- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, we've got to stop asking whether or not what we're seeing from the New Orleans Saints' defense is for real.
The defense has been the driving force behind all three victories by the unbeaten Saints, including a dominant 31-7 win against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. New Orleans has already blown open a two-game lead in the NFC South.
How much more real does it have to get?
"It's nothing to get super excited about, other than the fact that we show a lot of promise, and that's what we've got to keep doing," cautioned defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has been the breakout individual player of the bunch with a team-high three sacks so far, including two on Sunday.
"You always want to have that hungry attitude of just straight grinding and building on each game," Jordan added. "I don't ever want to be like, 'This is the defense that we are.' I just want to keep going and keep getting better."
After a disastrous defensive performance last season, in which they set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season (7,042), the idea was that the Saints could get back to being playoff contenders if they could just find some way to get their defense back to being a "middle-of-the-pack" unit.
Consider that goal already surpassed.
Of course, the Saints' defense is still a work in progress after making drastic changes this offseason -- both intended (hiring coordinator Rob Ryan, signing free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafting safety Kenny Vaccaro) and unintended (losing veterans Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to summer injuries).
But they've been thriving behind a youth movement, especially on the defensive front. Jordan, 24, and pass-rush specialist Junior Galette, 25, have been terrific on the edges, while Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster and John Jenkins -- all first- or second-year pros -- have taken turns doing damage up the middle.
Their performance up front has gone hand in hand with improved play on the back end, where veteran cornerbacks Lewis and Jabari Greer have done an outstanding job against top receivers like Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
"I think that's the bright side of our defense is that we really don't have any stars, if you talk about big-name guys. We've just got a lot of young guys with talent who are building confidence not only in themselves, but in each other," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "So we really don't know how good we are or how good we can be. It's just all about going to work every day and getting better.
"Obviously, with each win and each performance, we gain more confidence. But we really don't know where the ceiling is for this defense, so we go to work every week and treat every week like it was Week 1 versus Atlanta."
The Saints had a total of four sacks Sunday (two by Jordan and one each by Galette and Foster). Everyone on the Saints' defensive front took turns abusing a suspect offensive line to hit and hurry Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer throughout the afternoon. They eventually forced interceptions by Vaccaro and Lewis in the fourth quarter.
After the Cardinals opened the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, they punted on their next eight possessions and threw interceptions on the final two.
"They can rush the passer," Palmer said. "There's two very good pass-rushers that people don't know a whole lot about. You hear a lot [about] Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, but Cameron Jordan is really good. He showed that today. Junior Galette is really good. They're physical guys. They stop the run, and they rush the passer. A really good combination of strength and speed."
Jordan is starting to get that respect around the country. Pro Football Focus highlighted him this past week, pointing out that his 12 quarterback disruptions led all 3-4 ends through two weeks (though, to be fair, the versatile Jordan is lining up as a traditional 4-3 end in many pass-rushing situations).
More importantly, Jordan is making his mom proud. He said she gave him grief after he went sackless in Week 1.
She wasn't the only one, though. The Saints' defensive line is clearly a competitive group.
While Jordan was talking to a group of reporters Sunday, Walker yelled over that he stole one of his sacks. After Week 1, Jordan was beside himself that he didn't have any sacks against the Falcons while Hicks already had one.
And while crediting Galette for having tremendous speed on Sunday, Jordan admitted that he is more of a "power" guy. But he said that makes for an interesting race between the two to get to the quarterback.
"I've been claiming the strength of our D-line is just how much youth and talent is on the D-line. It definitely showed today," Jordan said Sunday. "From the outside to the interior, I was highly pleased. Whether it be Tyrunn Walker or big Akiem or Glenn Foster, it was all just pressure everywhere. You couldn't really locate just one spot where we were getting pressure.
"And when you're part of a D-line like that, it's a party."