It was maybe a quarter-and-a-half to two quarters of completeness in the regular-season opener against Houston, not nearly enough to keep the final stats from looking messy but enough to affect the outcome in a 30-28 victory.
Then, it went to about two-and-a-half quarters in the second game, against the Rams, a road loss in which final score, 27-9, didn't totally sync up with the actual eye test, a 13-6 score midway through the third quarter.
A week later, it was three quarters of impressiveness in a 33-27 victory over Seattle. Again, the score wasn't indicative of the full story, in which only a touchdown was allowed in the first three quarters while a 27-7 advantage was forged.
But Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, against Dallas and with a national television audience, the New Orleans Saints defense stitched together the full four quarters that it was seeking. And in a 12-10 victory that kept the Saints (3-1) atop the NFC South Division standings, the defense was exactly what it expected to be entering the season.
Dallas entered the game fourth in the NFL in scoring (32.3 points per game), third in yards (481.3), third in rushing yards (179) and fourth in passing yards (302.3). When New Orleans was done, the Cowboys had 10 points, 257 yards, 45 rushing yards, 212 passing yards and had committed three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception).
The unit that always wants to shoulder the load displayed broad ones against Dallas.
"Very satisfying," safety Vonn Bell said. "We've been wanting this challenge: Put it on us, put it on us. And that's what we did, we stepped up to the challenge and we hit a home run.
"I'm glad to be a part of it, glad to be a part of changing the mind-set and the narrative of the defense. We want to be the reason why we win games, and that's what we did (Sunday) night."
Bell was instrumental in the victory. He forced a fumble, recovered two, defended a pass and had a team-high 10 tackles. The fumble recoveries ended back-to-back Dallas drives in the second quarter, both with the Saints leading 6-3.
On the first recovery, Bell benefited from linebacker A.J. Klein's hustle; after Cowboys tight end Jeremy Witten got past him during a 16-yard catch and run, Klein ran him down from behind and punched the ball loose for Bell to recover.
On the second one, Bell did most of the work. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for two yards on fourth-and-1 from the Cowboys' 43, but Bell made the tackle and stripped out the ball before Elliott was down, giving the Saints possession at the Dallas 44. The Saints converted the possession into a field goal and a 9-3 halftime lead.
"I just saw an opportunity at the ball," Bell said. "I knew he was kind of loose with it earlier when I tackled him and I was trying to go for the ball then.
"My mind-set – our mind-set – on the back end is to just hunt for the ball always. I saw the ball was kind of loose and I just ripped it out and recovered it. I knew it was out. I was just making a play on the ball."
Those plays, and more, allowed New Orleans to keep Dallas in check. In Dallas' scoreless fourth quarter, it never advanced past its 48-yard line and while the Saints registered just one sack (by defensive tackle David Onyemata), there were seven quarterback hits (three by defensive end Marcus Davenport).
"I thought that we hit the quarterback," Coach Sean Payton said Sunday night after the game. "We defended well. I thought that our guys, defensively, that was something else."
It was exactly what the defense thought it could do during training camp, and had done during the regular season, but not as completely as it did Sunday night.
“We just wanted to put all four quarters together, because we’ve been playing good halves and good quarters here and there,” Bell said. "But we just wanted to put things together. And that's what we did, we played a complete game together.
"It was simple. (Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) gave us a mission. He told us to swarm (No.) 21 (Elliott), affect No. 4 (quarterback Dak Prescott) with disguising coverages and (allow) no explosives. And that's what we did. We went out there and executed the game plan and we went out there flying around and made plays."
Check out the best action shots from the Saints in Week 4 as they host the Dallas Cowboys at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.