Forty-eight points were scored by Tampa Bay against the Saints in New Orleans’ season-opening loss, to go along with 529 yards allowed (417 passing) and six touchdowns.
But the defense, Coach Sean Payton said, wasn’t the problem.
“In that first game, conventional wisdom is, ‘Well, we’ve gotta play better defense,’ ” he said. “And I would argue, if we protect the ball, that was the difference.
“Last week was a lower-scoring game (a 13-10 loss to Dallas). You’re going to get in those type of (high-scoring) games. Now, relative to the defense (presently), I think we’re generating a pass rush, I think the takeaways are noticeable and I think you begin to gain confidence as a unit when you start having some success. And I think we’ve had some success, and each week it’s carried over.
“But the turnovers were the difference in Week 1.”
He’s not wrong. Running back Mike Gillislee’s fumble was recovered and returned for a touchdown by Tampa Bay safety Justin Evans, giving the Buccaneers a 31-17 lead in the second quarter, and receiver Michael Thomas’ fumble was recovered by Bucs cornerback Ryan Smith at the Tampa Bay 32 with New Orleans trailing 41-24 in the third.
That said, the Saints' defense still doesn’t feel good about much of anything that happened during Tampa Bay’s victory on Sept. 9. They’re hoping to leave Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium with a better feeling.
“We knew that afterward,” cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. “During the game, we knew that. And we went on a 10-game winning streak after that. We lost last week, so we definitely have to win again.”
And if that’s the case, the result will be that the Saints (10-2) will secure a playoff berth and win the NFC South Division for the second consecutive season.
First, though, there’s the matter of extending a string of defensive performances that have been on the upswing. Especially, the pass defense has been shored up and playing at a high level.
In the last four games, New Orleans has allowed 215 passing yards per game, on 92 of 131 passing for four touchdowns, and six interceptions. The Saints also have 20 of their 37 sacks in the four games, including 13 in the last two.
“Just being more aggressive and understanding everything that’s going on,” said Lattimore, who has a team-leading four takeaways (an interception and three fumble recoveries). “Playing with confidence, that’s it. Playing with the swag we’ve been playing with, and that’s really it.”
The Saints are five sacks short of last year’s total, when they finished 11-5 and won the division, and six forced turnovers away from the 25 they posted last season.
“It’s a process,” said Lattimore, who also leads the team in passes defensed (nine) and is tied for the lead with three forced fumbles. “It’s an every-week process. Every week we were getting better and we’re going to keep going up. We’ve got four more games and then, hopefully, plus the playoffs. Hopefully, we can get to that elite level by then. But we’re still pushing.
“We’ve just got to turn it up. It’s that time of the season. It’s win or go home in four games. We’ve got to turn it up a little more.”
Keeping Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans under control will be a sign of the improved turn-up. Evans riddled the Saints for 147 yards and a touchdown on seven catches in the season opener, and he’s up to 1,121 yards and five touchdowns on 66 catches this season.
“He’s one of those unique players,” Payton said. “I think he’s got a great catch radius, I think he’s smooth in transition, I think he’s smart, I think he’s savvy. He appears to be someone that is meticulous and works on his craft.
“So when you take a skill-set, and then you take the other traits – the makeup traits and the competitive traits – then you get kind of what you have. And that’s one of the better receivers in our league.”
Standing in opposition will be one of the most improved pass defenses in the league. One that wants to feel better about its performance after the second meeting against its division rival.