Why New Orleans Saints Defense Will Continue to Improve Heading into Playoffs

Zayne GranthamContributor IIIDecember 16, 2011

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13:  Jacquizz Rodgers #22 of the Atlanta Falcons fails to catch a third down pass against Jabari Greer #33 of the New Orleans Saints and Jonathan Casillas #52 defend at Georgia Dome on November 13, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons would go on to kick a field goal.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints defense is highly underestimated.

Most people around the league look at the stats, see where the Saints defense is ranked, and then write it off as a bad defense. We've heard it all this year. The Saints allow too many big plays. They don't force turnovers. They can't stop the running game. They don't know how to tackle. They are dirty players.

The complaints go on and on, but the truth is that the Saints defense is actually playing well, especially in the past month of football.

Gregg Williams and Sean Payton never expected their defense to be a top-five-type defense. In fact, last year when the defense finished fourth in total yards the Saints were one and done in the playoffs. In 2009, the Saints' defense was ranked 25th and they won a Super Bowl.

Payton and the Saints do not need a top-five, or even top-10, defense to win. They want their defense to bring pressure and force turnovers. They play the prototypical bend-but-don't-break style of defense.

In these last few games, the defense has stepped up and made big plays when the Saints need it most. It has even proved it can win games when the offense comes up short.

Last week against the Tennessee Titans, the Saints defense came up with a huge stop on fourth-and-inches to give the offense the ball back with a little more than two minutes. The Saints ended up punting to the Titans and they drove down the field on the defense. The Saints secondary gave up a few big pass plays, but when it counted most, Jo-Lonn Dunbar forced a sack and ended the game.

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 13:  Michael Turner #33 of the Atlanta Falcons is stopped short on fourth down in overtime by Malcolm Jenkins #27 and the New Orleans Saints at Georgia Dome on November 13, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  The fourth down stop set up a ga
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In Week 10, the defense stopped Michael Turner and the Falcons on a fourth-and-short in overtime. The stop allowed John Kasay and the Saints to kick the game-winning field goal a few plays later.

This Saints defense has forced the Detroit Lions, New York Giants and Tennessee Titans to fewer points than they have averaged all year.

The running defense of the Saints has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since Steven Jackson in Week 8. That is impressive considering they have played backs like Michael Turner, Chris Johnson and Brandon Jacobs in that time span.

This defense has improved since the beginning of the year and even more so in the last month and a half of football. The Saints are only allowing 22 points a game, which is good enough for 17th in the NFL. The great thing is the Saints defense only needs to be average for New Orleans to succeed.

The Saints defense is playing Minnesota this week and should dominate the Vikings in both the run and pass. A Monday night game against the Falcons is next on the schedule and the Saints will be looking to redeem themselves defensively in that game. They close the season out against Carolina at home and they can contain Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and that young Panthers roster. 

All three of these are potential games in which the Saints defense can gain confidence in itself in time for the playoffs. The run defense of the Saints is good and getting much better. Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin are finally starting to play like the Saints expected them to all year and the defensive ends are beginning to pressure the quarterback more.

The linebackers of the Saints have done much better recently. This is a young and athletic group of linebackers, led by one of the best middle linebackers in the game in Jonathan Vilma. Vilma has been injured some recently and it is noticeable what his presence on the field does for this corps. He will have them ready for these next three games and the playoffs.

The secondary may be one of the most talented in the country, but it has the unfortunate task of playing a lot of prevent defense. Teams opposing the Saints are often in catch-up mode and throwing the ball a lot. This obviously affects the defensive backs and shows in the stats as well. This secondary has played well at times, but does give up too many big plays. If it can start to eradicate the big plays, this group may become a strength for the Saints very quickly.

Williams and the defense knows what it does well and what needs to be improved. These next three games will serve as showcases to the NFL that the New Orleans Saints can play defense. 

This is a defense that has as much talent as any team in the NFL. It is young, aggressive and hungry. The Saints defense has improved drastically since the beginning of the year, and it will continue to improve heading into the NFL playoffs.