Who took away Saints' takeaways?

METAIRIE, La. -- They say turnovers come in bunches. Well, the New Orleans Saints are overdue for their next bunch.

The Saints (9-3) have forced only two turnovers over the past five games. They had 15 takeaways during the first seven games of the season. Since, they've dropped from ninth to 20th in the NFL rankings in that category.

"I don't know specifically," Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked if there's any reason for the drought. "We've had our opportunities. We've had our hands on a handful of balls. Hopefully they come and we get a clump of them this weekend."

Turnovers on both sides of the ball will be as critical as ever against the Carolina Panthers (9-3) on Sunday night. The Panthers are tied for second in the NFL with 26 takeaways this year (one behind the Seattle Seahawks).

The Panthers are plus-10 overall in turnover ratio this year (16 giveaways). The Saints are plus-3 (14 giveaways).

"I think that statistic is important," Payton said. "I think that protecting the quarterback and affecting the quarterback is going to be a key element. It's an important game, and I think when you look at, I mentioned third down, I mentioned the turnovers, those are all things that are going to really point to the team that wins."

The Saints felt the same way going into Seattle this past Monday night, knowing they'd be facing such a stifling and opportunistic defense. And sure enough, the biggest play of the game came when quarterback Drew Brees was sacked in the first quarter, forcing a fumble that was returned 22 yards for a Seahawks touchdown. Seattle won the turnover battle 1-0 and won the game 34-7.

The Saints missed two opportunities for turnovers on the Seahawks' first two drives in that game -- which could have altered the momentum. Safety Kenny Vaccaro forced a fumble against running back Marshawn Lynch in the first quarter inside the red zone, but the Seahawks recovered and kicked a field goal. Then on the next drive, cornerback Corey White had both hands on a potential interception, but he dropped it when his butt hit the ground hard. And Seattle went on to score a touchdown.

"Takeaways can change the game," said Vaccaro, who admitted the Saints want that recent trend to end. "They might be killing you, but if you look at the end of the game, the turnover ratio is what really matters at the end. So that could have changed the whole complexion of the game."

The Saints defense has continued to create opportunities. Their sack totals haven't slowed down much (3.4 per game in the first seven games, 2.8 per game over the past five). That's a key number since pressure on the quarterback is what usually leads to takeaways, whether they be sack-fumbles or interceptions.

Of course, Vaccaro said sometimes it's the opposite case, since the quarterback is on the ground instead of throwing picks.

Asked what the Saints could do differently, Vaccaro said, "I mean, you gotta finish plays."

"It's not like we didn't force them [against Seattle]. We had the opportunities in the game. So it's not like we're not even getting the opportunities," Vaccaro said. "We've gotta get on the fumble, and we've gotta make the catch. But I think we've been doing good all year. ... The way we play, turnovers will come."