Curtis Lofton is the Saints’ man in the middle

Curtis Lofton has rarely left the field this season for the Saints defense.

Why would he?

After all, the middle linebacker is doing what he always knew he could do here and had done elsewhere in the NFL. He’s accomplishing it all as part of a resurgent Saints defense, solidifying his reasoning for departing the Atlanta Falcons two offseasons ago for their NFC South rival.

Lofton’s journey to become the man in the middle of the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense has included plenty of trials, tribulations and tackles. Last season’s unit ended a 7-9 campaign as the leakiest defense in league history, allowing a record amount of yardage. It cost coordinator Steve Spagnuolo his job and created plenty of doubt about the franchise’s immediate future.

Such doubt has receded. The turnaround has occurred with many of the same players — save for cornerback Keenan Lewis, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and healthy linebacker David Hawthorne. That made the winning ways even sweeter.

The Saints are 10-3 entering Sunday’s game at St. Louis (5-8), and Lofton is enjoying the ride.

“I knew we were going to have something special,” he said of the 2013 defense, headed by new coordinator Rob Ryan. “In my mind, I already knew I made the right decision, but just the way we’ve played all year, it kind of solidified all the naysayers that were (deriding me for leaving Atlanta).”

Outside of defensive end Cameron Jordan (team-high 11.5 sacks), there may not be a Saints defender playing as well or as consistently as Lofton, who’s now in his sixth NFL season. Tough against the run and more than capable on passing downs, Lofton’s career-high 108 tackles lead the team. He has four double-digit tackle games this season, including 10 during Sunday’s 31-13 win against Carolina.

“I think Curtis is playing at a Pro Bowl level,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said before the Saints’ 17-13 win at the Georgia Dome.

Solid. Far from flashy yet consistent. One of his favorite attributes has been his ability to line up the defense and make the players around him better.

“He’s a good tackler,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There is not a lot of leaky yardage. He’s thick. He’s strong. He has good instincts on gamedays. ... He has good leadership skills, and I think he’s distinctively a good inside linebacker.”

Lofton’s next challenge is St. Louis and its 19th-ranked offense. While the Rams started the season slow, their offense has averaged 141.9 rushing yards since Week 5, second-most in the league. Running back Zac Stacy (721 yards) ranks second among rookies in rushing, and Benny Cunningham (263) is averaging 6.0 yards a carry.

Lofton, in his second season with the Saints, prides himself in consistency. Whether it be last season’s defensive disaster playing in the 4-3 or this season’s 3-4 hybrid scheme (which the Saints switched to under Ryan), he expects to perform.

It starts with taking care of his body: eating right, staying at his playing weight, undergoing regular massages and dry needle treatments and the ever-unpopular cold tubs — all an effort to shake off the previous game’s big collisions.

It continues with film study, which allows Lofton to see what moves running backs like to make in the open field days before they try to make them against him.

It ends on gameday, where the preparation allows him to just play — every defensive down.

To him, being in position is different than being in position to hit.

“I’ve been an every-down linebacker since my second year in the league. So for me, it’s kind of like what I expected,” said Lofton, who believes his performances during four seasons in Atlanta were unfairly criticized during free agency.

“When all that stuff came out about me being a first- and second-down linebacker, it was just to drive my (free agent) price down. It was very frustrating because, once you get a label like that, it’s what everybody thinks. I feel like I had to go out and prove them wrong, and I feel like I’ve done a great job of doing that so far.”