Saints defending far better lately than last game vs Bucs

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — No matter how much New Orleans' defense may have improved since this season's opening week, linebacker Alex Anzalone doesn't see the benefit in dismissing as irrelevant the 48 points the Saints surrendered in a Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers.

"In the back of our minds, if anything, it's just motivation to be on your Ps and Qs this week," Anzalone said this week, as New Orleans prepared for the rematch in Tampa Bay. "They do have a really good offense. They have a bunch of play makers, so we know what they're capable of. There's a lot of motivation for this game, but as a defense, that could definitely be one of them."

In Week 1, New Orleans' busted coverages led to a 529-yard day for the Buccaneers' offense, highlighted by touchdown passes of 58 and 36 yards to DeSean Jackson and 50 yards to Mike Evans. Tampa Bay's offense accounted 41 points, with one Buccaneers TD coming on safety Justin Evans' fumble return.

Yet the Saints defense that was on the field that day scarcely resembles the one playing practically lights out for the past month.

The Saints have held each of their last four foes to between 7 and 17 points.

"That's huge in this league when you can hold a team to under 20 points, especially with the offense we've got," Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "I'm going to bet on us most times."

Confidence is surging. Botched assignments are few. Sacks and turnovers have risen sharply. New Orleans has sacked opposing QBs 13 times in the past two games, during which they've also taken the ball away six times.

"It's been impressive," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "As a coach, you're encouraged because we're receiving good end play, but we're also receiving great tackle play and I think inside we've really been able to push the pocket."

Those recent performances have made New Orleans' season-opening stumble look more like ancient history.

"That was a lot of first-game errors that we had to work out," Anzalone said. "It wasn't necessarily who we were as a defense. It was just something that we weren't locked in enough or didn't execute enough to get the job done."

Rankins, a first round draft choice in 2016, is having arguably his best season with seven sacks. Five of his sacks have come since Week 8. Like the rest of the Saints defense, he did not have a sack in Week 1.

If the Bucs study game video from their previous meeting, Rankins said, they'll see the same scheme New Orleans us using now, but vastly different execution.

"With the way we've been playing, I think they're going to have to try to attack us in a different way," he said.

Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said he sees a Saints defense that has "evolved," both in terms of young players improving as well as with some key personnel changes, such as a mid-season trade to bring in cornerback Eli Apple from the New York Giants. Apple quickly took over as starter in place of Ken Crawley.

"Their defense is playing pretty well at this time, all the way across," Koetter said.

If New Orleans' defense has been consistent in one area, it has been against the run. The Saints have been near the top of the NFL in that department all season and rank first through 12 games, and that's not simply because opponents are choosing to pass more against them, Koetter said.

"They're playing with the lead a lot, and teams are throwing the ball," Koetter began. "Still, when you watch the tape you go, 'Man these guys are pretty good against the run.' I think their front seven is really playing hard."

Notes: WR Michael Thomas practiced fully on Thursday after resting his sore ankle on Wednesday. ... Offensive tackles Terron Armstead (chest) and Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder) were listed as limited on the practice report.

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AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.

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