All this adds up to a defensive unit that trails Philly's by 38 yards for the NFL lead in total defense. Coaches will tell you that yards allowed aren't as important as points allowed, and the Saints are No. 1 in the latter with 100. That's 53 fewer points than the Eagles have yielded. Privately, though, the players admit that as long as the league ranks defenses by yardage, they'll fight for every inch.
"When Robert Delpino of the Rams caught a 78-yarder against us," said Cook on Sunday, "I was figuring, 'Damn, that'll average out to almost nine yards a game.' Against the Niners today, when Gene Atkins got flagged for a 44-yard interference penalty, he said to me, 'I cost our defense all those yards.' I said, 'Cheer up, it doesn't count on the stats.' "
Another thing this defense has accomplished is to hide the shortcomings of the battered New Orleans offense, which accounted for only 191 yards on Sunday. Missing are starting quarterback Bobby Hebert (right rotator cuff), halfback Dalton Hilliard (foot, knee, hip—you name it), fullback Craig Heyward (foot), flanker Quinn Early (knee) and linemen Steve Trapilo (knee), Derek Kennard (torn pectoral) and Chris Port (shoulder).
For now, with a four-game lead in the NFC West, the Saints can afford to get by on whatever the defense can salvage for them. But come the playoff's, which will have lots of good defensive teams with offenses to match, New Orleans could be in trouble. In the meantime the Saints are enjoying their 9-1 success, their sacks and forced fumbles, and all the madness in the Dome. Ugly football looks just fine.