Wounded defense still finds answers

An overachieving Saints defense, patched together because of injuries, is preparing to play San Francisco on Sunday with another lineup Band-Aid.

Rookie strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (concussion) is expected to sit out. If free safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) misses another game, the Saints will be without their primary starters on the last line of defense.

Roman Harper (knee) has played only in the season-opening win against Atlanta and the following week at Tampa Bay — leaving his starting duties to Vaccaro, who is now expected to leave them to Isa Abdul-Quddus. Jenkins has been replaced for the past two games by Rafael Bush.

Despite these setbacks, the Saints defense enters Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a seventh-overall ranking, including third against the pass (199.9 yards per game).

“These guys have beaten us the last two times, and it has become more personal in a lot of senses,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said of the 49ers.

Only Houston (166.6) and Seattle (178.0) are better against the pass.

The Saints have a chance to end their losing streak to San Francisco (6-3), which is coming off a 10-9 loss to Carolina (6-3).

The Panthers trail the Saints (7-2) by one game in the NFC South.

It can happen if Drew Brees avoids the two interceptions he threw during last season’s 31-21 loss — including two that were returned for touchdowns — and the defense continues to perform like it did against Dallas.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo finished the 49-17 Saints rout with 128 yards and one score, easily his worst performance of the season. The Cowboys finished with 193 total yards, the lowest a Saints defense has held an opponent to since 2006 against the New York Giants (142).

Perhaps the most telling statistic: While trailing most of the game, Dallas was halted on every third down (0-for-9).

You can call the Saints defense the Winning Wounded.

“Every once in a while, you find yourself on the good end. And sometimes, you find yourself every once in a while on the bad end,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “But you hope when your career is done, you have more experiences on the good end.”

Ironically, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired last season in Dallas because of his defense’s issues after a myriad of injuries late in the year. After Sunday’s win against Dallas, owner Jerry Jones admitted that firing Ryan was a mistake. He’s had not such problems here in New Orleans, where last season’s unit, which set a NFL mark for defensive futility, has performed with many of the same players.

Until now, most of the defense’s injuries have occurred elsewhere. Outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler were out for the season before the season. The same goes for defensive end Kenyon Coleman. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley has missed four games because of injury, and defensive end Cameron Jordan has played through an ankle injury.

At inside linebacker, Jonathan Vilma returned from short-term injured reserve to play in a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets, only to return to injured reserve, a move that may end his career in New Orleans.

On Sunday, Ramon Humber started next to inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and regular starter David Hawthorne played just 10 snaps.