The way New Orleans middle linebacker Curtis Lofton sees it, the Saints have two defensive coordinators.
Steve Spagnuolo and himself.
“Really, I’m the on-field coordinator,” Lofton told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview. “In this system, you’ve got five different calls in one (defensive) call. Your job from what you are seeing is to get the defense in the best call. If you’re not feeling something is there, check out of that call and put the defense in something else.
“It’s a challenge every week. I’ve been up for it so far and enjoying it.”
Lofton especially likes the fact his unit has shown improvement entering the FOX America’s Game of the Week against the host New York Giants (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday).
New Orleans (5-7) became the only team in NFL history to open a season by surrendering 400-plus yards in each of the first 10 games. The Saints, though, have gradually gotten more comfortable running Spagnuolo’s scheme in his first season with the team. The yardage allowed has decreased for five consecutive contests, and New Orleans is getting stingier in the red zone.
“You can’t take away the first games, but the last five we’ve played is the direction we want to go,” Lofton said. “The sky is the limit for this defense. We’re getting better and putting up winning performances. We haven’t had a dominant performance yet, but that’s our goal from here on out. We have to start to dominate so when the offense struggles we can take the ball away and help.”
The Giants (7-5) haven’t shown the same kind of offensive consistency from late last season during their Super Bowl run. However, Spagnuolo and Lofton know how dangerous Giants quarterback Eli Manning can be if he gets hot. “Spags” was New York’s defensive coordinator when the franchise won Super Bowl XLII; Lofton and his former team, Atlanta, were beaten, 24-2, by the Giants in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
“He’s a gamer,” Lofton said of Manning. “Whatever the team needs in whatever situation he’s placed in, he’s going to provide it. He does a great job at the line (of scrimmage) getting his offense in the best position possible for the defense he’s seeing.”
After Jon Vilma started the season on the PUP list, Lofton assumed the quarterbacking role for New Orleans’ defense at middle linebacker. He has kept the spot with the returning Vilma now playing outside linebacker.
Lofton, who signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract to join the Saints during the offseason, said his role is far more expansive than when he played under former Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder during his first four NFL seasons.
“VanGorder did a good job of, ‘This is what we want to do. Go out and do it and they’ll have to top us,’” Lofton said. “Spags has so many different looks and adjustments and checks.”
Although such versatility may pay long-term dividends, having so many options contributed to the initial problems under Spagnuolo as the Saints struggled to execute their assignments.
“In this defense, everything has to function together,” said Lofton, who leads the Saints in tackles with 101. “If you can’t pressure, the secondary looks horrible. If you’re not covering, the D-line looks horrible. We’ve been working as a unit to get all three phases going — the linebackers, D-line and secondary.
“About three games into the season, I knew the defense like the back of my hand. At the same time, every game you learn something new. This system is very tough, but at the same time it’s a great system. It allows you to dictate to the offense. That’s why I like it.”
Lofton also is enjoying a change of scenery even though he spent the past four years on the other side of a heated NFC South rivalry.
“I’d say as of right now, this is probably one of my best seasons,” said Lofton, who led the Falcons in tackles from 2009 to 2011. “Going through everything that’s been going on has been tough, but I really feel like I’ve taken my game to another level.
“We don’t control our own destiny by losing the past two games, but we can control knocking out these next four games and seeing where we’re at. Everyone knows what’s at stake. One thing about these guys here is that everyone is hungry with no quit. We’re fighting, scratching and clawing, trying to get back in the playoff picture.”
Those are the kinds of words that Spagnuolo and the official coaches on the Saints staff should love to hear.