Saints put focus on forcing more turnovers

They haven’t forced a turnover in the past three games

“When you have eight guys as opposed to three guys around the ball, the runner is more concerned about ball security, and that increases our chances of getting the ball out.” Junior Galette, Saints linebacker

Population to the football.

That has been the Saints’ mantra leading up to Sunday’s potential winner-take-all showdown with the Carolina Panthers, the NFC South co-leaders.

First-year Saints coordinator Rob Ryan is urging his defense to play a serious game of takeaway at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., knowing their NFC playoff seeding could depend on it.

With 17 takeaways against 17 giveaways, the Saints are 15th in the NFL in turnover differential at zero. They are plus-5 at home (12 takeaways, seven giveaways) and minus-5 on the road (five, 10).

After collecting 15 takeaways during their 6-1 start, the Saints have produced just two while going 4-3 in their past seven games: an interception against San Francisco in Week 11 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and a fumble recovery against Atlanta in Week 12 at the Georgia Dome.

“We’ve been talking about (getting turnovers), but we just haven’t been getting it done much,’’ Ryan said Friday. “You get tired as the season goes along, and maybe that emphasis (on turnovers) wasn’t made enough or it hasn’t been made enough.

“We’ve really been emphasizing it this week, and everybody’s been buying in. We’ve just got to capitalize on it. We’re doing everything we can as players and coaches to get that turned around, and it will this week.’’

Much has been made of the disparity in the Saints’ home and road performance — with good reason. They are 7-0 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome compared to 3-4 away from it, including 1-4 in their past five games after a devastating 27-16 loss Sunday at St. Louis.

In the Superdome, the Saints are averaging 32.9 points and allowing 15.4 points per game. On the road, they’re scoring 18.4 and giving up 23.1. Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown 23 of his 34 touchdowns while posting a 122.5 passer rating at home. On the road, he has thrown seven of his 10 interceptions and has an 86.3 rating.

“In 2009, when we won Super Bowl XLIV, we were plus-7 in the turnover margin just in the playoffs,’’ free safety Malcolm Jenkins said of their three-game postseason run, which produced eight takeaways and one giveaway. “To get where we want to go this season, for us to end up in the show, our defense has got to be able to force turnovers.

“We used to eat, sleep and breathe turnovers when (defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams was here. But we got a lot of young guys now. When you look at our defense now, other than me and Roman (Harper), everybody else is new. You can’t assume everybody understands the importance of turnovers. That’s why we’re back harping on it all the time this week.’’

The Saints have forced only five takeaways in 440 plays from scrimmage on the road — an average of one every 88 plays. In their past five road games, they have forced just two takeaways in 330 plays from scrimmage — one every 165 plays.

“As players, we think turnovers are just going to happen, but nothing just happens in this league,’’ Saints inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “You got to practice it. With an offense like we have, the more possessions they get, the more points they’re going to put up.

“We are stressing takeaways in practice this week. We’re doing drills that emphasize taking the ball away, punching the ball out from running backs. But we got to take it from practice and bring it to the field on game day.’’

Though the Saints rank among the NFL sack leaders with 43, they have created few sack-related fumbles this season (three) and fumbles in general (seven).

“We got to get more population to the ball,’’ rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “More contact on the runner forces fumbles. We understand that. We know it’s a big deal for us to get takeaways and set up our offense for great field position and great momentum. It’s something we got to get corrected if we’re going to take it the distance.’’

Outside linebacker Junior Galette, who has a career-high nine sacks and two fumble recoveries, agreed.

“We’ve got to get back to our roots with everybody running to the ball,” he said. “When you have eight guys as opposed to three guys around the ball, the runner is more concerned about ball security, and that increases our chances of getting the ball out.”

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said the defensive players have one focus.

“Takeaways — that’s the name of the game on defense,” he said. “You always want takeaways. We know we’re going against some tough running backs this week and some receivers who can take it the distance on any play. We can’t get down on ourselves. We just got to get it fixed.”