New Orleans defense posts quite a turnaround

Saints defense most improved since AFL-NFL merger in 1970

Yes, New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis knows his team has at least one more game left this season.

But Lewis is already anticipating just how much better a much-improved 2013 Saints defense will be in 2014 in its second season under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

“It’s scary how good we will be next year,” Lewis said.

If Year 1 under Ryan is any indication, perhaps Lewis is right.

The New Orleans defense finished the best turnaround since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 on Sunday in a 42-17 victory over Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints allowed 290 yards to the Buccaneers to finish the regular season giving up an average of 305.7 yards per game.

Not bad for a team that gave up 440.1 yards per game a season ago. The 134.4 yard per game improvement surpasses the 97.9 yard per game improvement from 1997 to 1998 by the Oakland Raiders.

“It’s a hand full of things,” said Saints coach Sean Payton about the resurgence. “I think getting Rob in here and bringing that change with that enthusiasm and the rest of the coaches on that side of the ball. And we had a few pieces that we were able to add. There is an ownership to it now. Players are believing what they are doing and feel good about what they are doing. … That confidence becomes contagious.”

The Saints, who will be the No. 6 seed in the playoffs and thus won’t play another home game, punctuated the regular season with another solid showing in the Dome.

No team scored more than 20 points against the Saints on Poydras Street. Only San Francisco reached the 20-point mark. And no team scored more than two touchdowns against the Saints at home.

Tampa Bay looked to threaten that early, scoring on a flea flicker on its first possession of the game when Tiquan Underwood hauled in a 49-yard pass from Mike Glennon.

“We gave up the one big play early, but we got over that,” safety Roman Harper said. “After that we settled in. Overall, you have to like the effort and that mentality early in the game.”

Tampa Bay finished with just 75 yards rushing. The Bucs, having to play catch-up for most of the game, only ran the ball 18 times.

“When our offense plays as fast as they were playing today, it makes it easier defensively,” Harper said. “When we make teams more one-dimensional like that, we have success.”

Harper led the defense with eight tackles. Linebacker Junior Galette had a pair of sacks. Curtis Lofton and Rafael Bush had three pass deflections and Lewis had an interception.

It was the fourth interception of the season for Lewis, who said he was snubbed when he was not selected to the Pro Bowl. But the New Orleans native, in his first season with his hometown team, said he would much rather play in the Super Bowl than the Pro Bowl.

That journey for Lewis and the Saints begins next week.

“Everybody is 0 and 0,” Lewis said. “It’s time to get ready for the party. (Next week) is a closer to step to the big party, which is the Super Bowl.”

The Saints would have to win three road games to make it to the big game in New York on the first Sunday in February. The road hasn’t been kind this season for the Saints, 3-5 away from the Dome. They gave up 26.8 points per game in those losses.

Can the defense take a showing like Sunday’s on the road for three straight weeks?

“We have to,” Harper said. “Right now, it’s a single-elimination tournament.”