METAIRIE, La. - The Saints' defence has made takeaways its top priority after forcing an NFC-low 19 turnovers in 2013.
Near the start of a workout in late May, New Orleans rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste stripped wide receiver Andy Tanner after he made a short reception.
That play set the tone. Defenders have continued to punch and slap at the ball in the first two practices of minicamp.
Although New Orleans finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed under new co-ordinator Rob Ryan last season — a dramatic improvement after yielding the most yards in NFL history a year earlier — Ryan won't be happy until he sees more turnovers. Seven fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions were not enough.
"That was a glaring weakness last year," he says. "We did pretty decent as a unit, but we want to be great, and to be great, you have to take the ball away."
They did more than just talk about it. They signed free agent Jairus Byrd, whose 22 interceptions since his rookie season in 2009 are the most for any NFL safety, and also picked up veteran Champ Bailey, whose 52 career interceptions are the most for any active cornerback.
In film sessions, Ryan has repeatedly shown cutups of Chicago safety Charles Tillman punching out the ball. In 2012, Tillman forced 10 fumbles, which is three more than the Saints managed as a whole in 2013.
"Great players can be imitated, and we're trying to do that here," Ryan said. "Imitation is the biggest form of flattery. We know we have to improve on that."
Linebacker Curtis Lofton's statistics were a perfect illustration of the Saints' strengths and weaknesses last year. He made a team-high 125 tackles for the resurgent defence but had a hand in only turnover, forcing a fumble against Miami. He did not recover a fumble or pick off a pass all season.
"We didn't create enough turnovers, so that's definitely an emphasis for us," he said. "We've been working on it, and it's showing up in practice. Then we are going to take what we do in practice and do it in games."
After winning the Super Bowl in 2009, New Orleans has returned to the playoffs in three of the last four years but has come up short of the NFC Championship Game each time. Seattle was the roadblock last year, hammering the Saints 34-7 in the regular season and beating them again 23-15 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Saints weren't that far behind the Seahawks in yards allowed per game (273.6 to 305.7) and registered 49 sacks to the Seahawks' 44, but Seattle had more than twice as many takeaways with 39.
"If you look at all the past great defences, they forced a lot of turnovers," Bailey said. "There's a reason Seattle won the Super Bowl. They forced a lot of turnovers. If we don't get them, we won't go very far."
Ryan expects the presence of Byrd and Bailey to help close that gap. Bailey deflected a pass that turned into an interception in the Saints' first open practice of the summer.
Byrd is out for the summer after undergoing back surgery, but coach Sean Payton said he was on schedule to return for the beginning of training camp. In addition to his interceptions, he forced 11 fumbles in his five years with Buffalo.
That's not Tillman territory, but it beats what the Saints did last year.
"You can see guys attempting to punch through the ball, almost over-exaggerating it," said linebacker Junior Galette, who had 12 sacks last year but forced only one fumble. "Charles Tillman is a beast at it, and we are motivated to make the extra effort to knock it out."
NOTES: During one 11-on-11 session in Wednesday's practice, a machine on the side of the field cranked up crowd noise as the offence approached the line of scrimmage on each play. Coach Sean Payton said it was the first time he has piped in noise during minicamp. The Saints went 3-5 on the road in the regular season last year — their first losing record away from home under Payton since 2008. .Minicamp ends with another practice on Thursday.
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