METAIRIE, La. (AP) Sean Payton stresses that statistics - and sideline spats, for that matter - can be deceiving.
New Orleans' defense ranks 31st, or second-to-last, in the NFL, having plummeted from a ranking of fourth last season under coordinator Rob Ryan.
Payton and Ryan have been caught on camera arguing on the sideline during a number of games, giving the impression that Payton is unsatisfied not only with the results Ryan is getting, but with Ryan himself.
The latest pointed exchange came after New Orleans was flagged for having 12 men on the field in the third quarter on Sunday.
On Monday, however, Payton sounded encouraged by the progress New Orleans' defense demonstrated in a 35-32 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
''That was a really well-played game,'' Payton said, referring specifically to the defense, which is allowing an average of 390.5 yards per game.
Only Atlanta, which is tied with New Orleans for first place in the NFC South at 5-7, ranks worse defensively, giving up 403.2 yards per game
Pittsburgh finished with 538 yards, but Payton didn't sound overly concerned by yardage Pittsburgh piled up during two late touchdown drives, which came after New Orleans built a three-score lead.
For Payton, two interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger, sturdiness against a running game led by Le'Veon Bell and an ability to keep the Steelers out of the end zone until less than 5 minutes remained in the third quarter were good signs heading into the regular season's final four games.
''The turnovers were huge,'' Payton said, referring to interceptions by safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cam Jordan. ''We did a better job of containing the quarterback. ... We were kind of able to keep him from climbing freely up in the pocket.''
Payton also hoped New Orleans' ability to prevent Roethlisberger from stepping up in the pocket or extending plays by rolling out bodes well for Sunday's home game against Carolina and Cam Newton.
''There are similarities in the styles of difficulty, big arms, hard to sack, extends plays,'' Payton said. ''I've heard others make that comparison.''
Payton also noted that ''one big goal for us was keeping the running back under 100 yards.'' Bell wound up with 95 yards, but much of his yardage came during first-half drives that ended with field goals.
On Sunday, Payton dismissed speculative reports that he was expected to let go of Ryan after the season, calling his relationship with his defensive coordinator ''outstanding'' and praising Ryan's work ethic by noting that he stays at Saints headquarters ''until the crickets are gone.''
''Yeah, I get upset when there's 12 guys on the field,'' Payton added. ''That doesn't mean I'm looking for another defensive coach.''
Cameron Jordan said players aren't all that surprised to see two intense members of the same coaching staff argue when things go wrong during a game.
''Things can be heated just like teammates can be heated with each other. The most important thing is they communicate, discuss things and move on,'' Jordan said. ''Coach Payton is very passionate about the game and so is Rob, so when you get two passionate people, I'm sure they're bound to have words.''
More important to Jordan was the discipline New Orleans' defense maintained for most of its victory over Pittsburgh. It paid off not only in the form of two turnovers, but three other plays in which Saints defenders were in position to intercept passes, but couldn't quite corral the ball.
New Orleans also allowed Pittsburgh to convert only six of 14 third downs (43 percent), an improvement from the 47.4 percent of third downs opponents have converted against New Orleans all season - a category in which the Saints also rank last.
''This whole week we really put an emphasis on the defense stepping up, everybody just doing their job not doing anything more than what we needed to,'' Jordan said. ''There have been a lot of plays we tried to create that ended up going in the opposite way. Really it was just about staying home, focusing on every minute detail.
''We did a decent enough job to come out with the win, but there's still a lot more room for improvement,'' he added.
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