Saints defense nearing mark last set in 1981

METAIRIE — It is a team record that has stood for 30 NFL seasons, since the old Baltimore Colts finished 2-14 under Mike McCormack in 1981.

But this record no one wants to have.

Unfortunately, the 2012 New Orleans Saints are on the verge of establishing a league benchmark for most yards allowed in one season. And there is absolutely no reason to think it won’t happen Sunday when the Saints (7-8) close out the regular season against the Carolina Panthers (6-9) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

All the Panthers need is 282 net yards — they average 349.4 per game — and the NFL record will belong to New Orleans.

Fair and square.

The ’81 Colts, whose coaching staff included Saints interim coach Joe Vitt as a strength/quality control assistant, yielded 6,793 yards, or an average of 424.6 yards per game. The Saints’ number stands at 6,512, or 434.1 yards per game, bettering the club-record of 6,218 set by the 1980 1-15 “Baghead’’ team.

The 15-game total by the 2012 Saints reflects the good, bad and ugly under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, from the 0-4 start in September to the 5-1 spurt in Games 5 through 10, to the 2-3 stretch run until now.

“It (stinks),’’ Saints strong safety Roman Harper. “But it is what it is. It’s bad to have your name on that (record). But I’m in the record books, I guess.’’

Truth be told, the Saints defense has played much better the past month, highlighted by a 41-0 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15, the team’s first shutout in 17 years. Two weeks earlier, the NFC South-champion Atlanta Falcons mustered only 283 yards in a 23-13 win at the Georgia Dome.

But those outings by the Saints defense have been the exceptions to the rule.

The Saints had been yielding points and yards at an alarming clip for much of the season, beginning with that 0-4 start that saw the opposition average 32.5 points and 463.3 yards per game. The Panthers contributed mightily to the Saints’ woes in Week 2, winning 35-27 and amassing 463 yards under the direction of versatile quarterback Cam Newton.

“Is it an embarrassment? Yeah,’’ Saints defensive end Will Smith said. “You never want to be last at anything; you always strive to be the best.

“But you don’t worry about it. That’s more of a media thing. We know what kind of guys we have here. We know what kind of (defensive) system we have here. We know that when it becomes the way it needs to be, we’re going to be a defense that can actually win games and not just hold on to games.’’

Case in point: Sunday, the Saints bested the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 in overtime in Arlington, Texas, after squandering a 31-17 lead to hot-handed quarterback Tony Romo in the final three minutes, 35 seconds of regulation. All told, the Cowboys amassed 446 yards, 406 through the air.

“The latter half of the season shows that we have a better understanding of the defense,’’ Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. “But the thing about life and the thing about football is, once something is done, it’s done. You can’t go back and change it.

“At this point all we can do is keep pushing and try to do our best Sunday. What’s done is done. We can’t do anything about it now.’’

In other words, the toothpaste is out of the tube.

Entering Sunday’s game against Carolina, the Saints rank 28th in scoring defense (27.3 points per game), last among 32 teams in total defense (434.1 yards), 29th against the run (139.1 yards) and 31st against the pass (294.9 yards).

On a positive note, the NFL record for most points allowed in a season is safe (’81 Colts, 533). The Saints have allowed 410; the club record is 487 (1980).

“If we were setting the record for giving up the most points, I think that would be more devastating,’’ Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “But you never want to have your name on being the worst at something.

“Our approach to Sunday’s game is go out and play hard and not give up points and see where the cards fall when the clock hits zero.’’

Note

The Saints and quarterback Drew Brees already own the NFL single-season for most offensive yards with 7,474 set in 2011. If Carolina gains at least 282 yards, that would give the Saints the distinction of holding both offensive and defensive NFL single-season yardage records.