This is written in a whisper, so as not to disturb or draw attention, but…the New Orleans Saints' defense is improving.
Perhaps, that's not the most popular narrative entering Sunday's game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Perhaps, it's not even expected after a season-opening onslaught applied by Tampa Bay in a 48-40 victory by the Buccaneers: 529 yards, including 417 passing, with a third-down conversion rate of 62 percent (eight of 13) and a siren-blaring 8.5 yards allowed per play and seven pass plays of at least 20 yards.
But while New Orleans (4-1) totally won't lay claim to having gotten its act together, the digestible facts are that the Saints have allowed 23 points per game during their four-game winning streak – including 19 or less three times – and lead the league against the run, at 71.4 yards and 3.1 yards per carry.
The 287.5 passing yards per game, and seven touchdowns versus two interceptions in the last four games, is swelled by Matt Ryan's 374 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions, in the Saints' 43-37 overtime win in Atlanta. In the other three games, the Saints allowed 259 passing yards per game and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
New Orleans isn't near where it wants to be defensively, but it appears to have found the path. And the process has been reminiscent of the not-so-distant past.
"We stayed the course, I think, the same reason we got better last year," said defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who has two sacks, four tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and 13 tackles. "After the first two games last year, people were writing us off, saying 'Same old Saints, it's going to be another 7-9 year.' But we trust our coaches, we trust in each other as players.
"We go to work every day with each other, we have each other's backs and that's what matters out there on the field, going out there playing for one another and being accountable for your brother. Playing for the man next to you and just going out there and competing. I think we've done that since Game 1. Obviously, we didn't start the season the way we wanted to against Tampa, but each week we've improved and continued to show flashes the defense we think we can be."
Two factors have helped.
First, communication has improved. That issue was glaring in the season opener and still arises from time to time, but not to the degree with which it was present in early September.
Second, simplification has helped.
"We bought in, everything jelled together, we're playing for one another," said safety Vonn Bell, the Saints' second-leading tackler with 27. Bell also has two passes defensed and a tackle for loss. "That's first off. And we've been practicing better, because it always starts with practice, and it carries over to the game.
"We're playing fast, keeping everything simple – go out there, read your keys, get lined up and just go out there and fly around and have fun.
"Just keeping everything simple. You don't want your guys thinking too much, so they can play fast. And that's what we did. (Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) D.A. did a great job, the coaches, of getting us in situations just playing fast and going out there and having fun."
Quietly, without much fanfare, they managed to turn it around and produce their best games in the last two victories. If it continues, conversation about the Saints defense will become a lot less quiet.