"That scoring defense statistic, there's a lot that goes into it," Payton said. "Definitely, it's encouraging. We're playing better. The players are playing with more confidence."
When the regular season began, the Saints couldn't be sure how their defense would fare. Not only was the scheme new, but key players went down with season-ending injuries, including projected starting outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler.
So the Saints turned to some hungry young players, such as outside linebacker Junior Galette (four sacks), defensive ends Cameron Jordan (six sacks) and Glenn Foster (two sacks), and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (three tackles for losses).
"We're all buying into rushing the passer as a unit instead of individuals and communicating well as a defensive line," said Foster, an undrafted rookie. "That's the biggest thing, just communication."
Meanwhile, new cornerback Keenan Lewis, acquired in free agency, has three interceptions. Hard-hitting safety Kenny Vaccaro, this year's first-round draft choice, has made plays all over the field.
Saints right tackle Zach Strief said the improved defense has given Payton more flexibility in his offensive play-calling. Sometimes it might mean trying to convert a fourth-and-short on the Saints' side of the field, confident that the defense will mitigate the damage should the play fail. Other times, it means calling clock-eating plays to protect a lead.
"It certainly lets you take some more chances," Strief said. "At the same time, late in some of these games, it gives you a chance to be a little more conservative and protect the ball a little bit better because you don't feel like you're up 17 points and you've got to get another" score.