First, there was the hand of safety Marcus Williams. Then, the thunder of linebacker Alex Anzalone. Finally, the hustle of Marshon Lattimore.
Three fumbles forced and recovered by the New Orleans Saints inside the red zone, all critical to the team winning its 10th straight game this season, a 31-17 victory over Atlanta on Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints (10-1) now have forced 14 fumbles and recovered seven this season, but Thursday's work was art for a defense that's on the incline.
Five forced fumbles against Atlanta, three recovered, and all three likely wiping points off the board for Atlanta.
"Those are significant," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Friday. "Doing the math, if you come up with a stop in the red zone, they kick a field goal, it's a four-point swing. If you take the ball away, it's a seven (-point swing) or, at worst, a three-point swing."
"It's huge because any time you can take points off the board, you're helping yourself and you're helping your offense extend its lead," said linebacker A.J. Klein, who added to the turnover haul with a fourth-quarter interception that set up New Orleans' final touchdown.
"Any turnover in the red zone is huge for us and that's something that we try to work on. We don't want to give up points and it turns from a seven-point play to a three-point play if you hold them to a field goal. But to get those turnovers is a big swing in the game.
"It's demoralizing for an opposing offense to turn the ball over in the red zone. So the more we can do that, the better the games will continue to tilt in our favor. I know the offense is reaping the benefits as well, getting them back on the field."
Williams' strip, sack and recovery of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan in the first quarter was an exhibition in timing (he blitzed through the gap between center and right guard) and athleticism (while being blocked, he dived for Ryan and slapped the ball out of his hand). What began as third-and-2 from the Saints' 3-yard line turned into a Williams sack, strip and recovery at the 13.
Anzalone, for the second time in five games, crushed an opposing scoring threat right before halftime. Atlanta's Julio Jones caught a short pass over the middle in stride and turned it up the left sideline, where he was met by two Saints. The second one was Anzalone, who caught Jones mid-air and dislodged the ball while helicoptering the All-Pro receiver, ending a 15-yard gain from the Saints' 32. Safety Vonn Bell recovered at the 13-yard line with 17 seconds left in the half.
And in the fourth quarter, with the Saints leading 31-10, the Falcons went for it on fourth-and-10 from the New Orleans 30. Ryan completed a deep pass to receiver Calvin Ridley down the middle but before Ridley could reach the goal line, Lattimore ran him down from behind and knocked loose the ball on the tackle. Cornerback Eli Apple recovered at the goal line and ran it back two yards.
As few as nine points, and perhaps as many as 21, were erased.
"I honestly believe that's something you've got to work on, preach, coach, practice," Payton said of the forced fumbles. "Some teams do a better job than others. It's not coincidence. You don't just get lucky breaks.
"Peanut Tillman taught this league that for years. It's technique, it's work, it's something that you work on. And if you don't work on it, you don't get as many and if you do, you get more."
Former NFL defensive back Charles "Peanut" Tillman, a 6-foot-1, 196-pounder, forced 44 fumbles in a 13-year career. He forced 10 in 2012, often attacking the ball and ripping it away from opponents.
On Thursday – and of late, with nine turnovers forced in the last three games – the Saints appear to have delved into their own form of peanut oil. For the season, New Orleans has forced 17 turnovers, including seven fumble recoveries. Last year, the team forced 25 turnovers (five fumble recoveries) and won the NFC South Division.
"One, you have to just see that these last three games we've played complete team defense in all three aspects," Klein said. "From the front line, to the linebackers, to the defensive backfield, I think we're playing good football and I think we're playing with really good effort.
"Even though some of those turnovers came off of big plays, it shows that we're finishing plays, we're being opportunistic, which is good for this defense. As long as you give effort in this game and you run to the football, good things generally tend to happen. I think as long as long as we keep playing with great effort and continue to be opportunistic, I think we'll be just fine, we'll continue to force turnovers."