METAIRIE — If you believe in the law of averages, the New Orleans Saints defense will soon start coming up with a few takeaways after getting just four in the first six games.
But as assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt pointed out Wednesday, the law of averages doesn’t always apply in the NFL.
That’s why the Saints went back to the basics when they returned to the practice field Wednesday, working on trying to get interceptions when the ball is in the air and ripping it out at every opportunity after a pass is completed or a running back makes his way up field.
“I don’t know about the law of averages in the National Football League,” Vitt said. “We’ve got to make those things happen. We can’t have a ‘poor me,’ complex or ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda,’ and all those other things.
“We’ve got to take the ball away, and we have got to create field position for our offense,” he said. “It’s an important stat, and one we all take to heart.”
It’s a stat the Saints have been sorely lacking in, however, during their 4-2 start after coming up empty Sunday in a 26-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Two years after finishing second in the league with 39 takeaways on 26 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries, which fueled their run to a Super Bowl XLIV victory, the Saints are well off that pace this season.
Like Sunday, they forced no turnovers in the season opener at Green Bay and came up with only one in each of the other four games. By comparison, they had 18 takeaways in their first six games in 2009.
Their four takeaways this year are 30th in the NFL, just ahead of the Miami Dolphins (three) and Pittsburgh Steelers (two).
So the Saints are hoping that putting a greater emphasis on that aspect of their game will help, starting with Sunday night’s meeting with the Indianapolis Colts in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“Out players have done a good job taking this task to heart,” said Vitt, who sat in for an injured Sean Payton at the coach’s daily news conference. “We had a good practice today. We worked on getting the ball out in our ball-disruption drills.
“All we can do is keep working on it and keep preaching it,” he said. “It’s been my experience when you do those things, and do them in a positive manner, you get good results.”
This season, the Saints have just three interceptions — two by cornerback Patrick Robinson and one by cornerback Jabari Greer — and have recovered one fumble. Opponents have fumbled four other times, but managed to cover it before the Saints could snatch it away.
“Sometimes, you need to let them come to you,” weakside linebacker Scott Shanle said. “When they come, they come in bunches. That kind of happened during our run two years ago, they came in bunches.”
They started to slide last year, however, after getting eight more takeaways in the 2009 playoffs to give them 47 in 19 games. In 2010, the Saints tied for 20th in the league with 25 on nine interceptions and 16 fumbles.
Teams thrive on takeaways because they energize not only the defense, but their offense as well. It’s almost like a double-bonus for the Saints because it gives the NFL’s second-ranked offense additional possessions.
That, and the fact the Saints have turned it over 11 times this season, has frustrated the defense to no end, even though they think they’re close to getting their hands on some.
That was most evident Sunday when Robinson left his feet in an attempt to make a play on a Josh Freeman pass but came up empty by about an inch.
While they got none off the Bucs, the Saints gave it away four times.
“They won the turnover battle, and, outside of the final score, that’s the biggest stat,” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “It was four to nothing. … You have a very slim chance of winning if they have four extra possessions and we don’t.”
“Defensively, we just have to do a better job of getting some turnovers,” free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We’re down a lot in turnovers. If the other team gets four, we have to get one or two. That could have changed the whole aspect of (Sunday’s) game.”
“That’s a staple of our defense,” Vitt said. “We’ll put our players in a lot of positions and through a lot of drill work to try and get that remedied. A top priority of what we have to do is win that turnover battle.
“That’s the most critical stat in football. We’re getting our hands on (passes), but it’s not good enough to knock the ball down.”
Strong safety Roman Harper agreed.
“We’re not catching the ball, and then sometimes we have to get the ball out,” Harper said. “We did some things like that in the past where we’ve been able to strip the ball out and do some things.
“It’s just effort and population to the ball,” he said. “Somehow or another, we’ve got to get this turnover thing reconciled. We’ve got to try and force more turnovers and get our offense back out on the field.”
“We’re just going through a dry spell right now,” Shanle said. “But I think once it starts to happen, the lid will come off a little bit and we’ll get more.”