Defense starting to make Saints scary

The Saints' defense limited Detroit's leading receiver, Calvin Johnson, to just six catches for 69 yards. AP Photo/Bill Feig

NEW ORLEANS -- We’ve known for quite some time that the New Orleans Saints’ offense could probably score enough to stay with an NBA team if it needed to. Defense, though, hasn’t exactly been a strong point during the Sean Payton era.

Heck, you get the idea the coach only uses a defense because it’s required. You can’t fault him, because running an offense the way a smart kid would play a video game has brought New Orleans far more wins than losses through the years.

But it was the defense that was largely responsible for Sunday night’s 31-17 victory against the Detroit Lions at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Sure, Drew Brees (342 passing yards and three touchdowns) worked his usual magic and the offense put up the usual big numbers (tight end Jimmy Graham became the first tight end in franchise history to have 1,000 receiving yards in a season). But the defense, which has been known to give up some yardage and points, played perhaps its best game of the season.

Yeah, the Saints only allowed seven points in a win against the Colts and 10 in a victory against the Jaguars. But those were the Colts and the Jaguars. The Lions have a real offense (see Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson).

“(Johnson) can take over a game,’’ Payton said. “And the quarterback (Stafford) is playing with confidence.’’

Sure, Stafford put up 408 passing yards and it’s not often you can say a defense played a good game when it gives up 400 passing yards. However, the New Orleans defense did play well. Stafford only threw for one touchdown and Johnson was limited to six catches for 69 yards. Holding Detroit to 17 points is more than respectable.

“That was a big part of the game plan,’’ cornerback Tracy Porter said. “We created population around him and were able to minimize the damage he can do.’’

The New Orleans defense was particularly good early on. Johnson had just two catches for 19 yards in the first half, and the Lions didn’t score until there were 2 minutes, 28 seconds left in the first half. New Orleans went into halftime with a 24-7 lead. The Lions got back into the game with 10 unanswered points in the third quarter, but never scored again.

“Some of those stops on third down early in the game were pivotal and we were able to get a lead,’’ Payton said. “In that second half when that momentum swung a little bit, we got a key score and then a key stop defensively. All in all, it was a good hard-fought win. We have a ton of respect for that team we just played.’’

They should, because the Lions have a good offense and the Saints are going to see more good offenses down the line, especially if they get into the playoffs, which seems pretty much automatic at this point.

The Saints improved to 9-3 and clinched their third straight winning season. And they're going to need more games like this from their defense.

Let’s be brutally honest, the Saints are never going to have a great defense that can shut teams down all the time. That’s not the way coordinator Gregg Williams plays. His emphasis is more on being opportunistic, creating turnovers and making some big stops when needed. That’s what the Saints did against the Lions. That’s also what the Saints did in the 2009 season when they won the Super Bowl. They regressed defensively in 2010 and that’s part of the reason why they were bounced in their first playoff game.

Up until the Detroit game, the current defense has played more like the 2010 unit than the 2009 group. But this game might end up being a turning point. It was no coincidence that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned after missing four games with a knee injury. Vilma led the Saints with 10 tackles.

“He’s the guy that runs the show,’’ free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Our other guys did a really good job filling in for him, but it’s a lot easier when he’s in their making the calls.’’

The Saints were able to pressure Stafford. He was sacked three times and hurried five others. The Saints did a good job containing the running game as well: the Lions finished with 87 net yards on the ground.

“Three and out is just as good as a turnover,’’ said Porter, who created New Orleans’ only turnover of the night with a fourth-quarter interception.

As Porter and Jenkins chatted in front of their lockers before meeting with the media, they talked about how the Saints should have had more interceptions. They started with two passes that went off Jenkins’ hands. Then, they started doing some more math.

By the time they were done, the conclusion was the Saints should have had five more interceptions.

“It wasn’t perfect,’’ Payton said. “There’s a handful of things we’ve got to get corrected to get to where we want to go to. But we’ve got time to do that.’’

Where the Saints want to go is the Super Bowl. Even with all their offense, the Saints are going to need some help from their defense down the road. Getting some stops and keeping Johnson under 100 yards and out of the end zone was very good.

Keep doing that and add some turnovers and the Saints could be really scary in the playoffs. Speaking of the playoffs, it’s looking at the moment like the unbeaten Green Bay Packers are the team to beat in the NFC.

But don’t hand the Packers the NFC title just yet. The Saints could have something to say about it before all is said and done. They went up to Lambeau Field for the season opener and took the Packers down to the last play of the game before losing.

Like the Saints, the Packers score points in bunches. But Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been dominant. The Saints have improved on defense since the opener.

If they can keep doing the good things they have recently and improve on those handful of things Payton talked about, the Saints might be able to slow the Packers enough to win -- if they end up meeting down the road.