METAIRIE, La. (AP) - For all the yards the New Orleans Saints gave up in their first loss of the season to the Dallas Cowboys last weekend, it was their failure to get a couple pivotal stops on third down that really bothered them.
"Third down is something we have to look at closely, because it's something we haven't done as well the last couple weeks as we did earlier in the season," linebacker Scott Fujita said after Thursday's practice. "Looking at a chart today, the games where we haven't played well on third down - those were the games that were closer and the game where we lost."
The Saints' defense has been plummeting in several high-profile rankings.
Ranked ninth in the NFL in yards allowed back when the Saints were 5-0 and beating everyone by double digits, New Orleans, which gave up 439 yards against Dallas, has fallen to 22nd in that category in the past nine games. That is only one notch better than last year's much-maligned Saints defense, whose performance led head coach Sean Payton to replace defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and with Gregg Williams and make some personnel changes in the secondary.
Payton said his defense's ability to perform in clutch situations are his main concern right now, not general statistical rankings. After all, his team is 13-1 and playoff bound.
"At this time of the year, I don't know that our focus rests on the fact that it's 25th or 21st or 18th," Payton said. "The most important thing is getting the guys ready to play and doing a better job than we did a week ago; not just defensively in the secondary, but in all areas. The focus really isn't in the numbers."
The Saints also have dropped from the top half of the league down to 25th in yards passing allowed during the past nine weeks and have yielded more than 300 yards passing in each of the past three games.
However, Darren Sharper said those statistics can be misleading because the Saints have taken big leads in a number of games, forcing opponents to throw more.
"That's going to skew the stats," he said.
Williams said the statistics that matter most to him are points allowed, takeaways and third-down percentage. The Saints have an NFL-best 37 takeaways, but are 19th in points allowed with 21.3 per game. Williams said he'd like to see the Saints get better on third down, an area in which they struggled in their only loss of the season last weekend.
Dallas converted eight of its 15 third down plays in a 24-17 win.
For the season, the Saints have shut down opponents on third down 38 percent of the time. That ranks 17th in the NFL.
Yet, in their last three games - two 3-point wins and the loss to Dallas - opponents have converted more than 50 percent of third downs. The Washington Redskins converted 7 of 12 (58 percent), while Atlanta converted 5 of 10 (50 percent).
In their 24-17 loss to Dallas, after the Saints ha pulled within one score, the Cowboys' in a third-and-7 on their own 23 with a little under 6:30 to go. The Louisiana Superdome crowd was deafening.
Tony Romo then hit Austin Miles on a slant pass in space over the middle and Miles ran after the catch for a 32-yard gain. The first down extended a drive that lasted nearly until the 2-minute warning.
The Saints finally got the ball back deep in their own territory after Dallas missed a field goal, but had no timeouts and little more than 2 minutes left. By the time they crossed midfield, there was only time left for one or two long desperation passes, and tat became moot after the Cowboys were able to sack Brees, forcing a fumble that ended the game.
"As we've struggled through some injuries, as we've struggled through some personnel matchups, we haven't been as effective on third down as we need to be," Williams said. "In the last ball game, it came back to bite us a little bit."
The Saints have sought to discount the effect of injuries, stressing that every team goes through that. Still, the Saints' injuries have been particularly acute on defense, with both starting cornerbacks, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, missing more than a month at the same time. Porter came back against Dallas. Greer returned to practice this week, though it is not clear when he will play.
"It comes down to one-on-one matchups," Williams said. "We're going to live on the edge around here playing on third down. We're not going to be a beat me, stab me, lay back, a passive-aggressive third down defensive football team. That's not what Sean brought me in here to do. I've got to find ways to help these guys win some more one-on-one matchups regardless of who has to jump out there and play."
NOTES: CB Randall Gay, who had a concussion against Dallas, returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday. ... LB Scott Shanle still has yet to return from his concussion, which also occurred last weekend. ... WR Lance Moore sat out practice with a sore right ankle.