By defensive comparison, on paper and in reputation, the New Orleans Saints were dwarfed by giants in Baltimore and Minnesota the last two games.
The Ravens, a traditional defensive wall, led the league in sacks and hadn't allowed a second-half touchdown when New Orleans visited Baltimore for its Oct. 21 game. The Vikings, the league's best defensive team in 2017 in almost every major category – including scoring defense and total defense – had averaged three sacks per game, and were the NFL's best on third-down defense this year when the Saints walked into U.S. Bank Stadium last Sunday.
By the time the games ended, and the Saints' defense either had played their celebrated mirror units to a standstill or had outperformed them in 24-23 and 30-20 road victories, it was clear that New Orleans has no use for paper and reputation.
And six straight wins for New Orleans – 6-1 entering Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Rams (8-0) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – with an improving defense is the result the Saints are looking for.
"The past couple of weeks, we've found ways to make plays when we needed them, and that's big in this league on defense," said defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who had two of the Saints' four sacks against Minnesota. "You're not always going to play a perfect game on defense, you're not always going to shut a team out or do all the things you want to do. But in certain situations, when you can come up with plays that can shift the momentum of a game, that's big for your team."
New Orleans produced at least two such plays against the Vikings, plays that swung momentum and were as attributable to victory as were any plays against Minnesota.
The first, with 71 seconds left in the first half and Minnesota facing first-and-10 from the Saints' 18-yard line, was a fumble caused by linebacker Alex Anzalone which was recovered by cornerback Marshon Lattimore and returned 54 yards. The Vikings picked up a personal foul on the play, and the Saints' offense scored a touchdown on a two-play, 18-yard drive to take a 17-13 lead.
The second, in the third quarter, was an interception returned 45 yards for a touchdown by cornerback P.J. Williams, widening the Saints' league to 27-13.
"The takeaways were outstanding last week," Coach Sean Payton said. "They really were the difference in the game. Prior to the half, the fumble recovery and then the interception return for a touchdown – that's the difference in that game."
They were two of the latest impact plays for a defense that has improved significantly since allowing 48 points and 529 yards to Tampa Bay in the season opener, and 37 points and 407 yards two weeks later to Atlanta.
In the Saints' other five games, they've allowed between 18 (the Browns and Giants) and 23 (Baltimore) points. Overall, New Orleans allows 374.1 yards and 26.1 points per game, both 23rd in the league. The numbers are down to 20.7 points and 352.3 yards in the last three games.
"Our third-down numbers have improved, I've been encouraged with that," Payton said. "We've got to keep working on our red-zone defense. But definitely from last week, the takeaways."
The Saints entered the game with five takeaways and have won every game in which they've forced a turnover. And New Orleans has earned a bit of shine for itself – it has the NFL's best defense against the run, 74.1 yards per game allowed and 3.2 yards allowed per rush.
"It's something we've harped on, since the first day of OTAs," Rankins said. "They put all of last year's stats up and we were able to look at it, and kind of see.
"When you look at what Philly did well, what Minnesota did well – I think Minnesota was the No. 1-ranked run defense, or something like that, and Philly was No. 4 (last year) – they were highly-ranked rush defenses. And then, they were able to get after the passer.
"That's where it starts. If you can keep teams to third-and-7s, third-and-8s, you're able to put yourself in favorable situations and rush the passer, longer-developing routes on the field. It works out better for your defense."
This week, another celebrated defense comes to town. The Rams allow 331.8 yards (eighth fewest) and 19.4 points (sixth fewest), and have 22 sacks (tied for eighth). And it's a star-studded defense, led by defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh and cornerback Marcus Peters.
The background is what the Saints' defense has gotten used to, and where it has learned to get its work done.
"We know all the talk about the Rams defense and what they've been doing on that side of the ball," Rankins said. "But we feel we're just as talented a group as they are, and we look forward to the challenge of being able to come in and not only compete, but try to dominate this game."
APPLE EVALUATION: As expected, with just three days of practice with the Saints under his belt, newly-acquired cornerback Eli Apple had some unevenness in his play against Minnesota. "I thought there were some real good plays and then some plays, obviously, that weren't as good," Payton said. "And so, focusing in on this week – the calls, the technique, at times his technique was off and I think he got himself into trouble – but the things that we can correct.
"He went into the first game not knowing, A, if he was going to be up and playing. We really wanted to see how the week would progress. This will be another good week for him and obviously, a big challenge."