METAIRIE, La. — Three weeks into Rob Ryan’s first year in New Orleans, the Saints’ defense has done things not seen from defensive unit in these parts in a number of years.
They’re taking the ball away, with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. They’re keeping teams out of the end zone, holding opponents to just 31 points through the first 12 quarters. They’re not allowing yards, ranked fourth in the NFL by giving up just 295.7 per game.
But it’s what they’re getting right now that seems to be jarring. Applause and back-patting and positive stories being written about them.
The key heading into the Saints’ game tonight against Miami (3-0) – indeed, the key for the rest of the season – is finding a way to stay grounded.
“Maybe eliminating the outside distractions, eliminating what we call the noise, is more difficult today than it ever has been because of the amount of coverage and the amount of exposure to the game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
So far, so good.
Though the average age of the defense is 26, the leaders are making sure those players with little experience stay in the present.
“Especially on defense, we have a lot of young guys out there who weren’t here when we had those great teams when we went to the Super Bowl and won 13 games,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, himself only 25 years old. “We’ve been trying to keep everybody hungry and go about work the same way with everything in mind that we want to go out and play our best on Monday and really continue and be great.
“You can’t be the best only in three weeks. You’ve got to do it week in and week out.”
It’s not just the player leaders making sure the team stays grounded. Coaches put pieces of cheese around the defensive meeting rooms this past week, an old trick Payton has used in the past to deliver his message.
“The message is don’t eat the cheese, don’t believe the hype,” Jenkins said. “Like I said, I don’t think anybody has. I think everybody still has a lot to prove. We’ve got a lot of young guys, undrafted guys, guys that have got stuff to prove.”
Added outside linebacker/defensive end Junior Galette, “We’ve just got to keep getting better. We can’t get full and think that we’ve arrived. We’ve got to keep reaching our full potential.”
While the Saints may not be the best after three weeks, they’re certainly playing like one of the best units in the NFL right now. That has as much to with good young talent as it does first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Miami coach Joe Philbin has noticed how those on defense appear on film to be buying into what Ryan has been teaching in his short tenure.
“One thing you see on the tape is they pursue well to the football, their defensive backs are playing well, their pass rush is very, very good, their two ends are playing excellent, and they cover guys down field and they tackle,” Philbin said. “It is kind of good ole’ fashion defense.”
And yet, Galette, speaking for his fellow defenders, said they’re not biting. Week 3, he said, is hardly enough time to know exactly what the Saints defense can be.
“Everybody is saying the defense has been doing so great,” Galette said. “Blah blah. We’re like, we’re hungry. There’s no limit to how good we want to be. We just want to be as best as we can be. I don’t think the third week of the season you can say that we’ve reached our peak.
“That’s the weakness of getting all that credibility of defense doing so good. You can fall into that trap.”