Unbeaten Saints way ahead of last season

BY foxsports • November 10, 2009

Jabari Greer takes a cautious view of the dramatic improvements made by the unbeaten Saints in only one season. "It's a long season and people like to analyze where you are at a certain point," Greer said. "But as a competitor, you realize it doesn't matter until it's over. "If we continue to do this, then we have something special. But if we don't, we're going to be the team that could have, you know? That should have." With only half of their 2009 season in the books, the Saints already have matched their win total from 2008, surpassed several key statistical marks from all of last season and put themselves on pace to improve significantly in other areas. The biggest gains have come on defense. Three fumble recoveries in a 30-20 win over Carolina on Sunday gave New Orleans 24 takeaways this season, or two more than in all of 2008. Anthony Hargrove's score on a short fumble return was the Saints' seventh defensive touchdown this season, compared to none last year. The Saints also have 16 interceptions this season after having 15 the year before. Greer, a sixth-year cornerback in his first season with the Saints, has been a key contributor to New Orleans' increase in big plays on defense. He has two interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown. Still, in five previous years in the NFL, Greer agreed that "it would seem unusual" for an NFL team to need only half a season to eclipse 16-game totals for things like fumble recoveries and interceptions. At the same time, the Saints expected to make substantial gains in those areas, he said, because "it's something that we stress every day during practice." Coach Sean Payton was quick to note that different personnel and changes on the coaching staff - the Saints have a new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams - are bound to produce different results. "There are a lot of things that we can point to as to why we were 8-8 a year ago," Payton said. "The comparison of why we're playing better football this year, I would say we're playing better defense, we're rushing the football better, we're creating the turnovers. Those are the three things that I don't think we did very well a year ago." The gains have been less dramatic with an offense that led the NFL last season, but there is still evidence of improvement. The Saints are averaging 144.6 yards rushing this season, 45 yards more per game than last season. The Saints are averaging 37.9 points per game, or about nine points per game more than last season. Some of that improvement has to do with the defensive scores, but not all of it. At their current pace, the Saints would finish with about 606 points, surpassing the NFL record 589 scored by the 2007 New England Patriots. And the Saints have been much more dominant in the late stages of games. In 2008, New Orleans outscored opponents 127-100 in the fourth quarter. So far this season, the Saints have a 91-18 fourth-quarter edge - a big reason New Orleans has been able to secure comeback victories in its past three games, pulling away to win two of those by double digits. Only one of the Saints' victories - a 35-27 win over Atlanta - has come by fewer than 10 points. They've won three times by 20 points or more. Payton said he is proud of his players for finding various ways to win games. It has been gratifying for him to see an emphasis placed in certain areas - like takeaways and the running game - followed by significant improvement in those areas. Still, the fourth-year head coach remains concerned by fits of sloppiness and offensive turnovers - New Orleans has turned the ball over 10 times in its last three games - that have caused his team to fall behind in recent weeks. "We have to be more consistent," Payton said. "I do think we can play a lot better than we played (Sunday). And I'm not just saying that because it's time to come in here and throw water on a party. ... We have to get some things cleaned up and we have to do that before we sit in here and say it finally cost us a game."

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