There are several defensive categories in which, on the field and statistically, the New Orleans Saints are struggling. Run defense isn't one of them.
Steadily, the Saints have seen improvement against the run through the first three games, culminating in their best showing against Atlanta, in Sunday's 43-37 overtime victory.
After allowing 112 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries against Tampa Bay, New Orleans tightened to 93 yards and a touchdown allowed on 27 carries against Cleveland, then sliced it to 48 yards and no touchdowns allowed on 22 carries against Atlanta.
For the season, the Saints are holding opponents to three yards per carry.
"I thought last week was one of our better efforts," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "I thought the front played well. (Atlanta is) an offensive line that is really going to stress your edges and I thought we had a good week of practice.
"One of the things that comes up early in the season is these numbers and rankings. Obviously, if after two weeks you're ranked 15th, that really doesn't tell you a lot. That's two weeks of 16 tests. The numbers can quickly shift. But I was pleased with how we played the run the other day."
THE SPECIAL MAN: Weekly, it seems, the Saints unveil a new use of No. 3 quarterback Taysom Hill. He has been a quarterback who has run the option, a blocker, a kick returner and a punt and kick coverer.
Hill, who starred in college at BYU, helped spark the offense with three carries for 39 yards against the Falcons; his 35-yard run in the fourth quarter is the Saints' longest run this season.
"Each week when we start – Tuesday is a big game-plan day – you begin to look at ways to complement what you're doing offensively," Payton said. "You put in some tags – 'BYU 21' personnel, 'BYU 11' – and (when) he enters the field on offense, he can be an 'F,' he could be the 'Q.' He does a lot of things pretty well. So you just don't want it to be just one thing.
"Hopefully you're just creating indecision. When you have a guy that can hand the ball or keep it and run the way he can, there's stress unto itself. But the very next play he's in, and he can be playing at the line of scrimmage. I think that helps you."
GIANT PROBLEMS: Sunday's opponent, the New York Giants, possess two game-breakers on offense in rookie running back Saquan Barkley (46 carries for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and 21 receptions for 137 yards) and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (24 catches for 271 yards), a New Orleans native who starred at LSU.
Payton had high praise for each.
On Barkley: "He's got great balance. He's strong. You have to populate the ball; he's not one of those backs that easily goes down with just one player. He's got tremendous leverage, vision, he can run, he's fast – he's something else.
"I'm not going to say he's like anyone. He's his own back. He's strong, he's built real strong, he's exceptionally fast and he can catch the football well. He does it all for them. He's on the field first, second and third down. He's got tremendous balance and change of direction. He's unique."
On Beckham: "He's got real, real good suddenness. He's very quick in space. He can separate, he transitions exceptionally well, catches the ball well. Both of these players are outstanding after the ball is in their hands, so they're very good run-after-the-catch players."
P-ROB AREA: The Saints signed free agent Patrick Robinson because he offered a veteran presence and was coming off a season in which he arguably was the best slot cornerback in the league. P-Rob now is out for the season, due to an ankle injury suffered against the Falcons. P.J. Williams started at cornerback against the Falcons partly because of Ken Crawley's struggles in the first two games, was replaced by Crawley midway through the game because of his own struggles, and was pressed back into action when Robinson was carted off. "I think it's always a challenge," Payton said. "We'll look closely at our different lineup options and then handle it week to week."
THE QB CHALLENGE: Payton, who is a member of the NFL's competition committee, also addressed the burgeoning roughing-the-passer penalties in the league. "The point of emphasis in the offseason was very simple, and that was avoiding the player intentionally placing all the weight on the quarterback. Have we seen some that have been flagged that should not have been? Absolutely. I think it's more about the consistency from crew to crew and the message from crew to crew, to get that on the same page. That's with any new rule, but I think that's the biggest challenge."