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Saints getting tougher on both sides of the ball

Alex Kratman

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 BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer

METAIRIE, La. (AP)—Drew Brees(notes) looked across the line of scrimmage and liked what he saw.

It was the Saints’ defense, trying to make each practice of training camp as miserable as possible for New Orleans’ star quarterback, the offensive line, the running backs and receivers.

Along the way, they all got a little tougher—and better, Brees said.

“It was fun for me to kind of watch those guys develop, watch those guys come together and kind of form that new attitude,” Brees said Monday. “You kind of just saw that culture changing over there. … It was intense and I think in the end what ended up happening was they made us better, and I felt like we made them better.”

At 5-0 and coming off their impressive 48-27 dismantling of the previously unbeaten New York Giants, the Saints look as if they’ve come a long way from the squad that put up gaudy passing numbers but still lost 17 games over the previous two seasons—a team that many defined by the term, “finesse.”

“I think we have had that reputation for the last few years,” Brees said. “We’re trying to get rid of that label because I don’t think it applies.”

Certainly, the Saints can still air it out, as Brees demonstrated with 369 yards passing and four touchdown throws against the Giants on Sunday. Yet the Saints also have outgained opponents on the ground consistently, and their defense has gone from giving up too many big plays last season to making them week after week this season.

The Saints came out of Sunday’s game as the fourth-best rushing team in the NFL, averaging 159.6 yards. They outgained the Giants 133 yards to 84 on the ground.

“That says a lot about the guys that we have up front blocking and the guys that we have running the football,” Brees said. “It says a lot about our defense and their ability to rise to the occasion and defend against a very good rushing offense, a really good offense in general.”

Saints running backs Mike Bell(notes), Pierre Thomas(notes) and Reggie Bush(notes) have combined for 712 yards and seven rushing TDs through the first five games.

The Saints’ defense, which ranked 23rd in 2008 in total yards allowed, has moved into the top 10 under new coordinator Gregg Williams. The unit also has 11 interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Both fumbles came on sacks and both led to touchdowns.

The Saints also have forced two turnovers while covering kicks, both by reserve cornerback Malcolm Jenkins(notes).

New Orleans has a league-leading 15 takeaways, which have led to seven touchdowns and a field goal.

Payton made the hiring of Williams a priority last winter after the Saints missed the playoffs despite leading the league in offense. Williams said one of his goals was to inspire the defense to play with attitude and to try to win every practice.

Williams said he hoped that approach also affected the way the Saints’ offense played, from their focus on protecting the football to the way they block in the running game.

“Our offensive line’s had to defend themselves out in practice,” Williams said. “All of a sudden our offensive line’s pretty nasty. … It’s a habit that you teach every single day. It’s an attitude you teach every single day. I get way too much credit for X’s and O’s.”

Payton said he was not surprised his team was 5-0. The team learned a lot of hard lessons during the past two seasons and is putting that experience to use now, he said.

“What’s important is … looking closely at yourself without dusting it under the rug,” Payton said. “We try to be critical of ourselves and pay close attention to what wins.”

Payton also didn’t want to make too much of the fact that the Saints have played 300 minutes this season without trailing, and have won each game by at least 14 points.

Rather, he wanted to make sure the team is ready for that time when they finally fall behind.

“You’re not going to go 16 weeks the same way that some of our games have unfolded,” Payton said. “We just have to keep working to get better.”

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Saints getting tougher on both sides of the ball