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John DeShazier: Saints defense looking to force turnovers against Panthers

Defense hasn't forced a turnover in past three games

Overall, it's more of a molehill than a mountain. But it's a molehill that has surfaced at the worst possible time, and can be declared mountainous within a three-hour window Sunday.

The New Orleans Saints defense hasn't played up to expectation in its last two road games, losses in Seattle and St. Louis. But in the other four games of the most recent six-game period – three at home, one on the road – the defense has been stellar.

It knows it'll need more of the latter than of the former Sunday, when the Saints (10-4) play Carolina (1-04) at Bank of America Stadium. The Saints can win the NFC South Division title and claim the No. 2 playoff seed with a victory.

"What team doesn't play well at home?" safety Malcolm Jenkins asked. "I think everybody plays better at home than they do away.

"We just haven't done what we needed to do to win anywhere when we've played on the road (the last two games). So we've got to fix those things. We've got to force turnovers on defense, we've got to stop the run and give (quarterback) Drew (Brees) and our offense more opportunities.

"And when they have those opportunities they have to protect the ball. That gives us a better chance to win on the road."

The Saints haven't forced a turnover in the last three games. The offense has committed three during that time, to even the team's ratio – 17 takeaways, 17 turnovers.

New Orleans has won all four games in which it hasn't turned over the ball. It's 2-2 when it hasn't forced a turnover.

"The emphasis on practice has been, 'All on the football,' " Jenkins said. "Just the little things (like) tackling in space, and getting those turnovers – turnovers and getting off the field on third down.

"That just escalates our chances of winning drastically. All week, we've been talking about it, we've been practicing it, guys flying to the football, population to the football. There shouldn't be any one-on-one tackles in our defense the way guys can run. That's been a big emphasis for us."

That, and getting third-down stops. St. Louis converted half of its 14 third-down attempts, matching Seattle's total. Carolina (6 for 15), Atlanta (6 for 12), San Francisco (6 for 15) and Dallas (0 for 9) combined to convert 35.3 percent.

"I think the biggest thing is winning on first and second down," safety Roman Harper said. "When we put teams in third-and-long we have success.

"When they're on third-and-3, third-and-4, it's just an easy pitch-and-catch a lot of times. It makes it harder on a defensive coordinator to make certain calls. It's harder to stop third-and-4 than third-and-8. You've got to be able to get yourself in winnable downs. Once you do that, you usually have success."

The Saints' defense, obviously, has had success. It remains one of the best in the league – fifth in scoring defense (19.3) and yards allowed (312.8 per game). So it knows how to play well, because it has played well.

"That's easy to say and it's easy to talk about," Harper said. "But at the end of the day we've got to line up and play.

"We've got to play better, we've got to communicate better, we've got to tackle better, we've got to play with more effort and we've got to come out emotionally ready to go get a win. I don't think we did that well enough last week to do that and the score showed that."

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