ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The New Orleans Saints defense has taken to something this year following big plays.
Defenders trot to the sideline in a group, find a cluster of photographers, and give them a signal. Then they pose.
These days, unlike anything from the past several seasons, a lot of photos are being snapped.
The Saints (7-2) have won seven in a row, and even though their reinvented offense may be generating more headlines, it’s the defense that makes New Orleans a dangerous contender. As they showed Sunday in their 47-10 demolition of the Buffalo Bills, the Saints have a formula that works well both on the road and in inclement weather.
They can run the ball and dominate the line of scrimmage, and have a young and athletic secondary that is clamping down on receivers.
“I like the way our defense is playing,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said after the game. “I like the way we’re practicing. I like the way we’re taking the field. Whatever gives us this mental edge, that's what we need.”
The Saints rank eighth in total defense (312.3 yards a game) and are in a three-way tie for fifth in scoring defense (18.3 points per game). Just last year, the same unit ranked 27th (375.4) and 31st (28.4) in those categories. Two years ago, New Orleans' defense set a record for the most passing touchdowns allowed in a season with 45.
The latest photo op came midway through the third quarter on Sunday. The Saints were already smothering the Bills with a 21-point lead. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins dropped into coverage, and when Buffalo tight end Charles Clay bobbled a pass, Rankins scooped it out of the air and scampered off for a 27-yard return.
“I had seen that passing concept with the tight end dropping out like that,” Rankins said. “They had done it a couple of plays before. When we got our call, I just figured where I'd be dropping back to, broke on the ball. He bobbled it. I made a play on it, and it was a great day to be me.”
It gave the Saints the ball at the Buffalo 3-yard line. Just one play later, New Orleans punched in another touchdown.
The turnover, and Rankins’ explanation of it, highlights one of the best assets of this defense: The group has gotten better as games have worn on.
Running back LeSean McCoy ran the ball just eight times for 49 yards, with 36 of them coming on one play in Buffalo’s first offensive series.
The Bills gained 57 yards on that first drive and converted a field goal. Then the Saints scored 47 unanswered points. Other than Buffalo's two scoring drives, including a garbage time series led by backup quarterback Nate Peterman in the fourth quarter, the Bills gained only 66 yards the rest of the game.
“It kind of just went downhill – fast,” McCoy said.
It was an utterly dominating performance. The Saints limited Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor to nine completions on 18 attempts for 56 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
New Orleans’ defensive performance was dominant in almost every facet. Coverage down the field was so tight that Taylor completed just one pass to a wide receiver when he was in the game. That was with newly acquired Kelvin Benjamin, who was making his Bills debut.
New Orleans often rolled a safety over the top of Benjamin. And even though safety Kenny Vaccaro was out with a groin injury, the Saints again shut down another attack.
“I knew that Tyrod Taylor would try and scramble, and we pretty much eliminated that,” Jordan said. “Except we got a little hungry on some sacks and he spun out and did exactly what we knew he was going to do. We kept him in the pocket and made him a quarterback.”
In its past four games, New Orleans has yielded just 117.8 passing yards a game.
Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been one of the top players at his position, but P.J. Williams and Ken Crawley have also been instrumental in the defense's development.
New Orleans has a crucial month coming up. The Saints host the Redskins (4-5), and then travel to Los Angeles to face the red-hot, NFC West-leading Rams (7-2). Then a pair of division foes await in the Panthers (6-3) at home and the Falcons (5-4) on the road.
It’s a stretch that could very well determine whether New Orleans can claim its first NFC South crown since 2011.
“I mean, listen, we’re nine games in,” Saints coach Sean Payton said when asked if the Bills victory would send a message to other teams. “No one’s sending messages. We’re just trying to play good football.”