Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, center, talks with his players during a game. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Thursday, December 06, 2012 11:07 PM
METAIRIE (AP) — The New York Giants know better than to underestimate a Steve Spagnuolo defense, even one that currently ranks at the bottom of the NFL.
When the Saints' defensive coordinator was in New York, the Giants not only won a Super Bowl, but they saw how Spagnuolo could adapt when things went wrong and improve his unit over time.
"He can adjust. He makes a lot of game adjustments and that's the thing I remember from him being here," Giants guard Kevin Boothe said this week as New York prepared to host New Orleans this Sunday. "It's going to be a tough challenge. They are a team starting to play well on defense and they have a lot of great players."
The Saints brought in Spagnuolo to replace Gregg Williams last January because Spagnuolo had a record of success as a defensive coordinator. When he was with the Giants in 2007, they upset previously unbeaten New England in the Super Bowl on the strength of a dominant defensive performance that slowed Tom Brady and a Patriots offense that set scoring records.
Incidentally, that same Giants defense was torched for 80 points through its first two regular season games, both losses.
This season had a disastrous beginning as the Saints started 0-4, and seven games into the season, following a loss at Denver, New Orleans' defense had given up more than 500 yards in a game three times.
The Saints are still on pace to give up more yards in a season than any defense in NFL history, but now they also have a realistic chance of avoiding that dubious distinction.
The defense held Atlanta to 283 yards, the Falcons' second-lowest total this season, last week. Atlanta had a stretch of five consecutive possessions without a first down.
That marked the second straight game New Orleans defense yielded fewer than 400 yards after not keeping opponents below that threshold in any of its first 10 games.
The Saints still lost their past two games, but arguably because of Drew Brees being in a recent slump in which he has thrown seven interceptions, with two returned for TDs in a 31-21 loss to San Francisco. In Atlanta, the Saints defense held the Falcons to 23 points and kept New Orleans in the game despite Brees' five turnovers.
Citing the recent losses, Spagnuolo balked when asked if he felt vindicated by the way his unit has come around.
"I don't go down that road, quite honestly, because there is still a lot of season to go. If you rest on any laurels, I get concerned you're going to go backward," Spagnuolo said. "Is it better than it was before? Yeah, but it's not exactly where we want it."
Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also coaches linebackers, was more complimentary.
"The last four weeks we played pretty damn good defense. Last week was probably one of our best defensive performances of the year," Vitt said. "Spags has done a great job of keeping this team together. Spags has done a great job of keeping the morale of our defense at a high level. He's done an outstanding job of being patient teaching this defense and I think it's starting to show now."
The statistics say the Saints give up 440.5 yards a game, worst in the NFL, and 27.3 points per game, ranked 28th.
Eli Manning and the Giants' offense see those numbers as misleading.
"They do a good job of trying to show some different looks, some different blitz looks. They try to get hits on the quarterback so it's an aggressive style of football," Manning said. "We have to play smart and make sure everybody knows their assignments and knows who is blocking whom."
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said Spagnuolo's balance of pressure and pass coverage makes for "a well-thought-out, well-conceived approach to defensive football."
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said it took a while for players to feel comfortable in Spagnuolo's new scheme, and that Spagnuolo also adjusted his approach to suit the strengths of his personnel. Now when he looks at the film, it just doesn't look to him like he plays for the last-ranked defense in the NFL.
"We're playing pretty darn well," said Jordan, who leads the Saints in sacks with seven.
Jordan's shifting role is an example of one of Spagnuolo's adjustments. The Saints experimented with playing Jordan inside on pass-rushing downs early in the year, but lately have kept him more on the end after seeing he had most of his success there.
"We needed time to adjust," Jordan said. "Any given defense you're going to have that where you just have to feel out the players and feel out what you want in your defense."
Notes: Only two Saints players missed practice: T Charles Brown (right knee) and CB Corey White (left knee), but White says he was resting and hopes to play at New York. ... CB Johnny Patrick returned to practice from an illness that kept him out Wednesday.