See the best moments from the Saints defense in the Week 9 match up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
The verbal equivalent was a quarter-inch separating a thumb and forefinger.
To a man, New Orleans Saints defensive players suggested – week after week – that they were that close to a lockup performance. True, a plethora of big plays had been allowed in the passing game, the team led the league in defensive pass interference penalties and the coverage busts had been maddening.
But the distance between thumb and forefinger didn't change.
Until Sunday, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at Raymond James Stadium on national television.
There, for a night, the space pretty seemed closed, as the Saints (6-2) pinned Tampa Bay (6-3) under their thumb in a 38-3 victory that lifted New Orleans into first place in the NFC South Division, and completed their regular-season sweep of their division rival. New Orleans will play San Francisco (4-5) on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The raw numbers against Tampa Bay were dominant: 194 net yards allowed (including eight rushing yards on an NFL all-time low five rushing attempts), 1 of 9 conversions on third-down attempts, no conversions allowed on three fourth-down attempts, four straight three-and-outs to start the game, then an interception on Tampa Bay's fifth possession.
The Buccaneers entered the game with one of the NFL's hottest offenses (32 points) and quarterbacks (Tom Brady, who'd passed for 1,950 yards and 18 touchdowns, with two interceptions) in the seven games since a season-opening loss to the Saints. And the Buccaneers added receiver Antonio Brown, fresh off his eight-game NFL suspension, to the arsenal during the week prior to the game.
But New Orleans intercepted Brady three times (the Saints have five of his seven interceptions this season), sacked him three times, forced an intentional grounding penalty against him, posted nine quarterback hits and eight passes defensed.
"I don't know that you go into a game like that against an offense like that and feel like it's going to go that clean for you," Saints Coach Sean Payton said. "There's just that much respect for what they do. And so, I was happy we built on the momentum, I was happy we got the early three-and-outs. I thought that was significant into the way the game unfolded and getting a quick lead and then from there, it was just one of our better efforts."
The Saints had shown some of the traits exhibited against Tampa Bay even while they had lapses.
In the first four games of their five-game winning streak, they allowed 311 yards per game, totaled 12 sacks, committed five penalties per game (down from eight per game the first three) and three times, on their final defensive play, made huge stops to secure or set up a victory.
Against the Chargers, cornerback Marshon Lattimore's tackle in overtime prevented a fourth-and-6 conversion attempt to preserve a 30-27 lead. Against the Panthers, defensive end Marcus Davenport's eight-yard sack on third-and-11 from the 39 pushed Carolina just out of field goal range to preserve a 27-24 win. And against Chicago, defensive end Trey Hendrickson's overtime sack – minus-4 yards, on third-and-10 – forced the punt that the Saints' offense parlayed into a seven-play, 52-yard drive that resulted in the winning field goal of a 26-23 decision.
But in terms of completeness, no performance this season has matched the showing against Tampa Bay. It's a feeling that the Saints aren't interested in basking in.
"There's the coach in you, though, when you watch the tape, that there's a number of things that I feel like we've got to clean up," Payton said. "Hopefully we've done that already."
"I don't think anybody predicts to have that kind of game," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had one of the Saints' three interceptions. "The outcome is never what we focus on; what we focus on is the process and each week trying to get better. And that's no different this week.
"We've got an opponent that beat us last year (the 49ers), that presents some really unique things on offense. And for us, it's about figuring out what we can improve on and continuing to stack those up as we go. We understand that the finished product is not today. It's down the road and this entire season is just a journey to get there. And so for us, we're not really focused on the outcome, we're just trying to get better and better each week."
It's imperative, Jenkins said, that the Saints move on from Sunday's performance.
"Obviously, we had a lot of success," he said. "Guys played disciplined, did their job, won their matchups and as a team, we did a great job. So I think we were clean on that. But there's still things that we can get better at.
"And, again, we turn the page and look at this next opponent, the 49ers – totally different gameplan. Something that is going to challenge our discipline, challenge our eyes – all of the things that kind of plagued us early in the year. So this will be, I think, a greater test of how much we've improved as a defense."