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John DeShazier: Saints defense made its mark this preseason

Unit finished second in total defense

It was preseason.

There, it's been said, and the caveat will apply to each word hereafter. Because that's the reality of the terms under which the New Orleans Saints defense performed over a 21-day period against Cleveland, the Los Angeles Rams, Houston and Baltimore.

But, that said, the Saints believe they are on to something. New Orleans finished the preseason second overall in total defense (235.5 yards allowed per game), third in run defense (74.3), fourth in pass defense (161.3), third in points allowed (10.2) and tied for first in sacks (17).

And for a defense that finished 27th in total defense (375.4 yards allowed) and 31st in scoring defense (28.4 points allowed) last year, and 31st in total (413.4) and last in scoring (29.8) in 2015, and 31st in total (384) and 28th in scoring (26.5) in '14, strides are acknowledged when they appear evident.

"I thought we followed the plan, the young guys played well," safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "I know everybody says, 'It's just preseason,' but at the same time, from every level – the 1s, the 2s, the 3s – everybody played pretty much the same.

"Any time you play well, there's that demonstrated ability. Guys have to build confidence and we need that going into the season."

Check out the Saints in preseason action against the Ravens at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"Any time you can put good tape out there, it's a good thing," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "You have to take into account it is preseason but all in all, we put some good tape out there. Guys have shown they can go out there and make plays, from top to bottom, our starters down to our 2s and our 3s. We like what we're seeing from everybody.

"I think we're tired of being the butt of everybody's joke when it comes to the Saints. We know what we have on offense with Drew (Brees) and what he's able to do, and we want to hold up our end of the bargain."

New Orleans appeared to be a team on a mission as it posted eight consecutive scoreless quarters defensively. The Chargers' lone score in a 13-7 loss was an interception returned for a touchdown, and Baltimore's first touchdown in the preseason finale came on a 7-yard drive, after an interception and return.

Defensive end Alex Okafor, a free agent signee, wasn't with the Saints last year. Still, he watched film of the product that was on the field.

"We reset our minds, reset our goals," Okafor said. "You can just see it on film. I wasn't here last year but I still watched the film last year, and just the mentality and the way guys swarm and the physicality is just different this year.

"I think it's just us taking a stand. I wasn't here last year, but I feel like I was a part of it. We can't put that same tape out this year, it won't get the job done. We know that, we realize that and we're just taking ownership of this thing just to go out there and play as hard as we can."

It has been noticeable, and effective.

Fifteen players combined on accumulating the 17 sacks. In the four games the Saints had 29 passes defensed, 32 quarterback hurries and 30 tackles for loss.

"I think guys are just buying in to what coach is preaching," Vaccaro said of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. "This is D.A.'s second full year with the team and I think guys understand we have to play a certain way to get pressure on the quarterback. DBs (defensive backs) and linebackers have got to cover so the defensive line can get there, and it goes vice versa, they've got to get pressure so we can get turnovers. It all goes hand in hand."

It's a recipe that Saints players on defense and offense have seen a lot of this offseason.

"Up front, they did a great job this preseason and those are guys – we see them plenty, so we know what that group is capable of," right tackle Zach Strief said. "And they did it all without (defensive end) Cam (Jordan), really. He only played in the one game.

"I think the defense is building a lot of confidence in D.A.'s system, understanding what he wants, where he wants them to be but more than anything, I think those guys played with a ton of effort this preseason. They flew around and obviously when you have some success like that in a game, no matter the situation – preseason, regular season – it builds confidence. And I think that's what we kind of saw this preseason from that group, just a lot more confidence than they've had the last couple of years."

The positive results have been a result of execution, even more so than aggression, Vaccaro said.

"I think we're just more successful," he said. "I think we were aggressive (last season), we just weren't doing anything with that aggression. We weren't getting to the quarterback, we weren't getting hits and now that we are, it seems like we're more aggressive. I think guys are just buying in."

Allen's sales job remains a work in progress, but he appears to have a willing focus group.

It was preseason? The Saints believe it's possible to lay a foundation, even then.

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