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Turnovers to turnaround: How new obsession led Saints to Super Bowl

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Long before Saints head coach Sean Payton sent Gregg Williams two jars of peanut butter, saltine crackers and a glass of sand for breakfast Tuesday morning -- all the better to keep him from creating more bulletin board fodder with his mouth on Super Bowl media day -- the first-year New Orleans defensive coordinator walked in the door of the team complex last offseason talking about more than just delivering "remember-me hits'' on opposing quarterbacks.

"He came in and he made us obsessed about takeaways,'' Saints strongside linebacker Scott Fujita said. "Obsessed. Every day in practice we're the crazy team that's picking up every loose ball, every incomplete pass, and returning it for a touchdown. If opposing teams could watch the way we practiced, they'd probably think we absolutely lost our minds. But now the obsession has become a habit.''

A winning habit. If you want the short answer of how the Saints went from being a 7-9 and 8-8 team in 2007-08, to this year's "turnaround'' 15-3 NFC champions, it has everything to do with Williams and his relentless emphasis on creating turnovers. The Saints last season featured the NFL's top-ranked passing game. But the 2008 New Orleans defense didn't do its part, giving up a bevy of big pass plays, blowing fourth-quarter leads and finishing 22nd overall with a minus-4 turnover ratio. And that's the recipe for a .500 team.

But enter Williams, the tough-talking former Jaguars defensive coordinator Payton lured away from Jacksonville after just one season, in part because the Saints head coach was willing to give up $250,000 of his own salary as a pot-sweetener. You can't argue with the results:

• After last year's minus-4 turnover ratio, New Orleans was plus-11 in turnovers this season, third best in the NFL behind only Green Bay (plus-24) and Philadelphia (plus-15).

• The Saints had 39 takeaways, second most in the league behind the Packers' 40. New Orleans' 26 interceptions ranked third, and were 11 more than its team total in 2008. This year's Saints nearly doubled their takeaway total of last season (22).

• New Orleans led the NFL in defensive touchdowns with eight this season, and scored 141 points after takeaways, tied for the league high with Green Bay. The Saints have seven takeaways in its two playoff games, making them a league-best plus-6 in the turnover department this postseason.

• The Saints defense gave up a league-low 48 points in the fourth quarter in the regular season, and improved dramatically in the red zone, surrendering touchdowns just 39.3 percent of the time (22 on 56 possessions) to rank second overall.

"Right now it looks like a pretty good investment, doesn't it?'' said Fujita, of the unusual out-of-pocket enticement Payton made to land Williams. "The problem to me in the past here was clear -- we weren't creating any turnovers. We hovered around the .500 mark the past two years, but you felt like we were a lot better than that. Knowing, 'Hey, we've got to take the ball away more,' that's the bottom line. So many people get caught up in being a top-five ranked defense, but some of those yardage stats really aren't all that important. But if you take the ball away, you're going to be pretty damn good.''

Takeaways are indeed the impact component on defense. The Saints defense ranked a lowly 25th in yards allowed this season (357.8 per game), but who cares when you're winning, and often winning easily, thanks in part to a defense that scores and sets up your offense with a steady supply of short fields? The Saints offense led the league in scoring this season with a franchise-record 510 points, and the defense was no mere bystander in that accomplishment.

"It was my No. 1 job when I came in the door; we had to do a better job of taking the ball away,'' Williams said Tuesday, sitting in the stands of Sun Life Stadium on Super Bowl media day. "They didn't do a very good job of that here before. Sometimes I had to hurt some feelings. Sometimes I had to stick a foot in places where normally a foot doesn't go. But they had to understand how serious I was about every single time in practice, [the ball's] ours.

"And remember this: They call them takeaways. They don't call them giveaways. I don't want to hear that. It's not a turnover. It's a takeaway. If you take that approach, you go try and take the ball all the time. It's not something you just do half the time.''

The Saints responded to what Williams was preaching almost immediately. They had at least one takeaway in each of their first 13 games this season -- all wins -- and scored seven defensive touchdowns in the first eight games of the season.

And was there a player more often in the right spot at the right time this season than veteran safety Darren Sharper, who signed a one-year deal with New Orleans last offseason and then proceeded to tie for the NFL interceptions lead with a career-best nine. He returned three of those picks for touchdowns (97, 99 and 42 yards), and his 376 interception return yards this season set an NFL record.

"Gregg has made us a mentally aggressive, mentally balls to the wall type of defense,'' said Sharper, whose three touchdowns led all league defenders. "He's made us feel like we're not going to play second-fiddle to anyone. He brought a style of play where we're attacking the football, going after the football. When you win the turnover battle, a lot of times you're going to win the game.''

Williams' ball-obsession in practice even tried the patience of the Saints offensive coaches at times. But with the payoff being so obvious, those complaints were quickly muted.

"It was different,'' Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. told me this week. "It was a really different approach in practice, and at times it was like, 'Oh, man.' But it was obviously what the team needed on that side of the ball, and it's really helped both sides. We have to protect the ball better now because of how Gregg's defense practices.''

Williams' in-your-face-coaching style has given the Saints defense a swagger it never had under previous defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, who Payton fired after three years following the 2008 season. Williams has been known to swear a blue streak at the drop of the hat, and he proudly tells his players that he coaches "aggressive and nasty.''

"I told them from the first day, 'All your life you've had coaches where you've had an excuse to where they slow you down, they don't let you play the way you want to play,' '' Williams said. "You're not going to have that excuse here. All my life I've been trying to speed people up. I've been trying to get people to play tougher, get people to play nastier. They've jumped on the bandwagon and they've taken the ball and run with it.''

Winning always gets everyone to buy in, of course. That's the way the NFL works. But Saints defenders really love playing for Williams, because he motivates and has them leaning into their assignments, rather than playing back on their heels in a, well, defensive position.

"He doesn't hold back any punches,'' Saints safety Roman Harper said. "He's an aggressive guy, but he's a cool guy. I like his style. I like the way he coaches. He puts a lot of things on your shoulders and challenges you mentally too. And he'll cuss anybody. I don't think he holds back against anyone. But it's OK to do that. That's part of talking and being a grown man. I've even picked up a couple new words.''

Make that at least one: Takeaways. Williams' favorite word has quickly become the Saints' obsession.

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