Getting ready for an opponent that has cornered the market on turning takeaways into points, the Saints are making inroads of their own.
When they visit Chicago on Sunday, they will be well aware that the Bears have forced an NFL-high 14 turnovers through four games and scored a league-best 53 points off them. A year ago, the Bears converted 44 turnovers into 137 points, ranking first in both categories then, too.
But Chicago may need to be just as worried. Opponents have scored 28 points off nine Bears turnovers, and Miami learned the hard way Monday night what happens to teams who give the ball back to New Orleans.
The Dolphins outgained the Saints 224-204 in the first half and outrushed them 96-10 but still trailed 21-10 after two quarters in what became a 38-17 rout. The difference was New Orleans’ two takeaways and the touchdowns that followed.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton stripped quarterback Ryan Tannehill on a scramble early in the second quarter, and safety Rafael Bush recovered at the 38. Seven plays later, the Saints were in the end zone on a pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham.
Cornerback Jabari Greer jumped a route, picked off a Tannehill pass and returned it to the Miami 23 right after the two-minute warning. Brees needed four plays to convert that turnover into a touchdown, hitting Darren Sproles for a 13-yard catch-and-run to the end zone.
Just like that, New Orleans led 21-10 and dominated the rest of the way.
“That’s been really instrumental in our success,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Every time we get a turnover, we give Drew another opportunity to score, and that skyrockets our chances of winning the game. That’s something we preach all the time and something we need to continue to do.”
Jenkins started the trend in the season-opening nail-biter against Atlanta, separating Falcons receiver Julio Jones from the ball and watching as teammate Roman Harper returned it to the Falcons’ 31.
Brees quickly threw a 25-yard touchdown strike to Marques Colston as the Saints tied the score at 10.
Turnovers seem to mean just about everything in the NFL, but they carry even more significance to the Saints, who feel they are unbeatable if they get the ball back to Brees.
The 10 turnovers New Orleans has forced are on pace with the franchise record of 39 in the Super Bowl-winning season of 2009. The Saints have scored four touchdowns and kicked a field goal off them, and the numbers would be even better if three of the takeaways had not come late in the fourth quarter, allowing them to run out the clock.
Darren Sproles fumbled at the Miami 3 after the Saints intercepted Tannehill in the fourth quarter.
The only truly empty possession after the 10 turnovers was a punt against Tampa Bay after Jenkins returned an interception to the Bucs’ 39.
With the way New Orleans and Chicago capitalize on turnovers, taking care of the ball will be paramount.
“That’s been proven,” tackle Zach Strief said. “I think that holds up over every year of professional football ever played. It is by far the biggest individual stat in any game. If you open up the newspaper and look at the turnover ratio, if there’s a plus or minus on one side or the other, you’re good assuming that team won.
“It’s a point of emphasis every week, but when you’re playing a team as good at it as they are, it’s something that you talk about more.”
When Brees threw a pick-six against Tampa Bay in Week 2, New Orleans needed a last-second field goal to survive. Dismal defense was the primary reason for the Saints’ slide to 7-9 last season, but his league-high 19 interceptions (tied with Dallas’ Tony Romo) were a factor, too.
For the Saints to improve their 0-3 record in Chicago under coach Sean Payton, Brees knows he needs to avoid those mistakes. In his mind, turnover margin is the most important stat in football.
“The percentages as you look at it when you are plus-one, plus-two, plus- three in the turnover ratio in regards to how often you win are astronomical,” he said. “I think plus-one makes you a 70 percent winner. Plus-three is like 93 percent or something ridiculous. It’s a huge stat.”