METAIRIE — When veteran linebacker Scott Shanle looks around the locker room, he sees many of the same productive players who helped the New Orleans Saints play winning-caliber defense the past few seasons.
-- In 2009, the Saints led the NFL in takeaways and defensive touchdowns en route to winning Super Bowl XLIV.
-- In 2010, the Saints finished fourth in the NFL in total defense, yielding 306.3 yards per game.
-- Last season, though finishing No. 24 in total defense, their bend-but-don't-break approach did not detract from a record-setting offense and ultimately a 13-3 record and first-place finish in the NFC South.
When framed in that context in the midst of a potentially devastating 1-4 start, Shanle said he is perplexed and troubled by the Saints' current overall ranking (last in a 32-team league) under first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
After a bye, the Saints begin game preparations Monday for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-3) on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
"Are we that bad?'' Shanle said. "I don't think so, and I don't think anyone in this locker room thinks so. But we're last in the league in a lot of categories, so it would be hard for anyone not connected with the New Orleans Saints defense to think otherwise.
"But the talent is there. Don't judge us off four or five games. Yes, some of the numbers out there are bad, and it's hard to justify it any other way. But I believe that we are not the worst defense in the league and those stats are a little premature. People need to hold off awhile before judging us.''
|WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Saints defensive rankings through five games in 2012 under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and 2011 under coordinator Gregg Williams:
2012 // CATEGORY // 2011
129 // FIRST DOWNS // 98
16/RUSH-PASS TDS ALLOWED // 14
2,280 // TOTAL DEFENSE // 1,773
456.0 // AVG. PER GAME // 354.6
154 // POINTS ALLOWED // 125
30.8 // POINTS PER GAME // 25.0
864 // NET YARDS RUSHING // 538
172.8 // AVG. PER GAME // 107.6
1,416 // NET YARDS PASSING // 1,235
283.2 // AVG. PER GAME. // 247.
11 // SACKS // 14
8 // TAKEAWAYS // 4
- Compiled by Brian Allee-Walsh
Though only five games into the 16-game schedule, the Saints' window of opportunity to salvage this season is closing with each passing week.
And while the defense has showed signs of life the past few games with the 31-24 victory against the AFC-West leading San Diego Chargers on Oct. 7 serving as exhibit "A," it continues to give up points and yards at an alarming clip.
Opponents are averaging 30.8 points and 456.0 yards per game.
"We are definitely underachieving, just based on where we are statistically,'' Shanle said. "We can't defend that. The only thing I can really point to is that a lot of us are coming off of three years being in the same scheme (under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) and talking the same language. This is pretty different from what we've been doing, and it takes time.
"Even though we've been in this new scheme for six months, there are things you are learning every day that you simply can't absorb at once. The game is so fast. There are some bumps and bruises along the way and, unfortunately, guys learn best by making some mistakes.''
Shanle said he sees gradual improvement and senses the new scheme is becoming "a little more second nature to us.''
He also acknowledged that the defense needs to create more takeaways and limit the number of big running and passing plays because "those types of things can be demoralizing.''
Truth be told, the margin for error is extremely slim. An educated guess is the Saints will have to finish 8-3 or 9-2 down the stretch to be in the playoff hunt.
Asked if the Saints' defensive unit feels a sense of urgency, Shanle replied: "I can't speak for my teammates, but I feel that as an individual. I hope everybody else feels that type of pressure because that will help lead us to more wins.''
After facing Tampa Bay, the Saints play at Denver in prime time on Oct. 28, then return home to meet the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football on Nov. 5 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Any hiccup along the way could be crippling.
"We can't afford to lose another couple of games right now,'' Shanle said. "We have to get on a little roll here. It all starts with coming off this bye week and going to a division opponent (Tampa Bay). All we can do is win one game a week. You can't win any more than that.
"We got to improve week by week and not take any steps back. We can't expect the offense to bail us out every week. Defensively, I think we're good enough to contribute more than we have, to help our offense out.''
* Article also published in New Orleans and Baton Rouge versions of The Advocate.
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