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New Orleans Saints red zone defense has risen to NFL's top spot

'It's not cliche for us. It's a way of life. Defend every blade of grass. We take it personal'

The New Orleans Saints take on the Washington Football Team in Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season on October 10, 2021.
The New Orleans Saints take on the Washington Football Team in Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season on October 10, 2021.

It's not that the New Orleans Saints defense has been impenetrable. Through five games it allowed 18.2 points per game, third-fewest in the NFL and a worthy testament to stinginess, but not totally a wall of perfection.

But if opponents have wanted to score touchdowns against New Orleans, 3-2 entering a Monday night game against the Seahawks (2-4) at Lumen Field in Seattle, they've had to do so from a distance. Because once it gets close, the Saints have been closer to perfect than any other NFL team.

New Orleans leads the league in red zone defense – five touchdowns allowed on 14 opponents' trips inside their 20-yard line, a miserly 35.7 percent. By contrast, last season, opponents scored touchdowns 65.5 percent of the time they reached the red zone against the Saints, 29th overall in the league.

Don't think it hasn't been noted.

"That's an interesting number," linebacker Demario Davis said, smiling, when asked if 35.7 percent meant anything to him. "That would have to be a third-down percentage or a red-zone percentage. We're talking situational football, I know both of them are kind of close.

"It's just attention to detail and chasing excellence. And so, we're never looking at areas where we're really doing good. Of course, we want the team to build on those but it's the areas that we're striving for that we need to clean up, and that was one of the big ones. And so, it's attention to detail.

"And I think, 'A,' we're doing an incredible job of preventing them from getting down there a lot. And then when teams do get down there, they're not able to get into a rhythm because they haven't been down there that much. It's kind of playing hand-in-hand.

"Coach (Sean) Payton makes an emphasis on it – offensively, we want to be at the top of the league in that category in scoring percentage, and defensive scoring percentage, we want to be at the top of the league in that, too. And when you have that the way that we do, it can bode for success down the line."

New Orleans even was successful in the red zone in one of its losses, the 27-21, overtime defeat to the Giants. New York was 1 for 3 in the red zone, but scored touchdowns on two long scoring passes.

But by and large, the Saints have done some bending, but very little breaking on defense near the goal line.

"Generally speaking, you have to handle the running game and you have to tackle well," Payton said. "It's a shorter, smaller area.

"I think teams that are efficient and effective in the red zone offensively have a balance and they're able to run the ball, and a 3-yard gain is a good gain. Conversely, we talk all the time about third down in the red zone and getting off the field. That's a four-point play.

"So ultimately, if you look at a red zone stop, and let's say an opponent kicks a field goal, there's probably been at least one third down defensed. And if you look at a red zone score, offensively – not always – but you've probably had to convert a third down. So there's a few different elements there."

There also have been occasions when the Saints haven't allowed anything.

With Green Bay facing second-and-7 from the Saints' 9-yard line in the opener, rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo intercepted Aaron Rodgers' pass at the 7 and returned it 33 yards, to the 40. And Adebo is responsible for another red-zone pick against Washington; on second-and-7 from the 16, he intercepted Taylor Heinicke at the 2.

Cornerback Marshon Lattimore also intercepted a pass at the 2 against New England, but it didn't register as a red-zone stop because the Patriots were facing fourth-and-10 from the 25.

"It's not cliché for us," Davis said. "It's a way of life. Defend every blade of grass. We take it personal. ...

"We don't want them to get a first down, let alone move down the field. And then when they get in the red zone, they're not in yet. Even if you get down to the 4-yard line, or you get all the way down to the 1-yard line, we have a mentality: You're not in, and we don't want you to get in. That's the sacred territory.

"I think we understand two things. D.A. (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) hits on it all the time: The real ones and the fake ones show up in the red zone. And we've got a bunch of real ones on our side. And so we take that personal, and have a little added to our swagger down there.

"And then, understanding we can get them in a third-down situation, that's a four-point play. And so, not letting them convert on third down and forcing that field goal, I think that's the mentality of being well-coached and having really good players that can execute."

WELCOME BACK: Several Saints returned to practice from injured reserve Thursday. Among the returnees were kicker Wil Lutz, linebacker Kwon Alexander, receiver Tre'Quan Smith, defensive end Marcus Davenport, tight end Nick Vannett, linebacker Chase Hansen and cornerback Ken Crawley. Also, returning from injury absences were left tackle Terron Armstead and center Erik McCoy. Armstead (elbow) and McCoy (calf) practiced on a limited basis, but the other returnees practiced full. Among those who missed practice were receiver Deonte Harris (hamstring) and quarterback Taysom Hill (concussion).

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