Under new coordinator Rob Ryan, the New Orleans Saints' vastly improved defense has made things miserable for many opposing offenses.
Ryan will try to ensure that misery extends to his twin brother's team as the Saints visit the New York Jets on Sunday.
The Saints have been known for a high-powered offense, leading the league in total yardage over the last five seasons. But they've also ranked second-to-last in yards allowed over the same span and gave up a league-record 7,042 last season. Even the 2009 squad that won the team's lone Super Bowl finished 25th in total defense.
This year, however, New Orleans (6-1) has discovered a much better balance. Not only do the Saints rank among the league leaders in scoring (28.0 points per game), they're also among the best in terms of points allowed (17.1).
"When you have the league's worst defense a year ago and you have the same players, people think that those players that were playing in that scheme were terrible," said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who leads the team with 55 total tackles. "So you get a new defensive coordinator that comes in and plays to the strengths of players in this locker room, and guys are playing out there confident, playing fast ... like it's a whole different team."
Fired by Dallas after last season, Ryan has installed a 3-4 scheme focused on getting to the quarterback and forcing mistakes. The Saints are fourth in the NFL with a plus-eight turnover differential and lead the NFC with 3.4 sacks per game.
That could spell trouble for Jets signal-caller Geno Smith, who has been sacked 28 times, trailing only Miami's Ryan Tannehill (32). Smith's 13 interceptions are the league's third-most.
"It's a highly motivated group," said Ryan, 0-4 against New York coach Rex Ryan in matchups with both as either coordinators or head coaches.
"We all have egg on our face from last season and take that seriously. We want to be a hell of a lot better than what people think we are, so we're just working hard to be a little tiny part of our success."
Rex Ryan so badly wanted to move forward from the Jets' embarrassing 49-9 loss to Cincinnati last week that he chose to skip film review with the team on Monday.
"I thought it would be more beneficial just to move on to New Orleans, get a start on them, and that's exactly what we did," he said.
New York (4-4) has alternated wins and losses each week, one game shy of tying the 2005 New England Patriots for the most alternating wins and losses to start a season.
Smith's erratic play has been one of the biggest reasons for that inconsistency. He's compiled a 93.7 passer rating with seven TDs and four picks in four wins, compared to a 51.7 rating with one TD and nine interceptions in four losses.
Cincinnati returned both of his interceptions for scores last Sunday and he recorded a season-low 5.3 yards per attempt.
"I'm the type of guy that's always going to put it behind me because you can't get it back," said Smith, who has won both of his starts against NFC teams. "It's come and gone. As bad as I want to take some of those throws back, to have some of those plays back, you can't get them back."
For the Saints, Drew Brees is again one of the league's elite quarterbacks, leading the NFC in passer rating (109.2) and touchdown passes (19) while ranking second in yards (2,290). However, he's been subpar in four career starts against the Jets, going 2-2 with three TDs and five interceptions.
But Brees has recently enjoyed the development of a new weapon in rookie Kenny Stills, who has caught six passes for 193 yards and three TDs in his last two games.
New York proved susceptible to another relatively unknown receiver last week, letting Marvin Jones score four times on eight catches with 122 yards for Cincinnati.
The Saints own a 6-5 series edge with a 24-10 home win in the most recent matchup Oct. 4, 2009.
The Saints activated linebacker Jonathan Vilma from the reserve injured list Saturday to face his former team. Vilma (knee) has practiced the past two weeks without any apparent limitations and was eligible to play for the first time this season.
He played his first four years with the Jets, from 2004-07.
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