The New Orleans Saints received a fair amount of criticism early in the 2014 season for fielding a defense that hasn't quite lived up to expectations.
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's unit ranked fourth in the NFL a season ago in total defense (305.7 yards per game allowed) and added free-agent safety Jairus Byrd and second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste during the offseason.
However, Jean-Baptiste has been a non-factor, and Byrd suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October. As a group, the Saints defense has allowed an average of 390.4 yards per game (28th in the NFL) in 2014.
Through the first few weeks of the season, it appeared that the defense would unquestionably be the biggest weakness New Orleans would have to overcome. A 2-4 record to start the season did nothing to ease such concerns.
New Orleans is averaging 28.4 points per game, but it means nothing if the defense cannot stop the opponent.
Two wins later and the Saints are sitting at 4-4 and in first place in the NFC South. The team has played more efficient football, and, perhaps most importantly, the defense has found ways to step up.
Make no mistake. The Saints defense is still far from elite. However, it has been opportunistic and has come up big in critical situations.
Against the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the Saints defense surrendered 491 net yards of offense and allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to pass for 418 yards and a score. However, the defense also forced three turnovers and limited the Packers to 23 points.
Rodgers was sacked four times and picked off twice.
Green Bay was held to a field goal three separate times while in scoring position. The Packers were held to seven points in the second half, which allowed New Orleans to open things up with four touchdowns over the final two quarters.
The Saints defense was even more impressive on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers in a game that determined first place within the division.
While the defense gave up yardage in lieu of points against Green Bay, it smothered the Panthers. Carolina was held to just 231 net offensive yards in the contest and zero first-half points. This proved to be huge, as the Saints mustered only a touchdown in the first 29 minutes of the contest.
After committing a pair of first-half turnovers, the Saints needed their defense to step up. It did.
The defense kept New Orleans in the game when the offense was struggling, and helped seal it once Drew Brees and Co. were able to put some points on the board. It also forced two turnovers and prevented Panthers quarterback Cam Newton from ever getting into a rhythm.
Newton finished the game 10-of-28 for 151 yards and an interception.
The key against Carolina was bringing pressure on Newton (four sacks) yet having enough discipline to keep him from getting outside the pocket. Newton did rush for 43 yards and a touchdown but rarely found enough space to look downfield and deliver a strike.
In the end, he simply couldn't make enough plays to keep pace with the Saints' persistent offense. Coming away with a road win against the Panthers may have also saved the Saints' season.
Give Ryan a ton of credit for coming up with a sound game plan against a dangerous opponent the past two weeks. Credit the players even more for executing on the field.
The Packers were allowed to gain yards, but not points. Newton was allowed to run, but not make big plays. Again, New Orleans is on a two-game winning streak and in sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
The Saints face a brutal upcoming schedule, with games against the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers looming. If the defense falters in the coming month, the entire narrative will be rewritten.
For the time being, however, the Saints have proved that they can do enough on defense to win critical matchups. After all, yards and statistics don't matter. Outscoring your opponents does, and the defense has allowed the Saints to do exactly that over the past two weeks.