FOXBOROUGH — Historically speaking, the New Orleans Saints had the worst defense the NFL has ever seen last season.
The Saints gave up 7,042 yards, breaking a league record that had stood for 31 seasons. They also allowed 434 points, a number topped just once since the franchise’s 1967 debut, by the 1980 “Aints.”
With the Saints reeling from a bounty scandal that resulted in head coach Sean Payton sitting out the entire season, 2012 quickly turned into a lost, forgotten year. They finished 7-9 and ended a streak of three consecutive playoff appearances.
Cheer up, Saints fans. Payton is back, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has come to the rescue, transforming a unit that was an embarrassment a year ago into a surprising team strength. New Orleans is 5-0 and uncharacteristically riding its defense into Foxborough on Sunday, when it will take on the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
The offense can still hum under Drew Brees, but it’s the other side of the ball that people are singing praises about.
“They do a good job,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “I know they place a strong emphasis on getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers, and so far that’s been a very positive strength to their team.
“Something that we’re going to have to do a great job of on Sunday is taking care of the football and protecting our quarterback, because they do that almost as well as anybody in football on defense. They make you work for it.
“They’re disciplined. They will take some risks and some chances at times, but I think this is a strong group from front to back.”
It’s only been five games, but the improvement has been immediate and noticeable. The Saints have gone from 31st in points allowed per game (28.3) to fourth (14.6). They’ve gone from last in yards allowed (440.1) to 11th (330.4), cutting off nearly 110 yards per game. They’ve sacked the quarterback 15 times, and have seven interceptions by seven different players, a big reason they have a plus-6 turnover margin.
None of the first five New Orleans opponents has reached 20 points, the longest such season-opening streak for the franchise since 1992.
Ryan, who had been defensive coordinator for the Cowboys the previous two seasons, has brought an aggressive system to the Saints. More important, he’s brought confidence.
“He’s got a passion for the game,” said Payton. “He’s a great staff member, very loyal and hard-working. All those combinations, and we were able to add a few key pieces.
“There’s still a handful of things that we’ve got to improve on, but you really as a head coach appreciate the passion he has.”
Ryan was with the Patriots from 2000-03 as linebackers coach, and there’s only one player on the roster who was here then. He knows all about a Rob Ryan defense, and will be the primary offensive player going up against it on Sunday.
“He’s a great coach,” said Tom Brady. “I always enjoy competing against a Rob Ryan-led defense. He has his guys always prepared and ready to play.
“He gets his matchups and he lets those guys attack the quarterback. They play with a lot of anticipation and a lot of confidence. We’ve got to go out there and try to do the same.”
The Saints have done it with many of the same parts. Nine of the 11 starters from the last game of the 2012 season are still on the team, though three are on injured reserve (linebacker Jonathan Vilma is designated to return). They’ve received a boost from rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round draft pick from Texas who leads the team with 26 tackles and has an interception.
They’ve also produced pressure up front, with defensive end Cameron Jordan (four) and edge rusher Junior Galette (three) combining for seven sacks.
What the Patriots are preparing for are the many different looks the Saints can give under Ryan.
“I’d say one of the characteristics of their defense is that they play a lot of multiple defensive packages that vary from week to week,” coach Bill Belichick said. “You have to be ready for something new, different, that they haven’t shown that they just feel like is the way they match up against you. But the way they deploy can change quite a bit from a game-to-game matchup basis.
“They played a lot of 3-4 defense early in preseason and that’s certainly their base, similar to what [Ryan] did in Dallas, but the actual number of snaps that they’ve played during the regular season this year has been a far lower percentage.”
One thing the Saints have improved on is giving up the big play. Any defense that gives up more than 7,000 yards in a season is allowing its fair share of chunk plays. Those have been drastically reduced this season.
The Saints also have forced at least one turnover in every game, and until the Bears game last Sunday, they had kept every opposing offense under 400 yards. Chicago finished with 434. Last season, that was less than the Saints’ average.
In a very short amount of time, the New Orleans defense has come a very long way.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.