It's the players.
The New Orleans Saints' defensive spike rests on the shoulders of the players who have collaborated to vice-grip opponents for a month on Sundays, after struggling to find their footing out of the gate in 2020.
The Saints – 9-2, winners of eight straight and leaders of the South Division and NFC standings entering Sunday's game against Atlanta (4-7) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – currently are the NFL's top defense in yards allowed (284.9 per game), second in rushing yards (76.6), tied for fourth in forced turnovers (18) and fifth in in passing yards (208.3) and scoring (20.5 points).
But for the last month, New Orleans has been downright miserly: 209 yards per game allowed (52.3 rushing and 156.5 passing), eight points per game and 12 turnovers forced. Throw out the Denver game, because the Broncos didn't have a quarterback and mustered just three points under that extreme circumstance? OK. In the other three games, 241 yards (204.7 passing and 36.3 rushing) and 10 points per game allowed, with nine turnovers forced.
"I do think this – I think we were doing a lot of really good things early in the season," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "But yet, there was a handful of things that came up to bite us and really kind of soured the overall defensive performance. And I think we've done a lot better job of guys executing, putting their eyes in the right spot.
"I think our communication has been better. I think as we've continued to go along, guys are really beginning to understand a lot more in terms of exactly what we're trying to get accomplished with each defensive call. They're getting more comfortable in the system."
Any way it's stacked, the Saints have been formidable. But while the players receive and deserve the poinsettia petals being showered on them during their recent demolition dance, Atlanta interim coach Raheem Morris said the choreographer shouldn't be overlooked.
"Dennis Allen, he's a problem," Morris said. New Orleans held Atlanta to three field goals and 248 yards in their first meeting Nov. 22, sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan eight times and intercepting him twice.
"Dennis Allen has done a nice job with the defense," Morris said. "He has those guys really revved up and he's got those guys getting after us. We have got to find a way to do a better job of getting the ball out of our hand. We've got to do a better job of protecting and we've got to find a better way of calling plays without putting ourselves in harm's way.
"So if we can go out and get those things done and try to keep Dennis Allen away from the game and affect it, we'll have a chance. Those players have done a great job for him and those coaches are doing a great job for him, and it looks like they have a really well-uniformed team."
The uniformity took a few weeks to develop.
In the first three games, when New Orleans lost two straight after winning its season opener, the Saints allowed 31 points and 351.3 yards per game. Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and Green Bay combined for eight touchdown passes and two interceptions. The Saints were averaging eight penalties and 110 penalty yards per game, and most of the infractions were on the defensive side – pass interference, defensive holding, personal fouls.
But gradual improvement gave way to a significant jump at Chicago. In a 26-23 overtime victory, the Saints allowed 329 yards but had an interception and five sacks, including a couple of timely ones in overtime, to set up the win.
Opponents were 19 for 22 scoring touchdowns in the red zone in the six games before Chicago; in the next five, they were 2 for 7 (three field goals, an interception and a fourth-down stop).
"I think it's making the corrections," Coach Sean Payton said. "You have a game in Chicago and you play well, then you follow it up at Tampa Bay.
"It can happen on one weekend. It can happen the second half of a game and then you begin to see this is what it can be like. And certainly as coaches, what can we do to help them more? I think all of those things."
Allen said fitting players into the right positions defensively, or having them gain comfort in where they were, allowed the Saints to find a rhythm.
"I think in those earlier games where we didn't quite execute at all times like we're capable of, I felt like some of that was something that I needed to do a better job of, and certainly there was something to we just needed to execute and play a little bit better, too," he said.
Now that New Orleans has found that comfort zone and trust, it has led to the ability to play faster, without hesitation. And, Allen said, that's critical.
"(Playing fast is) everything," he said. "It's everything that's all about defensive football. When you know exactly what to do and you put your eyes in the right spot, and us as coaches do a good job of just giving you A and B – like, if they do this, I want you to do this and if they do that, I want you to do that – and then everything else in between, let those guys go out and play football.
"And I think we've just done a better job of that. I think our guys really understand what we're trying to do defensively and what we're trying to accomplish with everything that we're doing. And then I think when guys experience success in doing things a certain way, they get more and more comfortable with it. And success tends to breed success."
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November (a league-high tying five sacks and 12 tackles in five games) said New Orleans' effectiveness always is rooted in what the Saints are doing, rather than what an opponent allows.
"When it comes down to it, again, I've been saying it's been our defensive unit, it's been our collective effort," said Jordan, who had three of New Orleans' eight sacks in the first game against Atlanta. "And it's all about focusing on what we can do, what we do best and how we can affect the offense.
"You know, I trust Double D (Demario Davis), I trust Kwon (Alexander), I trust Marshon (Lattimore), Marcus (William), Malcolm (Jenkins), and Duce (C.J. Gardner-Johnson), P Rob (Patrick Robinson), P.J. (Williams) , whoever gets on the field. You know, I trust our entire back seven.
"When you're talking about the defensive line, you know, I have the utmost confidence in us. I like us versus anybody. So when it comes down to what an offense does, what's the trick play here? What's their bread and butter? It's all about us as a defense and how we're going to attack."
And comfort allows for the defensive creativity to flow.
"I think you go into each gameplan and you attack each gameplan a little bit differently," Allen said. "And my ability to, and our ability as coaches to, be more creative is all based on what we're able to handle as a defense and what we're able to handle as players.
"Look, the credit always goes to the players because for us to play well defensively, those guys have got to be able to go out there and execute and do their job. And I think as they've gotten more and more comfortable in the system, I think that's been easier for us to do."