Defense keys Saints' turnaround

The turnaround of the Saints defense has keyed their six-game win streak John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News via AP

After losing their first two games of the season, the New Orleans Saints have won six straight games.

In the Super Bowl era, they're the third team to compile a six-game win streak immediately following an 0-2 start. In a promising portent, both other teams went on to win the Super Bowl that season (2007 Giants and 1993 Cowboys).

The stardom of Drew Brees has often carried the Saints for the past decade. But this season, their defensive production has been invaluable, going from 30th in expected points added last season to 13th in 2017, thanks to a strong performance during the six-game win streak.

The turnaround

Since Week 3, the Saints have allowed a league-best 26.5 Total QBR and the second-fewest yards per play (4.5). They’ve held opponents to 17 points or fewer in five of their past six games, including three straight, and they’ve forced 12 turnovers over the past six games.

The pass defense has been particularly stout, cutting its yards per attempt allowed from 11.2 in the first two games to 5.3 in the past six games. The Saints have more than doubled their sack percentage from 4 percent to nearly 9 percent, thanks in part to a blitz percentage that has jumped from 27 percent to 42 percent.

The rookies

Rookie impact has been huge for the Saints this season. They rank second in the NFL in offensive and defensive snaps by rookies.

On the defensive side, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, drafted No. 11 overall out of Ohio State, has a forced fumble, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and six pass breakups. Since at least 2001, he is the only rookie to have reached those figures in each of those categories in the first half of a season.

Marcus Williams has started all eight games for the Saints, mostly at free safety. He’s part of a secondary that’s done better defending the deep pass compared to last season.

In 2016, they surrendered eight touchdowns on throws 20-plus yards downfield; only the Browns (nine) and Packers (12) allowed more. Through the first eight games of 2017, the Saints have allowed a 36 percent completion rate (it was 46 percent through the first eight games of 2016) and one touchdown pass on throws of that length.

The Saints already have as many interceptions in 2017 (nine) as they did in 2016.

Jordan rules

Defensive end Cameron Jordan has seven sacks in eight games, nearly matching his 2016 total of 7.5, and on his way to topping his career high of 12.5 sacks in 2013. With 25 tackles, he’s also on pace to surpass his personal best of 41 in 2012.

They’ve caught a couple of breaks

The Saints have been fortunate in that they’ve been in favorable situations related to opposing quarterbacks. They faced Brett Hundley and not Aaron Rodgers when they played the Packers, and they got the Buccaneers on a day when Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Jameis Winston in the second half, because of Winston’s shoulder injury.

Over the next three games, the Saints will see two quarterbacks who rank in the Top 10 in Total QBR: Kirk Cousins of the Redskins (eighth) and Jared Goff of the Rams (10th). This week, New Orleans visits the Bills and Tyrod Taylor (18th).