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John DeShazier: Saints defense turning the corner in takeaway game

Team has come up with eight turnovers in last two games

Anyone within earshot of a New Orleans Saints practice this offseason undoubtedly understood the emphasis that has been placed on forcing turnovers this season. Booming voices muscling through the air during the flight of almost every pass in a team drill, or at the sight of any ball on the field, was a constant reminder that the defense was all about gaining possession of the football any way it could.

For the last two games, those who haven't been able to attend a practice nonetheless have been able to see how the emphasis can manifest.

In the last two preseason games, against Tennessee and against Indianapolis last Saturday, New Orleans has produced a combined eight turnovers – three interceptions and five fumble recoveries. And other than a muffed punt by the Colts (recovered by linebacker Todd Davis), all of the takeaways truly have been takeaways.

Also against the Colts, safety Kenny Vaccaro made a leaping interception after he read the route of Indianapolis tight end Coby Fleener and sliced underneath him in the first quarter to pick off quarterback Andrew Luck.

"I thought (the turnovers were impressive) in the game the other night, particularly, against some of their good personnel," Coach Sean Payton said.

"The play that Kenny makes – you're always trying to measure when they come. And there is a little difference in a takeaway and one that's given, and I thought we had some good takeaway opportunities the other night. Whether they came in the first half or the second half, they were earned turnovers. Those are encouraging signs."

And a welcome sight after the Saints finished last season with 19 turnovers.

There nearly was a fourth turnover against the Colts – another interception – but Keenan Lewis' acrobatic attempt was ruled an incompletion, though after the game Lewis said he believed the pick was clean.

"I knew it wasn't going to be overturned and it's still hard to tell whether or not the ball moves at all when it hits the ground," Payton said. "So if it was called a completion it was probably going to stay, or an interception, it was probably going to stay that way. Just based on the angles we had. It certainly was a great play on the ball though."

It's the kind of play that the Saints are looking to make habitual this season, an endeavor aided by the addition of free safety Jairus Byrd.

Byrd produced 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his first five seasons. His anticipation, knowledge and ability to go after the football are among the reasons the Saints signed him as an unrestricted free agent.

"We're definitely conscious of it and I think it's just coming right now," Byrd said Monday. "Guys are making the emphasis to get the ball out. When the ball shows they're trying to strip it out, when ball's in the air, we're going for it.

"It's really contagious. That's what I tell the guys, too. Once you get that first one, it's like you have this energy, it's almost like a shark. You just feel it. You go after the ball and it's contagious."

And Byrd said that even though it's preseason, it doesn't matter what time of the game the turnover is forced.

"To me, a turnover is a turnover," he said. "If it's a turnover it creates great habits – punching the ball out, getting your hands on the ball. Because at the end of the day, no matter who's throwing, you've got to catch the ball.

"No matter who is giving the ball to you, it's a practice, it's a habit that you have to work on, catching the ball or stripping it out."

It's one that the Saints diligently have been working on this offseason. And for those who hadn't been able to hear it, there has been a chance to on display in the last two preseason games.

Photos from the New Orleans Saints preseason game against the New Orleans Saints at Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, August 23, 2014. Photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)

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