METAIRIE, La. -- By almost every possible measure, the New Orleans Saints defense was outstanding in 2013. It wasn't just a complement to the offense but a driving force behind the team's success, from Week 1 all the way through the playoffs.
However, there is one area where there is still glaring room for improvement heading into 2014: Turnovers.
For whatever reason, the Saints' takeaways virtually disappeared during the second half of the season. They forced only four over their final nine regular-season games (the lowest total in the NFL over that span) and none during their two playoff games.
It was at the forefront of players' minds after last week's season-ending 23-15 loss at Seattle -- even though the defense had fought hard to keep New Orleans alive in the game.
"The one thing we lacked was just getting that turnover," safety Malcolm Jenkins said in the postgame locker room. "And I think we were one turnover away from really tying this game up or giving our offense field position."
Jenkins said he felt like he had that same regret over the course of the past two or three months.
"From a defensive standpoint, the stats were great. And everything looks good, but what we were terrible at was getting turnovers," Jenkins said. "And that's huge, especially when you're talking about postseason football and taking it all the way."
The turnovers didn't become an issue until Week 9. Through the Saints' first seven games, they were tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 takeaways (a big reason why they were 6-1 at the time). But then they went quiet and wound up finishing 29th in the league with 19 takeaways.
There was no obvious statistical reason for the drop off. They continued to put pressure on quarterbacks, finishing fourth in the league with 49 sacks. They continued to shut down team's total yardage and passing yardage (finishing fourth and second in the NFL in those two categories).
Asked about the surprising trend, players were never quite able to put their finger on it. Linebacker Curtis Lofton was still at a loss this week when he quickly listed the takeaways as the Saints' No. 1 area for improvement on defense going forward.
"You know, there's no rhyme or reason," Lofton said. "I took a look at myself to see if, 'Could I have forced this? Could I have done that?' But looking back at the tape, I just didn't see an opportunity. And it's not like we were out there dropping interceptions or the ball's out and we're not jumping on it.
"It's just one of those things that you get 'em when you get 'em, and we didn't get 'em. So we've got to find a way to get more of 'em."
Other than that, the future for the Saints' defense looks bright.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is obviously an outstanding fit for this young unit. And almost all of the guys who had breakout performances for New Orleans (ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette, cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Kenny Vaccaro) are young players who should only continue to develop. The only two starters scheduled to become unrestricted free agents are Jenkins and linebacker Parys Haralson.
And at least one key player will be added back into the mix after missing the entire season with a knee injury. That's promising young outside linebacker Victor Butler, who was almost correct when he made the seemingly-outlandish prediction last summer that the Saints would finish ranked No. 1 in the NFL in defense this season.
This week Butler joked that since they finished fourth, it still allows him to help them improve a little next year.
"I'm excited. ... I'm foaming at the mouth," Butler said. I've taken a couple of DVDs home with me -- I say a couple -- 15 just to watch film from this and watch the guys, so next year when I get back it's like I never missed a beat. I want to play football, and I want to play with this group."
But even with so much young talent to build around, the Saints don't plan to sit on their hands this offseason.
When coach Sean Payton was asked if there is less need to add defensive help than there has been in years past, he pointed to the two teams still playing in the NFC championship game this weekend as inspiration to keep getting stronger on that side of the ball.
"I think you study the San Franciscos and the Seattles and you recognize that, hey, there's still this formula that's won in our league for a long time," Payton said. "I think we are younger on that side of the ball than we have been in a while, and yet there is that balance of, 'Are you drafting need or are you drafting value?' I think we try to create that separation. If there is some strong value sitting there, I think you have to pay attention to it. ... But I think we are younger over there than we have been in probably the seven years I have been here."