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John DeShazier: New Orleans Saints defense miles ahead of last season's unit

Revamped defense has held back-to-back teams under 20 points

There wasn't a time last season when the New Orleans Saints' defense held consecutive opponents to 24 points offensively.

Even when New Orleans notched its lone shutout in 2012 – a 41-0 drubbing of Tampa Bay in the 14th game of the season – Dallas rolled to 31 points the next week.

So while the Saints understandably don't want to get too giddy over the first two defensive performances of this season, when they held Atlanta's high-powered offense to 17 points and allowed a single touchdown to Tampa Bay after the Buccaneers took over possession in Saints' territory, there also is no doubt that they're miles ahead of the pace set last season.

And there's no doubt players are confident that the first two games aren't a fluke.

"Rob (Ryan) has been putting us in pretty good situations," outside linebacker Junior Galette said. "He knows everybody's strengths and he knows our weaknesses – just playing to everybody's strength and putting us in great positions to make plays. And our players have been stepping up."

The numbers bear out Galette's statement.

!The Saints, 2-0 entering Sunday's game against Arizona (1-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, allowed a combined 640 yards against Atlanta and Tampa Bay, and the opponents converted eight of 24 third-down attempts.

Only one two-game stretch last season was comparable, when New Orleans allowed 375 and 283 yards against San Francisco and Atlanta (658 yards total), and held them to a combined 7 for 24 on third-down attempts, in a pair of losses in Games 11 and 12.

And only three of the defensive starters against Tampa Bay weren't Saints last season, and two (safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive tackle John Jenkins) were rookies. So a mental adjustment may have been just as critical as any schematic tweak.

"I think our guys have the right attitude," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said Friday. "I think we all have a lot to prove. We all want to be a little, tiny part of our success and we truly mean that. We know we can get a whole lot better and that's what we plan on doing each week, is getting better."

Frankly, there may not be significant room for improvement, especially in crunch time.

New Orleans held Atlanta scoreless on the Falcons' final four possessions, punctuated by safety Roman Harper's fourth-down, end-zone interception with 43 seconds remaining. And the Bucs scored their only offensive touchdown in the first quarter; their other score came courtesy of an interception return in the fourth.

Otherwise, Tampa Bay punted five times, was forced into two turnovers and was stopped on third-and-6 from the Saints' 32-yard line on its final offensive possession. That stop forced a 47-yard field-goal attempt, which was missed by Rian Lindell; the Saints then drove for the winning field goal in a 16-14 victory.

"I know we've got a lot to prove and I think our guys come with a mind-set (of) we want to get better each week," Ryan said. "If we can be a little, tiny part of our success here, that's what we want to do and that's what we strive for."

The process of improving immensely is aided by the fact that during the practice week, the defense works against a pretty good offense.

"(Ryan) calls the right plays and our guys have just been getting after it," Galette said. "We get after it all week against Drew (Brees), one of the best quarterbacks – if not the best quarterback – in the league.

"We do well against him so that kind of gives us the confidence going into the game, (and) we're building confidence on that. We know that we haven't reached our ceiling yet."

The ceiling may not yet be in sight, but the defense already has done things it couldn't do last season. Two games may not be a large sample size, but it's a start.

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