Now that’s more like it! The Saints looked down for the count after gagging away the game against the Detroit Lions two weeks ago, but back-to-back wins against the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers have put them at an even 4-4 record and vaulted them into first place atop the NFC South. Perhaps most importantly, their victory over the Panthers came on the road and they no longer have that hanging over their head.
There are two reasons for this quick turnaround. The first is the sudden improvement of the defense. After getting shredded for most of the first half of the season, they have finally started to resemble the Saints defense from last season over the past three games (the end of the Lions game not withstanding). Rob Ryan looks to have changed his strategy since the bye week. The Saints are being a lot more selective in blitzing and using more zone coverage. They have generated more turnovers as a result – they had just two takeaways in the five games before the bye and seven in the three games since.
The secondary has been able to overcome the loss of Jairus Byrd thanks to the positive play of Rafael Bush. Third-year defensive back Corey White has come up with a couple of big, momentum changing plays. He intercepted Cam Newton Thursday night to stop the Panthers as they were driving into Saints territory and also deflected an Aaron Rodgers pass to give David Hawthorne a chance for a pick when the Packers were about to take the lead in the second half. That’s a good sequence of events for White. Opposing quarterbacks have been targeting him all season, so he’ll need to make them pay for it. The well-timed blitzes combined with the defensive line finally getting the push up front has led to more sacks and inaccurate passes by the opposing quarterbacks. Cam Jordan looks like himself again, putting up three sacks over the last two games after just one in the first six. If the defense can keep playing at this level, it will lead to good things down the road.
The second reason is the return of Mark Ingram. Ingram looked like he was headed for a breakout campaign before a broken hand sidelined him after week two. He had a lackluster first game back against the Lions, running for only 16 yards on 10 carries, but he quickly returned to form. His 174 yard and 100 yard performances against the Packers and Panthers made him the first Saints running back since Deuce McAllister in 2006 to record back-to-back 100-plus yard games. With Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson currently nursing injuries, Ingram could not have come back at a better time. The Saints running attack could be really scary once it’s at full strength again.
Adding to the sense of optimism is the Saints’ remaining schedule. It may look a bit intimidating with all of the good opponents ahead, but there is no reason to fret over that. The Saints will play four of their next five games in the Superdome, a welcome sight after not playing consecutive home games to this point. The last three road games don’t seem so intimidating now that they finally broke their road losing streak. The Steelers will almost certainly be a challenge, but they should be able to handle the struggling (to put it nicely) Buccaneers while the Bears have yet to win a home game this season.
There are still areas the Saints can improve in. Drew Brees needs to stop turning the ball over. I know not all of the turnovers have been his fault, but it would still be good to take better care of the ball considering the Saints’ poor turnover margin. Brees could also use a little more help from his offensive line. While they have generally done a good job in pass protection, there have been games like Thursday where Brees was under duress a bit too much.
Things are looking up for New Orleans sports. Hopefully it stays that way.