The Saints went into training camp looking for improvement from a defense that hasn't exactly carried its weight the last two seasons, and came out of it with some hope that things might be different this year.
While the Saints had a little trouble stopping the run in one exhibition game, coach Jim Haslett was encouraged by the fact that they were able to keep other teams from scoring as they did over the final 12 games of an 8-8 campaign in 2003.
After allowing 119 points in their first four games a year ago, the Saints gave up just 207 in the final 12 contests. Points allowed were also down in the first three exhibition games when the starters were on the field as they allowed just one touchdown.
"The big thing, the positive thing, is that we've been on the field for 38 series, and we've given up two touchdowns and seven field goals," Haslett said going into the team's exhibition finale with the Miami Dolphins. "To me, we're keeping points off the board."
That would be a starting point for this year's team although stopping the run has been a point of emphasis as well this summer.
The Saints ranked 27th in rushing yards allowed last season and reducing the average of 4.7 yards per rush to about 3.7 or 3.5 yards per carry will go a long way to getting them to where they want to be this season.
Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi is both optimistic and cautious as he talks about his unit's prospects for catching up to the team's explosive offense.
The optimism is based on how the defense improved as last season wore on and many of his injured players returned.
In addition to standouts like defensive ends Darren Howard and Charles Grant, weak side linebacker Derrick Rodgers and cornerback Fred Thomas, the Saints have added several key ingredients to the group. The list includes defensive tackle Brian Young, defensive end Will Smith, middle linebacker Courtney Watson and cornerback Jason Craft.
While yardage is important to Venturi, the thing that counts most to him is the number in the points allowed column. And he knows his defense must continue the improvement it showed after a rocky start last year.
"The last 11 weeks of the regular season we gave up 17 points per game, which would have ranked you fifth," Venturi said. "And in the last month we gave up 12 (points per game), which would have been right at the top. So hopefully, we can pick up from where we left off and not restart it."
But he and his players know they have to stop the run if they expect to have a chance of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
"We need to stop the run," said Howard, who was tagged as the Saints' franchise player this off-season. "That's one of the keys that we've been working on in the offseason and training camp, keeping guys in the right gaps and making sure everybody is in the place they're supposed to be.
"I think that's where we need to improve the most," he said. "If we take care of that, everything else will take care of itself."
Jim Haslett, 5th year, 5th with Saints (35-31).
2003 record: 8-8 (2nd in NFC South).
2004 regular-season record: 9-7 (2nd in NFC South, lose in first round of playoffs).
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