Saints tie turnaround to improvement by younger players

METAIRIE, La. (AP) When Sean Payton reflects on the Saints' recent resurgence, he recalls being struck by how many players earlier this year needed directions to the charter terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Seven weeks into the season, the newest and youngest Saints know exactly where to go to catch flights for road games. They know where to park, as well as how long it takes to get there. That, Payton suggests, is analogous to how they've been functioning on the field during a string of three victories in the past four games.

''When you have a younger team, man, there are certain things that maybe you haven't had to emphasize as much that you can't take for granted. Things come up weekly, whether it's a rule, whether it's something outside of being on the field,'' Payton said Monday. ''Quickly getting up to speed and quickly improving each week - I think our younger players have done that. I like the enthusiasm they're playing with. ... That energy and enthusiasm can go a long way.''

Nearly half the Saints' current players were not on the active roster last season. A number of those players are in the first few years of their pro careers and had little or no regular-season experience before last month.

As their mistakes become fewer and their production rises, the Saints are looking increasingly competitive.

''It's a good feeling when you kind of put decent wins together and you can build confidence and you're able to get into your game plans more. We've definitely felt that,'' center Max Unger said. ''We're playing a lot looser. It's one of those things where you just kind of have to trust your game plan and your talent, because we know that the talent's there.''

As bleak as the season looked for New Orleans at 0-3 or 1-4, two straight wins have lifted the Saints to 3-4, 1 1/2 games behind Minnesota (4-2) for the final NFC wild-card playoff spot.

Yet, with more than half the season remaining, safety Kenny Vaccaro said the Saints should avoid getting wrapped up in playoff scenarios.

''The best thing for us, since we got kind of put in a hole the first three games, is kind of put our head down and take this step by step, game by game. Because, at 3-4 right now, we don't need to be thinking about playoffs,'' he said.

It remains to be seen how much of the Saints' recent success can be attributed to a youth improvement, or simply a relatively soft portion of the schedule. Two of New Orleans' three victories have come against Dallas and Indianapolis, teams which are both below .500. But New Orleans also is responsible for rival Atlanta's only loss this season.

This Sunday, the Saints have an opportunity to climb back to .500 when they host the New York Giants, who improved to 4-3 with a win over Dallas on Sunday.

The Giants will face an offense which includes two starting receivers, Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, who were on the practice squad last season and are only in their second seasons out of college.

On defense, New Orleans rotates in several rookie linemen: starter Bobby Richardson, as well as reserves Tyeler Davison and Tavaris Barnes. Starting linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha are rookies. Delvin Breaux, who has been starting at cornerback all season because Keenan Lewis has been hobbled, also is a first-year NFL player who came from the CFL.

New Orleans' defense ranked last after Week 5 and is 30th now, giving up 404.9 yards per game. But the unit is increasingly producing momentum-changing sacks, turnovers or clutch third-down stops.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan has five sacks in the past two victories.

''I can't be more proud of the D-line and the way we're playing right now,'' Jordan said. ''We're dealing with a lot of growing pains, but at the same time we're overcoming a lot of different things.''

Meanwhile, after creating three turnovers in Sunday's 27-21 victory at Indianapolis, the Saints now have four interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, tying them for eighth in the NFL in total takeaways with 11.

''I like this team. I think this team has fight,'' Vaccaro said. ''We have guys that can handle adversity. I think we mesh together good. I think we have nowhere to go but up. We have a lot of young players, but everybody has a lot of heart on this team, and I truly mean that.''

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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