Derick E. Hingle/Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Fully one third of all of sacks and interceptions the New Orleans Saints' defense has produced this season happened in one game — the last game.
Middle linebacker Craig Robertson and defensive end Paul Kruger are among the Saints defenders who said they'd like to think the spike in big plays is something that can carry forward — not simply the result of favorable matchups on a particular week.
This Thursday night, the Saints play the Carolina Panthers and veteran, dynamic quarterback Cam Newton. Last week, it was Denver rookie Trevor Siemian, whose team's struggling running game has only increased pressure on him.
Kruger said he sees the Saints' defense “starting to play well together, starting to understand each other as individuals and as a group.”
The Saints had six sacks against Denver, bringing their total for all nine games this season to 17. New Orleans' two interceptions raised its total in that category to six.
Kruger said a variety of factors play into a defense's ability to create pressure on a quarterback, including an opposing offense's scheme, play-calling and how quickly the quarterback is able to consistently make throws.
“In some of those earlier games, we were rushing the passer well. We just weren't able to get there as often,” Kruger said. “Sometimes the stats don't tell the full story.”
The Saints are also getting healthier at key positions. Two games ago, top cornerback Delvin Breaux played for the first time since fracturing his fibula in Week 1. Also in Week 9, the Saints' first-round draft choice, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, made his NFL debut after recovering from his own fractured fibula during training camp. And against Denver, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe played for only the second time this season.
Both Rankins and Ellerbe had sacks, and Ellerbe blitzed frequently. While Breaux did not have an interception — those were made by cornerback Sterling Moore and safety Kenny Vaccaro — linebacker Craig Robertson said Breaux's coverage skills can sometimes force quarterbacks to hold the ball longer, leading to sacks or less accurate throws under duress.
“With the type of talent we added back, it was destined to happen,” Robertson said, referring to his unit's spike in big plays. “But at the same time, our coaches put together a great plan. … We executed that plan as best as we possibly could.”
Saints coach Sean Payton said his defense played one of its best games this season last Sunday and that having players return from injury certainly helped.
“Fortunately, we've been able to get some of those guys back in and playing,” he said.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen also noted that the Saints defense appears healthier than when New Orleans defeated the Panthers 41-38 in the Superdome in Week 6.
“Last week against Denver they really played well. They're playing fast,” Olsen said. “Getting those (previously injured) guys back into the mix always helps.”
The Saints also have tried a variety of defensive formations to keep offenses guessing. Last week, they decided to take advantage of Kruger's ability to cover short passes, lining up five defensive linemen in some running situations.
“It's basically just getting a lot of big guys on the field,” Kruger said. “It's worked well for us in the short amount of time we've had it here.”
Whether New Orleans' defense is all of a sudden an above-average defense remains to be seen. Currently, the Saints still rank 29th out of 32 teams in yards allowed per game with 400.6. The Saints are dead last in yards passing allowed with 292.7 per game.
But their recently demonstrated ability to get more pressure on quarterbacks gives them hope of playing better down the stretch, and they know they don't have to be dominant with prolific quarterback Drew Brees running New Orleans' league-leading offense.
“We've got to trust who we can be and just know who we want to be,” Robertson said.
Notes: Three Saints players did not practice on Tuesday: LT Terron Armstead (knee and quadriceps), CB Delvin Breaux and RB Daniel Lasco (hamstring). … Five players were listed as limited: RB Travaris Cadet (toe), LB Stephone Anthony (hamstring), DT David Onyemata (knee), LB Dannell Ellerbe (quadriceps), P Thomas Morstead (ankle). … Special teams regular and reserve LB Mike Mauti, who was placed on the non-football illness list on Monday, said he's been told by doctors he surgery for colitis (an ulcer) and does not expect to return to football until next season.