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John DeShazier: Saints have a defense to match their offense

Both units are ranked in the top five

The New Orleans Saints' offense is right about where you'd expect it to be, No. 5 in yards per game (394.9), second in passing offense (303.2) and 13th in scoring (24.8).

But this season the Saints have a defense to match, and that can be counted among the more pleasant surprises this season.

The Saints have the No. 2 pass defense in the league (192.7 yards per game), the No. 4 total defense (306.7 yards) and the No. 5 scoring defense (19.1). And that balance is a major reason that New Orleans (10-5) enters the regular-season finale against Tampa Bay (4-11) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome a victory shy of guaranteeing a spot in the playoffs as a wild-card, and possibly vaulting to the NFC South Division title and No. 2 playoff seed.

Last season, when the Saints were allowing 440.1 yards, 292.6 passing yards and 28.4 points per game, the team held just three opponents to fewer than 20 points. This year, the number stands at 10.

"I think we're definitely proud of it and it's something that we obviously look at, but it's not the end-all," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has been one of the most versatile defensive players with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and six passes defended. "We can end up the No. 1 defense in the league and if we don't win this game, it's all for nothing.

"The end-all is really to win the championship, but it tells the story of how far we've come from last year, how much we've improved. And it tells a lot about the players and the coaches that we have in this organization. So it's something we're definitely proud of."

Four times this season, the defense has allowed just one touchdown and eight times, it has allowed two.

"It's our scheme, our players," said defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who has 70 tackles and 4.5 sacks. "The approach that we've had during preparation, especially these past two weeks, has been outstanding, some of the best practices that we've had all year. We definitely look forward to coming out and playing the same way that we've been playing."

In truth, the defense has been inspired by the offense.

The effort to match the offense's yearly excellence has been an ongoing process, the defense often not being required to be nearly as effective as it has this season in order for the team to excel. But this year, the defense has held its portion of the rope, and more.

"Our offense does a lot for us and has done a lot over the years," Jenkins said. "Our defense hasn't gotten the credit that it always deserves but I think this year, to see the numbers and have these games where our performance helps us win the game when our offense may not be on its best, it's a good feeling.

"But that's how you play complimentary football, that's how you win a lot of games, when not all the burden of winning is on one side of the ball."

That burden has been eased this season, and the defense hopes to continue doing so Sunday against the Buccaneers, who will enter the finale with a new starting quarterback (rookie Mike Glennon) from the Week 2 starter (Josh Freeman).

"Big, tall, great arm," Hicks said of Glennon. "It's a new team. We can't prepare the same way that we prepared."

But likely, the Saints effectively will be prepared defensively. This season, the numbers for that unit have been just as impressive as the numbers for the team's vaunted offense.

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