Saints counting on Jonathan Vilma to bolster defense

Here's one potential side effect of former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision on Tuesday to vacate the bounty-related suspensions of Saints DE Will Smith and LB Jonathan Vilma: New Orleans might not make ignominious history on defense.

A year after setting the NFL offensive record for most yards in a season (7,474), the Saints are on pace to give up more yards than any NFL team ever, completing an improbable statistical about-face. The 1981 Baltimore Colts allowed an all-time high 6,793 yards while going 2-14. The 2012 Saints have yielded 5,680 yards through 13 games, a pace for 6,991 yards.

New Orleans has to hold teams to an average of 371 yards or fewer the rest of the way to avoid breaking the Colts' record. Without Smith and Vilma, that task would have been difficult.

Smith has started all 13 games, ranking second to Cameron Jordan among Saints' linemen with 51 tackles and five sacks. No other end on the roster has more than 17 tackles.

Vilma has made 25 tackles and started seven times at weakside linebacker since returning from a knee injury against Tampa Bay on Oct. 21. Coaches and teammates have credited him with stabilizing the defense with his leadership and ability to recognize offensive sets.

The difference has been noticeable despite the Saints' three-game slide. After giving up more than 400 yards in the first 10 games, the defense has yielded fewer than 400 in three straight, holding opponents to an average of 350.7 yards during that stretch.

“We are the same group that held San Francisco to 17 points [offensively],” first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Monday. “That's a good offense. We went to Atlanta and certainly were very good on third down and [held them] under 300 yards. We didn't play well enough [against the Giants on Sunday, allowing 394 yards], but that just gives us a little more determination this week to regain that and go forward.”

The Saints are too far out of it to make a run at the playoffs with Vilma and Smith in the lineup for the final three games. All they can do is avoid a statistical embarrassment on defense.

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