In the Saints’ first organized team activity open to reporters this summer, rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Batiste slapped the ball out of receiver Andy Tanner’s hands after he made a catch.
A few minutes later, safety Rafael Bush stripped Marques Colston as he tried to run with a reception.
Non-contact, late-May OTA workouts are not the best predictors of the future, but the Saints would love to carry that ball-hawking style into the 2014 season. Although the defense improved dramatically in yards allowed under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, finishing fourth in the NFL a year after giving up the most yards in league history, it plummeted to the bottom of the NFL in turnovers forced.
Well, almost. New Orleans ranked 29th of 32 teams with 19 takeaways — seven fewer than 2012 and the fewest in the NFC. That total was less than half of the 39 league-leading Seattle racked up while clinching homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs on its way to winning the Super Bowl.
The story did not change in the postseason. The Saints forced no turnovers in their win at Philadelphia and loss at Seattle.
“That was a glaring weakness last year on our defense,” Ryan said. “We did pretty decent as a unit, but we want to be great. And to be great, you have to take the ball away. We identified that. We presented it to our defense.”
They did more than just talk about it. They went out and signed free agent safety Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler who had 22 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries in five seasons with Buffalo. His nine interceptions as a rookie tied for the NFL lead, and his 22 picks since 2009 are the most for any safety.
Although coach Sean Payton said Byrd likely would be out until training camp following recent back surgery, his availability for the regular season could make a huge difference.
“You can’t say enough about Jairus Byrd,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “When he’s out there, he’s a ball hawk and you have to know where he is.”
The Saints also signed veteran Champ Bailey, whose 52 interceptions are the most for any current cornerback. He deflected a pass that turned into an interception in the same OTA session when the defense forced two fumbles.
Last year, Saints cornerbacks combined for six interceptions. In the entire secondary, only Keenan Lewis (four) and the departed Malcolm Jenkins (two) had more than one.
“If you look at all the past great defenses, they forced a lot of turnovers,” Bailey said. “Look at Seattle. There’s a reason they won the Super Bowl. They forced a lot of turnovers. If we don’t get them, we won’t go very far.”
For whatever reason, Ryan’s defenses rarely have turned in big turnover numbers. In his 10 years as a coordinator, the high mark for takeaways was 28 by Cleveland in 2010, which placed the Browns in a tie for 13th in the NFL. Half of his defenses failed to produce 20 takeaways: Oakland in 2004 and 2005, Cleveland in 2009, Dallas in 2012 and New Orleans last season all finished among the league’s bottom six in the category.
The 2011 Cowboys, who forced 25 turnovers, are one of only two Ryan defenses to rank in the top half of the NFL in takeaways — and then just barely at No. 16.
Regardless of the past, he is stressing takeaways this summer. He said the defensive staff has shown film-session clips of Chicago safety Charles Tillman stripping the ball to stress its importance. Tillman forced 10 fumbles in 2012, three more than the entire Saints defense managed in 2013.
“Great players can be imitated, and we’re trying to do that here,” Ryan said. “Seattle raised the bar, so we have to match it.”
Linebacker Curtis Lofton’s numbers were indicative of the defense last year. He made a team-high 125 tackles as New Orleans slowed almost every offense it faced. He played a part in only one turnover, though, forcing a fumble against Miami in Week 4. He did not recover a fumble or intercept a pass.
His mindset is different this summer.
“We didn’t create enough turnovers, so that’s definitely an emphasis for us,” he said. “We’ve been working on it, and it’s showing up in practice.”