... Saints players refused to get in a war of words with Vikings defensive tackle Jared Allen, who compared the city of New Orleans to a third-world country last week in a radio interview. Said Jenkins: ''I have no comment.''

Tagged: Falcons, Titans, Saints, Scott Shanle, Jonathan Vilma, Malcolm Jenkins, Jonathan Casillas, Jake Locker

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