Defensive effort best of season for New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — It has been a long, long time since the New Orleans Saints defense has kept an opponent off the scoreboard.

On Dec. 23, 1995, the Saints under coach Jim Mora blanked the New York Jets 12-0 on a frigid, blustery day at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

To put that day in perspective, know that Bill Clinton was nearing the halfway point of his first term as president; “One Sweet Day,’’ a musical collaboration by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, sat atop the pop charts; and wide-eyed 12-year-old Roman Harper longed for Christmas morning.

That day in history happened 16 years and 51 weeks ago, or 269 games between then and now.

“I probably was looking forward to Santa Claus coming down the chimney,’’ a smiling Harper said shortly after the Saints posted a 41-0 shutout Sunday against the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. “I still get excited about Santa Claus.

“But I can tell you there was no way I was watching the Saints.’’

Suffice it to say, aside from the announced sellout crowd and members of Who Dat Nation everywhere, there probably were few others watching the Saints (6-8) and Buccaneers (6-8) battle for second place in the NFC South.

That said, the Saints’ defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo arguably played its best game Sunday, dominating a fairly potent Buccaneers offense that scored 28 points and amassed 513 total yards in the first meeting, which New Orleans won 35-28 in Week 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

In that first game, Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman threw for 420 yards and four touchdowns and scored a passer rating of 115.2.

On Sunday, Freeman’s passer rating plummeted to 37.5 after throwing for 279 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions.

In that first game, Buccaneers running back Doug Martin accounted for 122 yards from scrimmage (85 rushing, 37 receiving), including a 36-yard touchdown run, and wide receiver Vincent Jackson caught seven passes for 216 yards (long of 95) and one touchdown.

On Sunday, Martin compiled only 35 yards on 12 touches, and Jackson caught six passes for 81 yards with a long of 19.

This is the same Saints defense that has righted a listing ship the past month since yielding points and yards at an alarming clip.

Despite the recent reversal of form, the Saints defense is on pace to set a club record for yielding the most yards in one season. The franchise record is 6,218 yards established during the 1-15 “Baghead’’ season of 1980. The number stands at 6,066 yards going into next Sunday’s road game against the Dallas Cowboys.

“It was more important to get the win today, but we wanted to go for the shutout when we had the opportunity,’’ said Saints cornerback Jabari Greer, who had a career-high two interceptions.

The Buccaneers threatened to score on several occasions, but each time, the Saints turned them away, the last coming as time expired when backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky’s pass fell incomplete to preserve the shutout.

“That was our pride on the line right there at the end,’’ Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “We had played a good game and there was no reason to let up there at the end. We got a lot of guys on this team who have won a lot of games here, and we still want to win.’’

Saints defensive end Will Smith shared Vilma’s sentiment, recalling he was 14 and living in Utica, N.Y., at the time of the Saints’ last shutout.

“Today just shows the type of leadership and type of players that we have here, that even though we were 5-8 coming into the game, that no one has quit,’’ said Smith, who had three tackles, one sack and five quarterback hurries. “No one is going to quit the next two games of the season.

“That’s a compliment to (Saints General Manager) Mickey Loomis and (interim coach) Joe Vitt and (suspended coach) Sean Payton for bringing these type of guys here. Any other team, the guys would probably have packed it in and left.

“The fact that we can go out and still play at a high level, with really nothing to play for, shows the type of people we have here.’’