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Red-zone defense a hot-button issue for streaking New Orleans Saints

Team has won seven straight, but wants to improve in that area


If you thought New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton would be taking a victory lap Monday, the day after New Orleans (7-1) won its seventh straight game and handed the Rams (8-1) their first loss in a 45-35 decision in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, well, your thinking has to be realigned.

The win was nice.

It kept the Saints atop the NFC South Division, assured them of the tiebreak advantage if they and the Rams wind up with identical records, and added to the league-wide respect that they've earned during the NFL's longest current winning streak.

But the Saints are at the midpoint of the regular season. There are no rose petals lining the streets to the practice facility at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center. There are no homecoming-game-type breaks on the schedule.

Five of the remaining eight games are against teams that currently are in first or second place in their respective divisions (at Cincinnati, home against Philadelphia, home against Pittsburgh and home and away against Carolina), and two of the other three games are against NFC South rivals (home against Atlanta and at Tampa Bay).

So, yes, Coach Sean Payton noted several positives that stood out for the Saints against the Rams, in addition to those to which he alluded on Sunday after the game.

"Our first- and second-down efficiency was real good," he said. "When we got to third downs, we converted (seven of 12). We converted two fourth downs. We were able to score the touchdowns we needed in the red area (five of five in the red zone), and make enough big plays in the passing game.

"I thought we blocked them well up front. I thought our protection was good and our running game was good. Up front, we did a good job against a pretty good run front."

And he said that cornerback P.J. Williams had a strong showing. Williams, who had consecutive pass breakups on third and fourth down of the Rams' final offensive possession, has three pass breakups, a tackle for loss and six tackles in the game.

"He had a good game," Payton said. "Obviously, he played a lot of snaps – we were almost 100 percent nickel. Three linebackers played in the game. P.J., I thought, had a good game, with a lot of responsibilities relative to what he was seeing."

But the sore spot is the Saints' red zone defense.

New Orleans currently is 28th in red zone defense, with opponents scoring touchdowns 71.4 percent of the time that they reach the red zone against the Saints. The number jumps to 80 percent on the road, and they are numbers that Payton significantly wants to see shaved.

"We still have to improve our red zone defense," he said. "That's the one area that's bothering me, relative to where we're at. We're almost at the bottom of the league. That's an area that has to get better for us to have success as a team.

"When a team's inside the 15, just finding ways to force more field goals. The touchdown efficiency number that we're on right now is absurdly high."

High enough that, at the midpoint of the season, with his team being the hottest team in the league, Payton was more concerned with the future of that than with the success of the previous nine weeks.

"No halfway reports cards or any of that," he said. "None of that. The point is though – it's a good point – there's eight games left. A ton of football left, there's a ton of things that we have to improve on, and we need to improve on or it's going to hurt us later.

"I mentioned one of them – red-zone defense. That has to get better. Those numbers – you can't find any team having success later in the season with the numbers that we currently have. We've got to find a way to improve that.

"The average … (71) percent of the time you enter our red zone, you're scoring a touchdown. That's not good. That's not good."

Check out more of the game action from the New Orleans Saints Week 9 game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, Nov. 4.

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