For three full seasons and two games, the narrative surrounding the New Orleans Saints remained the same.

All the Saints needed to get back to the playoffs was a little bit of defense, anything better than the bottom-feeding unit that kept forcing Drew Brees into wild shootouts.

New Orleans is getting much more than that from defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's troops lately. Halfway through the 2017 season, the Saints have shaken off the two disheartening performances at the start and developed into the kind of defense that can win games.

"Early on, we had a lot of doubt from the outside, but now that we're stringing a few wins together we're starting to prove we can be a competitive team and a great defense," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "I think we're coming into our own."

The numbers back up the eyeball test. Halfway through the season, the Saints rank ninth in the NFL in scoring defense, 15th in total defense, 12th against the pass and seventh in the league in opposing passer rating. 

Take away the two early disheartening performances against Minnesota and New England, and New Orleans has been one of the top five defenses in the league. The Saints have been particularly strong against the pass, ranking ninth in the NFL with 23 sacks and seventh with nine interceptions.

That's hard to imagine from a defense still only a year and a half removed from setting an NFL record for futility by allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a 116.1 rating in 2015. 

"We've done a good job of contesting throws, and I think that we've done a good job of disrupting the timing, whether it's been the quarterback or the routes," Saints coach Sean Payton said.

 2017 2016 20152014
Total defense 15th 27th 31st 31st
Scoring defense 9th 31st 32nd 28th
Pass defense 12th 32nd 31st  25th 
Sacks 9th 27th 25th 25th
Interceptions 7th 27th 26th 21st
Opposing passer rating 7th 29th 32nd 24th

New Orleans flashed the potential for pass rush last season. Led by veteran defensive end Cameron Jordan and defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the Saints recorded 106 quarterback hits in 2016, the most in the Payton era.

Fairley was forced to miss this season because of a heart condition, but upgrades at the defensive end position opposite Jordan have made up for the slack. Veteran free agent Alex Okafor (3.5 sacks), a rehabilitated Hau'oli Kikaha (3) and rookie Trey Hendrickson (2) have combined for 8.5 sacks this season, already 6.5 more than Saints defensive ends other than Jordan posted all of last season.

Those extra 6.5 sacks also match Fairley's production from last season. In just half a season, New Orleans already has 23 sacks, only seven fewer than the Saints recorded all of last year.

"We emphasize everybody covering everybody else up in their rush lanes, and that's what's going on," Okafor said. "When somebody wants to make a move, go in, somebody's wrapping around."

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With help coming from all over and Allen calling more blitzes than anybody in the NFL, Jordan has been able to bring his full powers to bear on opposing quarterbacks, racking up seven sacks and 14 quarterback hits as he makes a case for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"Our D-line right now is a strength," Jordan said. "And I can't be more proud."

The defensive line has more time to get home because of an upgraded secondary buoyed by a pair of early-round draft picks in first-round cornerback Marshon Lattimore and second-round safety Marcus Williams.

Fitting those two in around playmaking strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and Ken Crawley, who's improved in his second season, the Saints secondary already has nine interceptions, tying the full-season total New Orleans recorded each of the past two years.

"All the players that we drafted on the defensive side of the ball will be productive players for us, not only now, but in the future," Allen said. "We don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about why things happened the way they did; we just take the tools that we have available to us and try to do the best that we can."

The defense still has work to do. The Saints are giving up 116.1 yards rushing per game, 19th in the NFL, and 4.7 yards per carry, which ranks 29th.

But the Saints limited Tampa Bay running backs to just 41 yards on 19 carries, and the defense's improvement seems contagious.

New Orleans isn't planning to take a step back any time soon. 

"The confidence, the preparation guys are putting in," linebacker Craig Robertson said. "Guys are anticipating, making plays, and having celebrations ready. It's a fun atmosphere to be around."

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Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.

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