Rabalais: We’re seeing flashes of that Super Saints team

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis celebrates his interception, intended for Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd, with safety Kenny Vaccaro in the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis celebrates his interception, intended for Cardinals wide receiver Michael Floyd, with safety Kenny Vaccaro in the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013.

In the bottom of his locker, New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis stashed away the football he intercepted late in Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, a birthday gift for his mother.

What did she ask for as a present, anyway?

“An interception,” Lewis replied.

To that, Saints fans everywhere can only say, “Thanks, mom.” Not just for Lewis’ pick, which with 4½ minutes left was frankly just a cosmetic touch on New Orleans’ 31-7 dismantling of the Cardinals, but for what it represents about this Saints team and this Saints defense.

This is a franchise that has built its success under Sean Payton with an offense that pulls virtually all of its power through Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame-worthy right arm.

Sunday’s game was another spectacular performance for No. 9, a 342-yard, three-touchdown passing performance that was abetted by a 7-yard touchdown scramble that made the black-and-gold faithful love him all the more.

But it’s always defense that is drawn to a fan base’s bosom more than anything else. Who was more beloved: Terry Bradshaw or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” defense?

This Saints defense has given the faithful a lot to be infatuated with. Through three games, it’s been the gift that keeps on taking away.

Let’s face it: Brees is usually brilliant, but except for that last-minute sprint down Tampa Bay’s soggy field last week, he was pedestrian most of the day. It was New Orleans’ defense that was the hero for the first 59 minutes of that 16-14 victory. It was also the Saints defense that came up with the heroic last stand against Atlanta — albeit after it allowed the Falcons to storm downfield and get within a tipped pass away from victory in a 23-17 decision.

The point is, the Saints held against Atlanta. Last season, they were usually holding nothing but air.

For a club with so many dismal moments, it’s saying something that last year’s defense surrendered an NFL record 7,042 yards.

That version of the Saints defense seems as old and out of date as the iPhone 4 now. This version of the Saints defense is state-of-the-art, easily one of the biggest stories of the young 2013 season and the biggest reason New Orleans is 3-0 for the first time since a certain Super Bowl-winning season four years ago.

There is a different vibe to the way the Saints are playing defense this season compared to that year. Thank goodness. That Saints defense played to force the turnover and make the big hit. As it turned out, it was style predicated on the Bountygate scheming of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

This Saints defense isn’t trying to knock you out — just remove your options to move the football and score points. It isn’t death by sledgehammer, but by boa constrictor.

As was the case against Atlanta, the Saints gave up an easy looking early touchdown against Arizona. But after that first drive roar it was crickets the rest of the way for the Cardinals.

Their next 10 possessions: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, interception, interception. Not even Patrick Peterson’s occasional forays onto offense or Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu’s first career pick could alter what became an inevitable outcome for Arizona.

What makes the Saints’ defensive success sound even more like some implausible football movie script being filmed in New Orleans is the players the Saints have lost on defense. Five defenders, including starters like nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley and safety Roman Harper, were inactive Sunday. Tack on the linebackers who were expected to be preseason starters like Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, and it’s truly a wonder that this Saints defense isn’t spinning backward on roller skates as it was last year.

Then again, maybe what’s working for the defense this year is the alchemy of Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 scheme and the talent of the players on the field.

Players like defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette. Their relentless pressure, usually without benefit of extra blitzing bodies, has given the Saints linebackers and particularly their secondary the chance to have the right players in position to shut down the pass.

“Getting pressure, four-man pressure, is the best thing we’ve had,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I think I’ve made one open field tackle so far. That’s a complete difference from last year.”

So is the way the Saints defense is playing. So is the story of this 3-0 start, so different from the one the Saints had in 2009.