Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
METAIRIE, La. – When the Saints jettisoned Gary Gibbs following the 2008 season, one of the reasons was clear to anyone watching New Orleans’ professional football team play defense.
The unit couldn’t get the ball away from opponents, coming up with just 22 takeaways in 2008, Gibbs’ final season as defensive coordinator.
As New Orleans (4-1) heads into a key NFC South showdown at Tampa Bay (3-2) on Sunday at 3:15 p.m., the Saints have seemingly taken a step back towards irrelevance in the turnover game.
The Saints have only four takeaways in 2011, second fewest in the league and ahead of only Miami and Pittsburgh, who both have only two takeaways.
That’s a far cry from 2009, when the Saints won the Super Bowl, buoyed by a defense that came up with takeaways when it needed to. New Orleans was second in the NFL that season with 39 takeaways – 17 more than a season earlier – and a plus-11 turnover margin.
“Ultimately, in 2009 we caught them,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. “We caught the balls. That’s something we’re focusing on now.”
Greer is one of only two players on the Saints’ defense to come up with an interception through New Orleans’ first five games. Fellow cornerback Patrick Robinson has the other two.
The Saints are getting their hands on passes this season; Robinson dropped a sure interception near the end zone in New Orleans’ 30-27 win over Carolina shortly before the Panthers scored a touchdown.
Greer, safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Scott Shanle all have had their hands on passes that should have been intercepted.
Meanwhile, the Saints offense hasn’t helped with turnover margin. Marques Colston and Mark Ingram both have lost fumbles while quarterback Drew Brees has thrown five interceptions.
While the Saints are winning now, the question is, will the number of turnovers eventually catch up to the Saints?
Coach Sean Payton isn’t sure but certainly hopes the Saints can turn things around.
“I don’t know,” Payton said. “I think the overall percentages, you’re wanting to put yourself in the percentages that lead you to success rather than the exception. … “Certainly we remember the margin in ’09 and we understand it can be the difference and it can win games for you. It’s something we’re working on and working to improve.”
In 2006, the Saints had 19 takeaways and still made the NFC championship game, an exception. In 2007, New Orleans had 23 takeaways and only 22 in 2008.
It’s looking like 2009 will be the exception during Gregg Williams’ tenure with the Saints. In 2010, New Orleans had only 25 takeaways, putting them in the middle of the NFL.
Greer, for one, thinks the Saints are close to turning things around.
“You want to be able to catch the ball,” Greer said. “You want to be able to cause a turnover when your team needs it. And you focus. I think you’ll see improvement.”