Byrd vital to Saints' turnover crusade

METAIRIE, La. -- It's hard to picture any back surgery being "minor." Especially when the guy going under the knife is such a major part of the New Orleans Saints' plans.

But Saints coach Sean Payton sounded confident that safety Jairus Byrd will be fully healed in time for training camp and the start of the regular season -- stressing that they wouldn't have done the surgery if they didn't think the timetable made sense.

Hopefully that's the case, for the Saints' sake. Because Byrd is the centerpiece of their biggest push on defense this offseason -- to force more turnovers.

The Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal on the first day of free agency because of his prowess as a ball hawk. Byrd's 22 interceptions over the past five years with the Buffalo Bills ranked second in the NFL. And the three-time Pro Bowler also forced 11 fumbles during that stretch.

The Saints' defense was outstanding last year under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, ranking fourth in the NFL in yards allowed and points allowed and second in pass defense. However, they came up virtually empty when it came to forcing turnovers.

The Saints forced only four turnovers over the final 11 games of last season, including zero in two playoff games.

"That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense," Ryan said. "I think the effort was outstanding, our players are outstanding, we did pretty decent as a unit. But we want to be great. And to be great, you have to take the ball away."

It's been a huge priority for the Saints this offseason -- starting with the acquisition of players like Byrd and cornerback Champ Bailey. And it has clearly carried over to the practice field.

Defensive players were constantly trying to strip the ball away during Thursday's OTA session that was open to the media. Safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste each forced a fumble by knocking the ball away from receivers during full-team drills. And Bailey forced an interception by batting the ball free from receiver Kenny Stills and into the arms of linebacker Kyle Knox.

Ryan said coaches have been showing players highlight reels of longtime Chicago Bears standout defensive back Charles "Peanut" Tillman -- one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers over the past decade.

"He was a Ragin' Cajun, wasn't he [at Louisiana-Lafayette]? I like that there," Ryan said of Tillman. "He's great to watch, so we've been trying to imitate him. Imitation is the biggest form of flattery.

"So we enjoy doing that. We're working hard on that. We know we have to improve on that. Seattle won the Super Bowl; they took the ball away more than anybody. They raised the bar, so we have to match it."

Saints outside linebacker Victor Butler -- another new weapon at their disposal now that he has returned from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season -- said players are fired up about forcing turnovers.

"That's the great thing about Coach Ryan and about the guys here," said Butler, who followed Ryan from the Dallas Cowboys to New Orleans. "When Coach Ryan says something is important, guys take it to heart. We've had guys attacking the ball, punching the ball out, ripping the ball out, stripping it, going up for interceptions, picking up loose balls on the ground.

"If you emphasize it that much in OTAs and camps and stuff like that, when it gets to the season, now it's second nature. Guys are going for the ball, guys are creating those turnovers and getting Drew Brees and that offense as many opportunities to score points as we can."