METAIRIE, La. (AP) Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who early this season lambasted New Orleans' defense for canceling out Drew Brees' brilliance, no longer sees it that way.
''We've gotten better every game,'' Vaccaro asserted after practice Wednesday as the Saints prepared to meet the Los Angeles Rams this Sunday. ''The stats, obviously, on total defense might not say it, but if you look up certain things, there's an improvement.''
Indeed, recent numbers back Vaccaro up. After allowing opposing offenses to pile up nearly 420 yards per game through their first five games, New Orleans has yielded an average of 346.2 yards during the past five. The club still ranks 27th in total defense, but that's up from dead last after Week 1 and as bad as 31st through the season's first several games.
When Rams rookie quarterback Jared Goff, the NFL's top draft choice last spring, makes his first road start in the Superdome on Sunday, he'll face a defense that has held opposing quarterbacks to 234 yards passing or less three times since Week 7. The Saints are coming off their best defensive performance yet, having held Carolina to 223 net yards and just 173 through the air.
''Our defense is playing really well,'' Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. ''Those guys have bailed us out so many times the last few weeks.''
After giving up 34 or more points in four of their first five games, the Saints have given up fewer than 24 points per game in the five weeks since - even as their offense has given up both an interception and fumble return for touchdowns, and as their special teams unit had a kick blocked for a defensive 2-point conversion.
New Orleans is also getting more turnovers lately, and has climbed into a tie for 10th in the NFL in takeaways with 15 - six on interceptions and nine on fumble recoveries.
''They definitely have changed some things,'' Goff said when asked if he's noticed an evolution of New Orleans' defense when he compares recent game video to clips from early in the season.
One of those changes involves New Orleans' base formation, now comprised of four linemen, two linebackers, three safeties and two cornerbacks. In three of the past four games, one of the two linebackers has been Dennell Ellerbe, who missed the first six games of the season with a quadriceps injury. Since his return, he's been one of the top playmakers on the team while handling wide-ranging responsibilities, from blitzing to covering tight ends.
''He's just a great player. You see him in pass rush. You see him in coverage. He can cover tight ends. He can play the run,'' Vaccaro said. ''He literally can do it all. He's the same Dannell who won the Super Bowl with Baltimore when he was healthy.''
Ellerbe already has been in on 16 tackles, including two sacks. He also has been credited with four quarterback hits and two passes defended.
Meanwhile, the Saints' interior line has gotten a boost from the return of rookie tackle Sheldon Rankins, the club's top draft choice in April, who broke his fibula in training camp. Also back is cornerback Delvin Breaux, who has played two of the past three games since returning from his fractured fibula, which occurred in Week 1.
''I just feel like we had a few guys go down early that we needed,'' Ellerbe said. ''So now that we're getting those guys back, we're having our full defense back - the defense that we were supposed to have.''
NOTES: RB Mark Ingram, who left last Thursday night's game at Carolina after being knocked unconscious, was at practice today. He confirmed that he was diagnosed with a concussion, but said he expects to play Sunday. ''I felt good. I was running fast, I was making my cuts,'' Ingram said. ''I'm feeling good and looking forward to playing.'' ... Also practicing Wednesday were left tackle Terron Armstead, who has missed the past two games with a nagging knee injury, and Breaux, who was scratched from the last game after playing the previous two. Breaux has said he expected to return this week, and was only held out last Thursday because the Saints didn't want to unduly stress his recently healed fibula with two games in a five-day span.
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