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New Orleans Saints program cover story: A.J. Klein

Veteran linebacker having strong season - just like the defense

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Saints 12 - Carolina 9 (W) New Orleans Saints 2018 Season Michael C. Hebert

A.J. Klein snuck up on you.

You probably didn't know he already has a career high in starts (12) and tackles (58), has tied his high in sacks (two) and interceptions (one), has seven tackles for loss, three passes defensed, three quarterback hits and a fumble recovery (the first of his career) with meat still left on the bone of the regular season.

What you did know is that he helps anchor one of the league's most improved defenses this season, one that had a five-game stretch in which no opponent scored more than 17 points (13 points per game allowed on average), which was the first time the Saints had managed to do that since the 2006 season.

That's all well and good.

Klein is much more interested in where the Saints (12-2) are headed than any of the individual numbers. And the six-year veteran, who spent his first four seasons with Carolina, knows that this season has had a special feel to it.

"I think this one is a little different because I feel like the identity of this team is different," he said. "Every year players change, coaches change. There's always different bits and pieces. So I think every single year, each team has its own identity, so I really can't compare this team to any other one because every year is so different.

"But this year is definitely special, it has that feel, and I think the best part is that we're working on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, on not getting too far ahead of ourselves and just taking every week as it comes. We have high goals, but (Coach) Sean (Payton) and all the coaches have done a great job of keeping us focused on the task at hand, week to week."

That week to week, incremental viewing has been invaluable. Because for three weeks, the Saints were among the worst defenses in the league.

During a 2-1 start, New Orleans allowed 34.3 points – 32 if Tampa Bay's fumble return in the season opener is excluded – and 421 yards per game.

In the next 10 games, the Saints shaved those per-game averages to 18 points and 327.2 yards – a two-touchdown, 94-yard drop per game.

"Early in the season, there's a maturation process for every team and that's no different for us," Klein said. "We kind of went through the same struggles early in the season last year. Early corrections needed to be made after the first three games and after that, things started to click. And as things start to click and you continue to improve, things kind of just start to fall in your favor.

"You can draw parallels between the two seasons, but I just feel like this year feels a little different in general. And I really can't put a finger on it to tell you what it exactly is, but I just give kudos to my teammates and the coaches for being detailed. We had a win streak (10 games, second-longest in franchise history) for a reason and we want to continue that win streak in the playoffs. As we continue winning, it's just guys doing their jobs. It sounds simple, but that's really what it comes down to."

Simple, understated, but effective.

Like the season that Klein and the defense have produced.

"I think that's a testament to the coaches, but also to my teammates," he said. "We've been very dedicated to trying to be more detailed as the season has gone on with our preparation. I feel like we've really taken ownership of the defense.

"When those numbers go up during the meetings of where we rank and how we're performing, everybody takes it a little bit personal, which is a good thing. That feeling out process, the identity of this defense – we have a lot of the same pieces (from last season), but it's still different. I like how we're playing right now and obviously, we have to play well for us to make a run."

So far, the ride has been a blast. The Saints may lead the league in individual and collective celebration.

"It's really fun," Klein said. "(Linebacker) Craig (Robertson) was saying the other day, 'We shouldn't be allowed to have this much fun.' Any time, especially with the defense in general – takeaways and sacks and celebrations – being part of that and that type of energy that the defense has right now, that we play with, is contagious. And if we continue to play with that energy, it's going to continue to pay off.

"It's always fun to sit back and watch Drew (Brees), Alvin (Kamara), Mark (Ingram) and Mike (Thomas) and every guy on the offense do well. It's awesome sitting on the sideline and seeing your offense do well. As long as we can continue to play well all three phases – I know it sounds cliché, but when one side's not doing as well, the other side's got to pick it up. And I feel like we've done that. We've been playing good team football, true team football."

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