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Saints defense goes from perennial punch line to powerful unit in 2009

In the four seasons of the Sean Payton era in New Orleans, there have been precious few ovations to be heard for the beleaguered Saints defense. But the roar that went up early Sunday evening in the visiting locker room at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium was not for Drew Brees and another dazzling display of offensive firepower, it was for new Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and the unit that is finally starting to make some noise of its own.

"That roar in the locker room was a roar for some defensive recognition on a team that's been seen as an offensive juggernaut for awhile now,'' Williams told me Wednesday night, describing the scene in which Payton presented him with a game ball in the wake of the 27-7 defeat of the Bills, the team he once led as head coach. "That was nice of Sean to do that. But I gave that game ball right back to the defense Monday morning. All of that was just a recognition that in that game, the defense finally stepped up and led the way.''

The opening two-thirds of the Saints' first 3-0 start since 2006 showcased the Saints scary-good offense, as New Orleans scored 93 points in burying Detroit at home and Philadelphia on the road. It almost looked like the same old story was starting to unfold in New Orleans: The Saints could score almost at will, but a defense that allowed 27 points to the Lions and 22 to the Eagles would never allow New Orleans to breathe entirely easy.

But in the Bills game, the script was resoundingly flipped. Brees threw for just 172 yards, without a touchdown, and New Orleans scored nearly 20 points fewer than its 46.5-point average. For Brees, it snapped his NFL-leading 22-game streak of 200-yard passing games. But no matter. The Saints still won by 20, nearly matching their 22-point average margin of victory in Weeks 1-2.

This time, it was the Saints defense that played a near-perfect game. New Orleans held Buffalo to 243 yards, and the Bills only points came on a second-quarter faked field goal that went for a touchdown. The Saints defense forced nine punts, with Buffalo having an astounding 11 three-and-outs, it sacked Trent Edwards four times, hurried or hit him 14 times, intercepted a pass and held the Bills to just 2 of 14 on third downs. Buffalo's offense never drove inside the Saints 20, went scoreless on its 12 possessions, and its five fourth-quarter drives produced zero first downs and just 18 total yards in 16 plays.

And then there was that little matter of holding Bills receiver Terrell Owens without a catch for the first time since his rookie season of 1996, snapping his 185-game streak of having at least one reception. Would anyone have voted the previously suspect Saints secondary the most likely candidate to accomplish that feat?

As New Orleans prepares this week for its biggest test yet, a visit from the high-flying Jets and rookie quarterback sensation Mark Sanchez -- the only matchup of unbeatens in Week 3 -- the Saints defense is the story that will determine just how special this 2009 season can be in The Big Easy. Williams' defense is starting to create an identity of its own, and the game against the Jets could be another significant step in escaping the shadow of the Saints prolific offense.

"We're still a work in progress,'' Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "You don't want to say you're a great defense based off one good game or one good performance. But we know we're capable of having games like that, and we can lead the way. Look, we'd much rather be up by 21 points going into the fourth quarter every week, but that's not realistic. We want to be able to hold our own, and we know we can hold our own. We want to work hard and one day have people talk about the Saints defense in the same [way] they talk about Drew Brees and our offense.''

The hiring of Williams as defensive coordinator was the best move the Saints made this offseason, and his fingerprints are all over the improvement of the defense. One of his strong suits is to identify what each of his defenders does best, and then play to that strength. He's aggressive in his defensive calls, loves to blitz -- he told me the Saints had two defensive backs coming on 25 snaps against the Bills -- and is known for instilling an attitude in his defenses with his loud and demonstrative coaching style. Williams lives to push his players' buttons.

"The biggest thing he has done is spice up the atmosphere and change the culture around here a bit,'' Vilma said of Williams, who replaced the fired Gary Gibbs. "He's very loud, very boisterous, and he can swear a bit to motivate guys. But he knows he's got a good group of guys with the veterans on this defense. It's more of a guiding thing than a coaching thing. He's just guiding us in the right direction.''

Off the strength of that dominant performance in Buffalo, the Saints this week climbed all the way into the top 10 on defense, ranking 10th in yards allowed (312.3), fifth against the rush (60.7) and, perhaps most impressively, third in third-down conversion rate (12 of 44, 27 percent). New Orleans is a respectable 14th in points allowed (18.7), and as most around the NFL realize, that number is plenty low enough to win big with given the firepower the Saints possess on offense.

"This is the best defense we've had in my four years here,'' said Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, one of the league's more underrated at the position. "It's a pretty battle-tested group. After 2006, when we came out and surprised everyone, maybe even surprised ourselves with how far we went, we weren't really ready in 2007 for that kind of success. We started that season 0-4 and never really recovered. But I love what we've got here this year. This defense is battle-tested, and it's a pretty good vibe right now.''

The pressure the underachieving Saints defensive line created against the Bills is one of the biggest reasons for optimism in New Orleans. Without pressure up front, the Saints secondary has gotten torched in recent years, and surrendered tons of big plays. But against the Bills, last year's first-round pick, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, earned a game ball with his best game as a pro, picking up a sack and several quarterback hits. Defensive end Charles Grant had two sacks, and fellow end Will Smith had a sack and his first career interception.

"We needed to have our defensive line to stand up, and they did,'' Williams said. "Every week is a race to improve in this league, and it's easier to improve when you have confidence. A game like we just had helps you improve even more because you play faster and make better decisions when you play with confidence. And that confidence helps out the offense because they know they've got a defense they can trust and believe in.''

New Orleans' defense is also off to a strong start on the takeaway front. Led by safety Darren Sharper's three interceptions, the Saints' seven picks are tied for the league lead with Green Bay, and New Orleans' nine takeaways are tied with Green Bay and Philadelphia for tops in the NFL. Sharper's experience has been a god-send to the secondary, and his 97-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Eagles in Week 2 gave New Orleans one more defensive score than it had in 2008.

"We knew what we were getting with him, but he's been great for us and what we needed in our secondary,'' Vilma said. "I've been watching him play since he was in Green Bay, and he's a guy who knows how to attack the ball and make plays on the ball. He's just flying around out there.''

Let's see what Sharper and the rest of the resurgent Saints defense can do this Sunday against the feel-good story of the year so far in the NFL, Sanchez and the Rex Ryan-led Jets. A win and New Orleans will sail into its Week 5 bye at 4-0 and in command of the NFC South race, 1½ games ahead of second-place Atlanta (2-1), which is off this week.

"I was at [Sanchez's] workout at USC and fell in love with him too, like everybody else,'' said Williams. "I think the kid is special. I really do. I see some of the same things I saw in Drew Brees when I scouted him a long time ago as coach of the Bills. And if I had drafted him, I'd probably still be there. He has a lot of similarities with Drew. Good football instincts, more than enough arm strength, and maybe most importantly, he makes the players around him better. Good leaders do that. They elevate the players around them.''

In New Orleans this season, it is Williams and his work that has done the elevating. It's still early, but the Saints defense has gone from a punch line, to pulling its weight. For the rest of the NFL, that's what you would call a sobering development.

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