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The Saints’ Turnaround

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:Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory Keep Fighting for the Playoffs

The Saints have a running game again, they have a defense again and they are relevant again.

Facing a row of likely playoff teams in San Francisco, Atlanta and New York, with the last two on the road, leading into the first week of December the Saints and their fans will know a great deal more about whether a team that started 0-4 could ever possibly dare to hope to make the playoffs. Only one team in history, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, has ever managed that feat, but otherwise most teams who have plummeted to the Saints’ early season nadir could never hope to so much as peak over the playoff horizon by this point in the schedule. Ironically, the Saints’ winning ways commenced with beating the Chargers in the Super Dome and they now face a very competitive NFC that will hardly allow so much as more than one more loss, perhaps, in the season’s stretch run if any hope of the post-season can be imagined.

The first key has been, and must continue to be, the improved running game. Presuming they remain healthy, Mark Ingram has rapidly approached becoming the team’s lead back, superceding Pierre Thomas by upping his carry load from a typical five to seven carries to twelve to sixteen per game and his average from the sub-three yards per carry range to well over four yards per carry. Against Oakland, Ingram burst out around the left end for a 27-yard touchdown which may represent his finest run as a Saint. However, the Saints’ most dynamic runner in terms of dangerousness or ability to score from anywhere on the field continues to be Chris Ivory. Ivory’s electrifying 56-yard run against Atlanta in the Super Dome seemed to singlehandedly start the Saints’ engine in not only defeating the Falcons in an all-time franchise classic, but also in propelling their hopes for a legitimate playoff run. At that moment a new Saints offense was born in which the team’s tandem of Ingram and Ivory, spelled by the explosive and versatile Thomas, could legitimately run for over 150 yards per game and leave defenses guessing, thereby allowing Drew Brees the necessary freedom to work his amazing football magic downfield. Just imparting the knowledge upon opposing defenses that the Saints are not only determined to run but also capable of doing so successfully gives Brees crucial breathing room as defenses cannot simply rush in breakneck blitzes in an effort to suppress his aerial attack. The results were staggering as the Saints ripped off a 5-1 record in the middle of the year.

The improved running game has also allowed the Saints’ defense to gain some much needed rest on the sidelines. As their offense’s drives become more prolonged with a successful run game, the Saints defenders have more time to gather their strength and rest before the next series.  Meanwhile, given the extra rest, the defense has also been gradually comprehending defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. Overall, the statistical reality has been quite ugly all season long: the Saints have been last league-wide in yards allowed per game, last in time of possession, second to last in passing yards allowed per game and last in rushing yards per game.  In statistical terms, this defense is worse than the Saints all-time worst defense, that of the 1-15 1980 team, and not only that, it also ranks among the worst in the history of the league.

Yet the attitude of the defense is worlds away from any such losing teams they may be ranked with as increasingly sacks, turnovers and key game-changing plays have been building in their favor. The Saints have edged into the positive side of the turnover ratio (takeaways versus giveaways), they are now in the top half of the league in third-down conversion defense and they have returned to their once hyper-aggressive ball-hawking style that proved to be such a potent mix in combination in with the offense from 2009-2011. Cameron Jordan, Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Jenkins are becoming defensive stars in this league. Even though that may seem contradictory on such a statistically porous squad, their big plays and key red-zone stands in marquis games have left a mark on not only football audiences, but also on opposing coordinators who are left wondering how their teams could pile up so many yards and yet come away losers.

Finally, Joe Vitt has done a superlative job under the most difficult of circumstances. Managing a team faced with towering psychological and emotional challenges, both in-season and off-season, not to mention actual roster changes and a new defensive coordinator. Vitt stepped in as the league’s only interim head coach in history who also had to step down, leave the team altogether, then return to replace his own assistant who had been the acting interim (for the other interim) head coach. If the Saints make the playoffs, Vitt deserves to be considered as Coach of the Year. At a minimum, Winston Churchill’s maxim, “Keep calm and carry on,” echoed in the Battle of Britain, could certainly encapsulate the amazing continuity, constancy and consistency Vitt has shown through these difficult times. Wins like the upset over Atlanta in the Dome can only be experienced when a team and its fans have crossed through the most desperate of times and emerged on the other end having survived what others (and maybe even they themselves) said they could not. It is only in such moments that one realizes that the tough times are to be appreciated for the opportunities they present. The season is not over, the fight continues, carry on.