It’s all about time for Sean Payton and the Saints

Time of possession is one of the most maligned statistics in football. With the rise of up-tempo, no-huddle offenses, it’s common to hear the phrase, “It’s not how long you have the ball; it’s what you do with it when you have it.”

Don’t try that line on Saints coach Sean Payton.

New Orleans leads the NFL in time of possession heading into Sunday’s game at New England. The Saints have kept the ball for an average of 34 minutes, 37 seconds through their first five games — almost a minute and a half more than the second-place team.

Given that, in Payton’s mind, it’s no coincidence the Saints are 5-0.

“It’s an important statistic,” he said. “We talked a lot in the offseason about playing complementary football and understanding what that means. Part of that is possessing the football. If you’re efficient with your plays and you’re winning on third downs, you stay on the field. If you turn the ball over conversely, then all of a sudden that possession time kicks in the other team’s favor. It’s protecting the ball, getting the job done on third down and getting off the field defensively, so there’s a lot of things that factor into it.”

In Payton’s tenure, it’s hard to dispute the importance of time of possession. When the Saints reached the NFC Championship game in 2006, his first year, they finished third in time of possession. When they went 13-3 in 2011, they were fifth. They finished a solid 11th in their Super Bowl season of 2009, when the defense scored eight touchdowns and kept having to go back onto the field.

Last year? Without Payton and with a defense that gave up more yards than any team in NFL history, they were 26th, their only time in the bottom half of that category since Payton arrived.

On the surface, the Saints being ball hogs this year is odd because they have bogged down on the ground, ranking near the bottom of the league in rushing offense at 77.8 yards per game. Take the three categories Payton emphasized, though, and the reasons become clear.

New Orleans has committed only five turnovers, tied for third-fewest in the league. The Saints have converted 43.5 percent of their third downs, the seventh-best figure in the NFL, and the defense is limiting opponents to 35.7 percent on third-down conversions, which ranks ninth.

“That’s definitely unique, not doing it with a consistent run game,” guard Jahri Evans said. “Coach Payton and Drew (Brees), they have those timing routes where he gets the ball out quick, and the short throws actually go for big gains, so we are just trying to stay on the field and keep converting. That’s what we’re doing, and your confidence starts to go up because you’re staying on the field.”

The success goes hand in hand.

“We’re doing a great job, especially early in the game, of getting three-and-outs or getting shortened drives,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “And then our offense does a great job of sustaining drives, winning on third down. ... That continues to eat up the clock and keep the ball in Drew’s hands.”

The Saints likely will need that same formula against New England. Quarterback Tom Brady has not put up his usual stratospheric numbers, but the Patriots (4-1) are stinging from a 13-6 loss to Cincinnati and will want to atone for that performance.

The best way to beat New England in Foxborough, Mass, where the Patriots are 31-3 in the regular season since 2009, is to keep Brady off the field.

“Third-down defense is one of the most critical stats in the NFL,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “As a defender, you have to be able to be successful to determine the outcome of the game. We have a big challenge this week. If we can get off the field on third down, that will be a big plus for us.”

Greer said he did not feel fresher after spending less time on the field, but linebacker Junior Galette said the extra sideline time would benefit the defense the rest of the way.

“We’ve played about 100 fewer snaps this year up to this point than we did last year,” he said. “That’s about two games’ worth. It’s going to keep guys healthy.”

New Orleans has controlled the clock in the fourth quarter, too, running more effectively then than in the first three quarters. During the fourth quarter in the past three weeks, the Saints killed 5:39 with a 12-play drive that ended in a field goal for a 26-10 lead against Chicago, kicked a field goal after a drive that lasted 6:33 against Miami and scored a touchdown after taking 6:31 off the clock against Arizona.

“Especially late in the game, if you can run some of the time off, you are going to give them less opportunity to rally at the end,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “That is the number one stat that we talk about — time of possession — and that’s how you finish the game.”