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Timely stops, sacks, lifting Saints' defense

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

While considering the improvements the Saints have made on defense since giving up five touchdowns in a season opening loss at Green Bay, Carolina coach Ron Rivera arrived at a quick conclusion.

''The biggest thing is they didn't have to play against Aaron Rodgers,'' Rivera said, referring to the Packers' star quarterback. ''Sure it was a tough loss against Green Bay, but everyone that's played Green Bay has had a tough loss.''

The Saints (3-1) have won three straight since their loss to the Packers, with the defense making a number of key plays along the way.

New Orleans has vaulted to third in the league in sacks with 13 and ranks ninth in yards rushing allowed (94) per game.

More important than the statics, coach Sean Payton said, is how the Saints' defense has been able to make the situational adjustments needed to keep New Orleans in position to win.

In its victory over Houston, for example, New Orleans gave up a season-worst 473 yards, but held the Texans to field goals on four of five trips inside the Saints 20-yard line.

''Each week there's a different way that we have to win,'' Payton said. ''We try to remove ourselves to some extent from the statistics and pay close attention to what we feel like are the keys to winning.''

New Orleans' defense is coming off one of its best performances of the season last Sunday in Jacksonville, holding the Jaguars to 274 yards in a 23-10 victory.

The Saints needed their defense to play well that day because Drew Brees and the offense had trouble putting the game out of reach, despite racking up 503 total yards.

When Brees threw an interception and had to make a touchdown-saving tackle deep in Saints territory, New Orleans' defense held the Jaguars to a field goal. Four times, Jacksonville kept its offense on the field on fourth down, and each time the Saints stopped the Jaguars short.

''They played exceptionally well last week, especially down the stretch with a couple short fields to defend,'' Payton said.

New Orleans has now stopped all six of opponents' attempted fourth-down conversions this season, including one each in victories over Chicago and Houston.

Cornerback Jabari Greer said the Saints' defense came away from New Orleans' 42-34 loss at Green Bay not so much deflated as motivated to pick up its intensity.

''The main thing that we adjusted was our focus,'' Greer said. ''You could fix red-zone defense, you could fix your pass coverage, you could fix your rush, but the main thing that you have to fix is the intangibles, the things that don't show up in the stat chart - your focus, your intensity, your resilience.''

The defense also appears to be closer to full strength than at any point this season.

The first significant player to return was defensive end Will Smith, who was suspended for the first two games. Meanwhile, cornerback Tracy Porter came back last week from a right calf injury that forced him to sit out two games, while middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned from a one-game absence because of a sore left knee. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson played for the first time all season last weekend after being sidelined with a strained left calf.

''After the first game, when we give up the amount of points we do, I think a lot of people started to look at that and start to maybe panic a little bit too much,'' linebacker Scott Shanle said. ''Green Bay is kind of on their own level as far as offensive skill and the way they execute their offense. There was never any panic in our room. It's one of those things where you get a better feel for how good you are defensively after a few weeks.''

The Saints expect their defense to be tested again on Sunday against dynamic rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who has averaged 347 yards passing in the first four games of his career.

After reviewing film of the Saints' victory at Jacksonville, Newton came away with the sense that he was in for a challenge as well.

''This was the best game that they've played this past week,'' Newton said. ''Those guys were flying all over the place, distracting the quarterback. ... They have talent at their corners. They have an extremely talented linebacker corps starting with Vilma. Those guys are fun to watch on film and it's sad to say that I'm not looking forward to playing them.''

Notes: C Olin Kreutz (left knee), RT Zach Strief (right knee) and TE David Thomas (concussion) did not practice on Wednesday. The three offensive starters all were hurt in New Orleans' Week 3 victory over Houston. LB Will Herring, also hurt against Houston, was the only other player to miss practice. ... Rookie LB Martez Wilson returned to practice, albeit on a limited bases, for the first time since hurting his shoulder against Houston. ... Also limited in practice were Vilma and WR Devery Henderson (calf).

Tagged: Packers, Panthers, Jaguars, Jonathan Vilma, Saints

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