Defenses could have answers and Saints’ unit is a good one

(Bill Haber/Associated Press)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / November 30, 2009

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METAIRIE, La. - Two of the top scoring offenses in the NFL will be on the field in New Orleans tonight, which only means one thing to Saints safety Roman Harper - everything will come down to defense.

The Saints are scoring a league-best 36.9 points per game, while the Patriots are ranked third with 28.8 per contest. Drew Brees leads the 10-0 Saints and Tom Brady leads the 7-3 Patriots. While everyone is talking about the battle between two prolific offenses, Harper sees opportunity.

“These are the top two teams offensively in the league, so of course that’s going to give the media and everybody things to talk about,’’ Harper said. “On the defense, you’ve got to look at it as, whoever stops the offense on the other end is usually the team that’s going to win. Whoever can force turnovers will stop the juggernaut and win.

“If the offenses both do what they’re going to do, whichever defense steps up and plays the best is usually going to win.’’

For all the talk about the Saints offense this season, just as much credit could be given to the defense, which is led by coordinator Gregg Williams, who is in his first season in New Orleans. Opponents are scoring an average of 20.4 points per game against the Saints. They lead the league in interceptions with 20 and have recovered nine fumbles, for the most takeaways in the league. Safety Darren Sharper, who has seven interceptions, three of which he has returned for a touchdown, is the leader of the secondary.

Sharper has rejuvenated his career in his first season in New Orleans. He signed with the Saints in March after he capped four seasons in Minnesota with only one interception in 2008. In a year he has turned that stat around, and he leads active players with 61 interceptions in his 13-year career. His seven picks this season are the second-most in the NFL behind Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, who has eight.

Sharper credited his training, as well as the style of play required in Williams’s system, with helping him have such an outstanding season.

“He allows for his safeties and defensive players to trust themselves, trust their instincts and be playmakers,’’ Sharper said. “And that has really given me the freedom to do all the things I know I could have done in the past, but have had the handcuffs put on me a little bit.

“He’s taken the handcuffs off and just let me go out there and play football, trust my instincts, and it’s worked well for us.’’

One area at which the Saints are a bit banged up is cornerback. New Orleans recently re-signed Mike McKenzie, who played for the Saints from 2004-08 before being set back by knee injuries, and also brought in veteran Chris McAlister, who played his entire career with the Ravens.

Beefing up the defensive backfield will be key against the Patriots and their dynamic receiving duo, Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Welker is tied for the league lead in receptions at 79 and has collected 854 yards and four touchdowns. Moss is tied for sixth in the league with 63 catches for 925 yards and eight touchdowns. The Saints have allowed nine receptions for touchdowns, the second-fewest in the league.

“It’s a big challenge for us,’’ Sharper said. “They’re probably the two preeminent receivers in the league right now as far as combination-wise.

“One guy [Moss] is a guy who is a threat at any area of the field. The other guy is underneath and a threat in that way, and you’ve got a quarterback that can get him the football in any position on the field, so it’s a tough challenge.

“It seems we’ve signed every cornerback in the history of the league, so you know we’re trying to prepare ourselves to match up with these guys.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at

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