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John DeShazier: Saints trying to return to form on third down

Defense has struggled getting off the field in first two games

Per the usual, the New Orleans Saints' practice Thursday placed an emphasis on third down. Now, the team hopes to get back to the usual in games, especially defensively.

Last season, opponents converted 34.7 percent on third down against New Orleans (69 of 199). So far this season, Atlanta and Cleveland have combined to convert 13 of 27 (48 percent).

But, perhaps more disturbing than the number of conversions are the numbers involved in the conversions.

The Falcons and Browns combined to convert eight times on third-and-6 or longer. The Browns also converted on fourth-and-4 (via an offside penalty) and, on their game-winning drive, converted on plays of third-and-1, third-and-3 and fourth-and-6.

It's a trend that the Saints would like to end, beginning with Sunday's home opener against Minnesota in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"The thing, particularly, would be (third-and-) eight or nine or 10 or more yards," Coach Sean Payton said Thursday. "We've given up some long-yardage situations where you want to get off the field defensively, and the opponent has converted a longer yardage situation where percentage-wise, usually, you hope to be better. That would be one area today that we covered."

Those conversions have helped keep the Saints' defense on the field for 141 plays; not extraordinarily high, but several snaps more than it would have lined up if a few more timely stops had occurred.

"I think defensively, we want to be better," Payton said. "Today, with that being the point of emphasis, we put up league statistics and kind of go through offensively where we're at, defensively where we're at and then we look at where Minnesota's at both offensively and defensively.

"There's about eight third-down statistics that we'll cover. Obviously, the first one is just conversions and your percentage. Then we'll talk about sacks on third down, turnovers on third down, hurries. There are some areas there that hopefully, we can improve on defensively and then offensively, our numbers have been high (15 for 26) and hopefully we can continue that."

Linebacker Ramon Humber (one tackle), who has been working with No. 1 defense in practice so far this week with David Hawthorne (ankle) sidelined, said the Saints simply have to get back to being who they have been.

"Third-and-long, your goal is to get off the field and it's a killer if they're able to convert," Humber said. "It's something we thrive on, it's something we've worked on this week. We were good at it last year, we've just got to continue to work on it."

And defensive end Akiem Hicks said it's just as important for the Saints to not falter on the shorter distances.

"It's really just a matter of capitalizing on those small chances that you get in order to make a play," Hicks said. "Just making those third-and-3s, those third-and-5s, not letting them complete those balls, not letting them run and get into those situations where they have a better chance or a better percentage of making that play happen."

Doing that will put the Saints' defense back in a position with which it was familiar last season, and move it further away from the position it has found itself in this year.

Photos from New Orleans Saints practice on Thursday, September 18, 2014. Photos taken by Alex Restrepo (New Orleans Saints photos)

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