White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – First, the necessary disclaimer.
The New Orleans Saints haven't yet engaged an opponent wearing a different uniform, so gauging progress sometimes can be an exercise filled with inaccuracy and wrong-headed assumption, given the blind spot of not knowing what the goal of the offense was on a particular play, or whether a blown assignment triggered an even bigger mistake.
Now, the reason for tempered optimism at Saints training camp: Days like Saturday at The Greenbrier, when the remade defense perhaps had its best showing of an impressive camp.
Several interceptions of quarterback Drew Brees – four, by unofficial count, throughout the practice – highlighted a banner day for the defense, and continued the upward arc the unit has been riding this offseason.
Again, it's early, so platitudes can be premature. But just because it's early doesn't mean it's going unnoticed, particularly by the people who best should know.
"It was a rough day," quarterback Drew Brees said. "Probably one of the rougher days I've had in a long time, maybe ever, in a training camp practice especially. Some of (the interceptions) bad luck, some of them anticipating where the ball should be and for whatever reason the ball gets tipped, or just not quite the execution that we hope for. The one at the end (by safety Erik Harris, in the end zone) shouldn't happen, that's a critical mistake. You need to avoid those. Those are frustrating, but I'm glad I'm getting them all out of the way now.
"I think they've improved. We've added some pieces to the puzzle. I really like (defensive coordinator) Dennis Allen's scheme, I think it works to the strengths of a lot of our guys. There's a lot, it's very diverse. I see those guys playing with confidence, I see them coming together, I see them believing in the scheme.
"That's first and foremost what you've got to do – you've got to take the guys you have, put in a scheme that builds to their strengths and then allow them to go play with confidence. Guys play much better when they know what they're doing, when they feel confident in what they're doing and then they can just play what they see, and they're not thinking so much.
"I feel like maybe that's where we've been in the past a lot, maybe we had a lot of guys that have been thinking a lot maybe because it's the amount that we had in. I don't know. But I see a group that is playing with a lot of confidence right now, and feels very comfortable with what they're doing."
The group has been doing it over and over on the practice fields at The Greenbrier.
Defensive end Cam Jordan, a wait-till-we-see-what-happens-in-pads advocate, said he likes what he sees now that the Saints are in pads.
"We're headed in the right direction," said Jordan, who had 10 sacks last season and has totaled 30 over the last three years. "We haven't arrived anywhere yet, but we are trying to arrive somewhere.
"I can only speak volumes for what the defense has done. The last time (I did an interview), we had just gotten done with our first or second day of no pads, so I had nothing for you. Going forth, I'm just proud of our defense and the way that we are evolving in such a rapid succession. We've got pads on, we've had a few days of straight physical contact – of nine-on-sevens, half line of one-on-ones, of whatever it takes. And that's the mentality that we're progressing toward, whatever it takes."
For the Saints to show marked defensive improvement from last season, when they finished last or next to last in points and yards allowed per game, it probably will take this: forcing more than the 21 turnovers they pried away last season, or the 17 they collected in 2014. And registering more than the 32 sacks totaled in '15, or the 34 in '14.
Each area looks to have been addressed.
"The takeaways, obviously, on that side of the ball were encouraging," Coach Sean Payton said Saturday. "They were able to come up with the plays. There'll be a lot we have to correct.
"There are certain things you see, as you see them on the field, and then when you're able to watch the film and get a chance to look at it. The thing that was encouraging was that we got some takeaways, and it's the one thing that we've really struggled with. That was a positive coming out – we were able to get the ball turned over, got some pressure on the quarterback. Regardless of what group it was, that was encouraging.
"Typically there's an ebb and flow, and I'm sure that those guys on offense will want to come back out tomorrow and right that and have a good practice."
The offense has incentive, perhaps more so now than it has had in a few years.
"It's a good test for us," receiver Willie Snead said. "The defense, they balled out and we've just got to get better on offense."
Said Brees: "We can certainly be doing better as an offense, just detailing some of these fundamentals and some of the technique. So much of the offensive passing game is timing and anticipation and trust and all those things. We didn't have our best day today and the defense played pretty well."