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Saints expect defense to be much improved

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -Jobs were in jeopardy on the Saints' defense.

Coach Sean Payton made no secret of that after New Orleans finished last season 7-9 and out of the playoffs.

Drew Brees had thrown for more than 4,000 yards for a second straight year, but it didn't matter much when the Saints' defense finished near the bottom of the NFL in yards allowed and too often fell victim to big plays, giving up more than 50 gains of 20-plus yards.

During free agency, the Saints traded for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and signed defensive end Bobby McCray and cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn. Their first pick in last spring's draft was defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. The second was cornerback Tracy Porter.

For those starters coming back to training camp this season, the message was clear: Last season's performance wasn't good enough.

"On defense, where we have had a lot of struggles, a lot of the guys who were starters last year feel a lot of pressure to come out and they've go a chip on their shoulder," said linebacker Scott Fujita, one of the Saints' defensive captains last season. "That's important. I don't feel like I performed well enough last year. I think a lot of guys feel the same way."

Ellis has been a contract holdout through the first few days of camp. Nevertheless, he and other new acquisitions apparently had one desired effect even before the team returned to Millsaps College - to inspire returning starters to work harder in the offseason.

Defensive end Charles Grant and nose tackle Hollis Thomas both attended Duke University's renowned weight loss clinic and checked in for camp looking leaner than they have in years.

Thomas, who has spent much of his career above 330 pounds, was down to around 325. Charles Grant was around 277.

Their efforts impressed star defensive end Will Smith.

"Those guys worked hard in the offseason, sacrificed not going out to eat what they want and just doing the things they know will help us," Smith said. "You can tell when a guy really worked his butt off. You can tell Hollis' clothes are a little looser, that Charles' clothes are a little looser."

The Saints' defense ranked 26th last season in yards allowed (348.1 per game), 30th against the pass (245.2) and 13th against the run (102.9).

Thomas said that while the Saints' defensive front was solid plugging up holes, their pass rush needed to improve to take pressure off the secondary. The Saints tied for 19th in the league in sacks with 32 last season.

"If we had gotten to the quarterback a little more there would have been fewer big plays," Thomas said. "The pass defense starts up front. That's pretty much our philosophy."

Thomas said going to the Duke clinic was the Saints' idea, but he didn't resist.

"I was heavy, heavier than usual and it was evident. I had do something different," Thomas said. "Them sending me there let me know they cared about me as a person, more than just a football player. It let me know not only that I should do it for myself and my family but also not to let them down and make them feel like they were wasting their time."

Thomas said he's seeing the benefits of being lighter. He's more explosive off the snap of the ball and he doesn't tire as easily. During practice on Saturday, he drew some of the loudest cheers from spectators on bull rushes in which he flattened the offensive lineman trying to block him.

Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs said he was encouraged by returning players' form and their responses to threats to their playing time.

"No question about it - We've got better competition right now out there ... at every position," Gibbs said. "That competition is the impetus, I think, that will allow us to be a better football team because everybody knows that no job is secure."

The result, though it's early, is a defensive unit that is already showing signs of improvement over the year before, Smith said.

"Everyone always says they're going to be better than they were the year before," Smith began. "You really don't know until you get out there and start playing the games, but we can tell a little bit in these practices. The way guys are flying around, just guys' attitudes, we can tell we're going to be a lot better."

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