METAIRIE — Luck, it’s been said, is the residue of design.
But then again, sometimes good stuff just happens.
Either way, the beleaguered Saints defense will take positive plays anyway they can, especially when it involves the pass rush.
After recording only six sacks in their first four games, bottoming out with only a single hurry against Green Bay, the Saints came up with five sacks in a 31-24 win over San Diego on Oct. 7, with a game-clinching strip and recovery by Martez Wilson on the last one.
“A lot of things went our way that night,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said Wednesday. “San Diego gave us a lot of protections we were looking for, and we took advantage of it. We’re looking forward to seeing if we can do it again this week, schematically speaking.”
Certainly the Saints didn’t rest of their modest defensive laurels during their bye week. For one thing, there’s not a lot of satisfaction in being ranked last in the NFL in total defense and 30th in points allowed. For another, the open date presented an opportunity for self study.
What that self-study revealed, among other things, was that part of the Saints’ ineffectiveness was caused by opponents seldom finding themselves in third-and-long situations.
En route to 30 first downs, the Packers faced third down only eight times, converting four. The Chargers were in the same spot 12 times, converting four, including just one of five in the second half.
Wilson’s sack, strip and recovery came on third-and-10. Before that, Roman Harper’s interception came on third-and-18, that situation caused by a second-and-10 sack by Junior Galette.
“Before, it seemed like we were never getting anybody in anything but third-and-2 or third-and-4,” Galette said. “We’ve got to get it to that third-and-5-plus.
“When it’s short yardage, they’ve got more options and you’re indecisive. But when it’s third-and-6-plus, then you can pin your ears back.”
Of course, that will take doing better against the run. The Saints defense is 30th in the league in rushing yards per attempt allowed at 6.4.
In their 38-10 victory against Kansas City last week, the Buccaneers rushed for a season-high 148 yards (6.0 per play).
“That can’t be lost on us,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said of Tampa Bay’s running game against the Chiefs. “That’s a team that really wants to run the football.”
When the Saints are in pass rush situations, they’re likely to be bringing more than the four down linemen. One of the five sacks against the Chargers was thanks to an up-the-middle charge by linebacker Curtis Lofton.
That doesn’t mean a return to the blitz-happy days of Gregg Williams, but do look for more variations starting Sunday. Opponents have sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman just eight times, the fifth-lowest total allowed in the league. Spagnuolo credited Freeman’s play-action ability.
“We’re definitely switching things up more,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to just be four all the time.”
It also helps to have Will Smith still in the lineup.
Smith has managed to remain active while appealing his four-game suspension in the bounty scandal. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is scheduled to hear Smith’s final appeal, along with that of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, next week.
“Will’s our leader,” Wilson said “He comes in to work every day and gets it done.
“We know it’s been very stressful on him, but nobody talks about it. We just hope he keeps appealing and winning the whole way out.”
Defensive end Turk McBride, who missed the Chargers game with an ankle injury, was back at full speed on Wednesday, adding more depth to the pass rush positions.
But, Spagnuolo added, one successful game, actually more like one successful half, does not necessarily mean the Saints have turned a defensive corner.
“Quite honestly, none of us have been happy about where we’re at,” he said. “We believe in our scheme, but I’m always evaluating not only the players and the scheme, but my play-calling.”
Jordan said he believes the defense is getting there, especially with the pass rush.
“We’re doing what we’ve done every week,” he said. “That’s putting the emphasis on the D-line as a whole and on the D-linemen as individuals.
“Everybody has his own pass-rushing ability. So they’re just trying to utilize what everybody can do.”