Simplified defensive scheme helping Saints, but defense a work in progress in some key areas _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (21) returns to the field against the Dallas Cowboys after missing several weeks due to injury in the Superdome in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.

The Saints were tired of the broken coverages, confusion and big gains that often defined last season’s defensive performances.

So, this offseason, Sean Payton came up with what Rob Ryan called a “beautiful vision,” and the New Orleans defense began an overhaul. The elaborate schemes and system of checks that reigned last year went out the door. Instead, New Orleans now plays a more straight-forward brand of defense, which, in theory, should allow the players to focus more on performing than thinking.

People have noticed. Interim Tennessee Titans coach Mike Mularkey, who previously served as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons from 2008-2011, has seen major changes in the way the New Orleans defense operates. He also said this group is more fearsome now than when the Saints used to try to confuse their opposition.

“You talk about a bunch of guys that rally to the football, they do that,” Mularkey said. “Schematically, it’s not a real complicated defense. That makes me more nervous than teams that are all over the place because they have guys that are lined up and know what they are supposed to do.”

It hasn’t been a perfect transition. This year’s defense actually ranks lower in nearly every statistical category when compared to last season, including total yards (406.3 vs. 384), passing yards (282.4 vs. 251) and points (29.3 vs. 26.5) per game. And despite Payton’s consistently pointing it out as an issue, the run defense (123.8 vs. 132) has actually been better this season.

But numbers are just numbers. Some of those statistics, such as the run defense being better and the difference in passing yards, can be attributed to New Orleans getting out to early leads in some games and turning their opponents one dimensional, which can lead to a higher percentage of passes.

And few would argue the coverage last season was drastically better — if better at all — when compared to this season. Such claims, even though the stats say otherwise, fail to pass the eye test. That’s why, even though the raw numbers might not be as flattering as the team would like, nearly everyone involved with the defense is optimistic about the direction this unit is heading.

“Last year is last year. Last year has been documented that it was a dud for a lot of us,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “We’re excited about this year and getting better each week.”

There are reasons for Ryan’s optimism.

Generating turnovers has been major area of improvement this season. And, to a lesser degree, the defense has also done a better job creating pressure on quarterbacks. The Saints have 12 takeaways already. They had nine through eight games last season. And this year’s average of 2.37 sacks per game is better than last year’s 2.25.

Another major area of improvement is on third downs. New Orleans is only allowing its opponents to convert on 31.9 percent of attempts, while last year that figure sat at 46 percent. However, that success is undermined a bit when considering teams have connected on 7-of-10 attempts on fourth down.

Things have also continued to get better in many of those categories as the defense has continued to get healthier and as many of the young players serving in significant roles further settle in and figure things out. A certain level of growth should continue in all areas and a soft remaining schedule should also help balance things out.

“In this league, good teams win in November and December,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “We’re just going out every day, trying to get better, and see if we can try to make a run.”

So why aren’t the statistics showing more improvement if there are feelings of optimisim? There’s a reason for that, too. And it’s not hard to find. Just look for some yellow flags — especially on third downs.

The rest of the NFL defenses have picked up an average of six flags this season on third down, both accepted and not accepted. The Saints already have already seen 12 thrown. Ironically, those plays have led to a fumble recovery and three sacks for the defense, but more often the outcome is damaging.

Following accepted penalties on third down this season, the Saints have surrendered 186 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of field goals. Take those points off the books and the Saints would only be allowing 26 points and 383 yards per game. Those two changes alone would make this defense better than last season’s team, in terms of stats.

But the issue is deeper than that. Overall, including third downs, the Saints have been flagged during 19 scoring drives this season. They’ve allowed a total of 40 scoring drives against.

Some of those penalties, of course, are costlier than others, such as a 40-yard pass interference against the Tampa Buccaneers by Brandon Browner that led to a touchdown on the next play, or a 23-yard pass interference on Kyle Wilson against Arizona that later led to a touchdown.

“It is still a work in progress,” Payton said when asked about the new scheme. “There are some things technique-wise that we have to improve on. I think the penalties is something that comes up in the back end. I think we’re getting more hurries and pressures from the front which has really helped us.”

The progress should come. But the flags need to go so the Saints can consistently win games in November and December.