METAIRIE — Members of the New Orleans Saints’ defense wish they could have been happy about what they accomplished in their most recent game against the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday night.

Actually, the Saints had a right to be downright ecstatic.

After giving up at least 400 yards in each of their first 10 games and allowing 375 in their next outing, numbers that have them mired at the bottom of the NFL’s defensive rankings, they held the Falcons’ powerful offense to 283 total yards.

There was no time for celebrating the big breakthrough, however, after a 23-13 loss to the Falcons further dampened their playoff hopes with four games remaining in the season.

Instead of looking at what they did, the Saints’ defense looked at what they could have done even better when they got time off before beginning their preparations for Sunday’s meeting with the New York Giants.

The Saints were gashed on a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the Falcons’ first possession of the game and eventually gave up too many points to offset a rare off-night for Drew Brees and his offense.

Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo looked back on that first drive, when the Falcons ran for 71 yards on the final five plays of the possession, as the toughest thing to swallow.

“If I go back, this is just my nature, I get stuck on that first drive,” Spagnuolo said. “I really wish we could have found a way to play better on the first drive, because, quite honestly, after that, we played a pretty good game defensively.”

Falcons running back Michael Turner had runs of 35 and 5 yards before backup Jacquizz Rodgers had back-to-back 14-yard gains. That set up Turner for a 3-yard touchdown run and a quick 7-0 lead.

After that first drive, however, the Saints held the Falcons without a first down on five possessions and limited them to 203 yards on 51 plays over the final 56 minutes of the game.

Still, it wasn’t enough to keep the Falcons from winning after they intercepted Brees five times.

“We found a way to have five three-and-outs,” Spagnuolo said. “But we’re a team, and if our offense is only able to generate 13 points, we have to hold them to 12. It’s just how we feel defensively.

“There was a lot of good there,” he added. “Hopefully, the good part will carry over into the Giants game, and we can clean up some of the things we didn’t do well. That’s the hope.”

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt was encouraged by the performance, but he told New York reporters on a conference call that he could see an improvement over the past three games before facing the Falcons.

“For the last four weeks, we played pretty damn good defense,” he said. “Last week was probably one of our best defensive performances of the year.

“Spags has done a great job of keeping this team together,” Vitt said of Spagnuolo, the Giants defensive coordinator from 2007-08. “He has done a great job keeping the morale of our defense at a high level, and he’s done an outstanding job of being patient teaching this defense. I think it’s starting to show now.”

One of the keys to stopping the Falcons’ passing attack, which ranked second in the NFL before that game, was the aggressive play of cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson against wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.

White was held to one catch for 20 yards, while Jones had 48 yards on five receptions.

“I thought they were very aggressive, and I thought they did some really good things at the line of scrimmage,” Spagnuolo said. “The aggressiveness that they played with helped us overall as a defense.

“I thought they played really well against two pretty good receivers. Those two guys (White and Jones) are pretty dynamic players, and they’ve come up with some pretty dynamic plays. Our guys took on the challenge.”

Despite the loss, it was a vindication of sorts for the Saints’ defense, which has done some positive things — particularly with goal-line stands and red-zone defense — even if their No. 32 ranking in allowing 440.5 yards per game is rather alarming.

“I don’t go down that road, quite honestly, because there is still a lot of season to go,” Spagnuolo said. “If you rest on your laurels, I get concerned that you’re going to go backward. We’re still climbing a hill.”

“We allowed the yards, we didn’t have things together,” Greer said of their rocky start. “But I think it’s unfair how we were characterized, seeing how hard these guys work and now seeing some success on our side. I’m just happy for our guys that they are getting acknowledgment for the work they’re putting in.”

Greer and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said it’s nice to see players get rewarded for their efforts, but it would have been nicer if they had won.

“It’s good to have gotten to the point where we’re playing better on defense, but the main objective, obviously, is to win,” Ellis said. “We haven’t played good enough to get that done, but we are excited about the direction that the defense is going. Hopefully we can keep building on what we started.”