Saints defense trying to solve turnover drought

by Walter Pierce

During the past seven games, the Saints have forced two turnovers - a league low during that span. Now they're trying to figure out what has changed since their first seven games, when they forced 15 turnovers.

Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins

METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has played football for a long time, and it's his experience that forcing turnovers is about goals and priorities.

That's why he thinks New Orleans needs to go back to the way it used to play defense.

During the past seven games, the Saints have forced two turnovers - a league low during that span. Now they're trying to figure out what has changed since their first seven games, when they forced 15 turnovers.

Jenkins reflects back to New Orleans' 2009 defense, which helped the Saints win a Super Bowl while creating 39 turnovers in the regular season and eight in the postseason under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

"We used to emphasize it all the time; we used to eat, sleep and breathe turnovers," Jenkins said. "You look at the defense now and really the only guys that were here from Gregg Williams' time is me and Roman (Harper) and everybody else is new. We can't assume everybody knows the importance of it. ... We're trying to get back to harping it all the time, doing it on every play, holding guys accountable and that way you build that culture back up where it's just second nature."

Coach Sean Payton often holds up the turnover margin as one of the most important indicators of wins and losses.

The Saints won six of their first seven games when the turnovers were flowing, and have lost three of their last seven since the turnover spigot all but turned off.

"We've got to get that fixed," said middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, a defensive captain. "We've got to give more possessions to our offense."

This is a week when New Orleans knows it could really use a few extra possessions. The Saints are on the road - where all four of their losses have come this season. With a win at Carolina, New Orleans would wrap up the NFC South and No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. With a loss, the Saints would fall a game behind the Panthers, and could wind up with a wild-card spot, or even risk missing the playoffs if they also lose to Tampa Bay in Week 17.

When the Saints last faced Carolina in New Orleans two weeks ago, they won 31-13 without forcing a turnover, but did sack Panthers quarterback Cam Newton five times.

"We've been getting the sacks, so you're not getting the tipped throws and the overthrows because you're actually getting the quarterback down. What we have to be more conscious of is it's not good enough just to get the quarterback down," Jenkins said. "You've got to get the ball out. The ball is the most important thing."

Lofton said defenders have been working hard on finding the right balance between tackling fundamentals and going for the strip.

In practice, Lofton said, "Every time there's a runner and someone has to tackle him, someone (else) has to come in and strip the ball."

"You don't want to get away from your fundamentals and just go after the ball," Lofton added. "How we're going to do this is, it's a collective effort."

A lack of turnovers is not the defense's only concern. Running back DeAngelo Williams, along with Newton's scrambling ability, make Carolina a strong running team. The Saints rank 21st against the run after yielding between 127 and 144 yards in each of their last three games.

Containing Newton was the key to New Orleans' success last time and could be again, Harper said.

"You try to corral him and keep him in the pocket as long as you can, and the next thing you know he makes somebody miss and now he's got 40 yards," Harper said.

Yet the Saints don't sound as if they're struggling with confidence, certainly not after their last performance against the Panthers.

"We executed more than they did," Lofton said. "Going into this game, good teams do what they do good. Carolina, they run the ball and Cam makes plays with his arms and his legs. For us, we've got to understand that they're not going to just come out there and line up in the same formations. What we saw last time, they'll throw in a couple of wrinkles and try to switch it up and change it. We've got to be ready."