Saints Hoping Bye Week Pays Dividends
The defending champion New Orleans Saints have demonstrated that they can defend with the best in the NFL this season.
If coach Sean Payton's offense regains its prolific form of the past four years, the Big Easy could find itself gearing up for another round of Lombardi Gras, as post Super Bowl celebrations around here have become known.
The Saints went into their bye this week riding a two-game winning streak and confident that things would only get better with rest and the likelihood of getting some key players - notably Reggie Bush - back from injury.
"This bye week is coming at a perfect time,'' said Bush, who has missed seven games since fracturing a bone in his lower right leg in Week 2 at San Francisco.
Bush expects to play when the Saints (6-3) return next week at home against Seattle and Bush's old college coach at USC, Pete Carroll.
While Payton gave players off Wednesday through Sunday to do as they pleased, Bush asserted, "I'm not going anywhere.'' The running back and punt returner said he would continue rehabilitation in preparation for coming back at full speed against the Seahawks.
"I've been out of it for a little bit and it's time to get back to football,'' Bush said. "Time to get back to doing what I love to do and that's just going out there and making plays.''
Pierre Thomas, who was the Saints' leading rusher last season and showed a knack for turning screens into big gains, has missed six games since spraining his left ankle. It is not yet clear when he'll return, but Payton expressed optimism that his return could come soon after the bye as well.
"I'm optimistic that Pierre will be able to (practice) next week as well, but I would say that Reggie's a little further ahead of him,'' Payton said.
The Saints entered the bye week trailing the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons by only a half-game for the top record in the NFC.
"We're in position to fulfill our goals,'' fullback Heath Evans said. "We've got to get hot at the right time. We've got to continue to build on what we've done the last couple weeks. ... Championship teams step up in November and December and we'll find out if we're one.''
Even without Bush and Thomas, the Saints have shown signs of regaining their stride offensively during the past month, beating Tampa Bay by 25 points, Pittsburgh by 10 and Carolina by 31.
After an up-and-down 4-3 start that included several narrow escapes against struggling teams, successive double-digit wins over Pittsburgh and Carolina offered the first real proof this season that New Orleans could play well against different types of opponents in consecutive weeks.
"We've worked hard, especially these last two weeks, to come into this bye week at 6-3,'' quarterback Drew Brees said. "That was a big emphasis for us.''
The Saints are now seventh in the NFL in total offense, averaging 369.9 yards per game, and 14th in scoring at 22.3 points per game. Those numbers are somewhat pedestrian compared to last season, when they averaged 403.8 yards and 31.9 points, best in the league in both categories.
New Orleans may not be able to match that pace this season, but may not have to because of improvements on defense.
New Orleans ranked third in defense through Week 9, allowing 277 yards per game, down by 80 yards per game from 2009. Despite injuries that sidelined several key defensive backs such as Tracy Porter, Jabari Greer and Darren Sharper, New Orleans leads the NFL in pass defense.
Versatile second-year pro Malcolm Jenkins has been a big reason for that, filling in effectively at free safety, cornerback and nickel back as needed.
"All of our defensive stats have improved except turnovers,'' Jenkins said. "We haven't forced as many turnovers as we would like, but at the same time we're playing well so it's kind of bittersweet. We're keeping points off the board.''
The Saints have six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries so far, leaving them behind their pace of 39 takeaways (26 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries) for the 2009 regular season.
Yet even that could be turning around. Porter, who intercepted Brett Favre in last season's NFC title game and then did the same to Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl, only returned to the lineup in Week 9 at Carolina after missing a month with a left knee injury. Greer also returned against the Panthers and returned an interception for a touchdown.
Sharper, who missed the first six games, had a fumble recovery in his second game back and caused a fumble with a big hit in his third game back.
Safety Roman Harper said the Saints are eager to see what they can do with most of their play makers back on both sides of the ball.
"We had some ups and downs all year. We go into the bye winning two games straight, getting some confidence going. We're getting healthier at the right time - a lot healthier than we have been,'' Harper said. "It's going to allow us to make a lot more explosive plays. It's going to be fun when we come back. We got to get ready to make a run at it.''