METAIRIE, La. (AP) -Drew Brees hasn't been sacked in three games.
New Orleans defenders have sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times in that stretch, during which the Saints (2-4) are 2-1 with their lone loss coming on a last-second field goal.
Head coach Sean Payton sees a connection between better line play and his team's improved competitiveness.
``We're playing good football up front on both sides of the ball,'' Payton said Monday after reviewing film of the Saints' 22-16 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons a day earlier. ``Our offensive line has improved and defensively I think we are playing much better up front.''
It was bound to be a slow start to the season for the defensive line, which had no sacks through the first three games, all lopsided losses.
Starting defensive tackle Brian Young missed virtually all of training camp with a broken foot. Fellow interior lineman Hollis Thomas reported overweight and lost his starting job to Kendrick Clancy. Clancy then missed some action earlier in the season with a sprained toe.
They're all healthy now, and with defensive coaches calling more safety blitzes in recent weeks, the Saints are getting much more pressure on the quarterback.
``Brian, specifically, did a real good job inside. Kendrick and Hollis both were solid with their effort to the quarterback,'' Payton said. ``They understood that sometimes it was going to be with a four-man rush and sometimes it was going to be through blitzes. We tried to mix it up and as that game went on, you saw the pressure and the manner in which the time the quarterback had to throw continued to decrease. That was real important as it came down to the end.''
Young has a sack in each of the past two games. Thomas and Clancy also have a sack. Right defensive end Will Smith has one sack, while left end Charles Grant and safety Roman Harper each have two.
Meanwhile, after being sacked four times in the first three games and hurried more often than that, Brees has gotten better pass protection lately. He has begun to look more like the league-leading passer he was last season. Against Atlanta, he connected with nine different receivers for 219 yards and two touchdowns.
New Orleans' rushing attack still has some way to go. The Saints finished with 91 rushing yards against Atlanta. But they did convert a couple of crucial plays on runs.
Rookie Pierre Thomas broke loose on a draw for a 24-yard touchdown, and Bush clinched the game with a 7-yard first-down run that allowed the Saints to run out the clock with a six-point lead.
Bush finished with 54 yards on 17 carries, although his numbers might have been better if some of his best runs weren't wiped out by penalties.
``Reggie Bush is starting to find his niche as a running back and he is starting to get more carries,'' Payton said. ``In the passing game, Drew has a real good rhythm to what he is doing and he understands what we are looking for.''
The offensive line suffered a blow when Jeff Faine left Sunday's game with a left pectoral injury. In came Jonathan Goodwin, who had practiced extensively with the first team in training camp because of Faine's calf injury, and the Saints went on to score two touchdowns.
``We will wait and see where Faine is at on Wednesday. We will have a plan in place if he is unable to go,'' Payton said. ``We will know we have a capable backup in Jonathan. He has played well in the preseason, and he did a good job yesterday coming in.''
After his team's second straight victory, Payton gave his players Monday off, in addition to their normal off-day on Tuesday. After Friday's practice, they'll fly to San Francisco, where they hope to get one game closer to .500 as they try to salvage a season that appeared all but lost after an 0-4 start.
``We put ourselves in a hole,'' Payton said. ``I think we have the right type of guys in the locker room to dig ourselves out of it, but still it's about execution and all the details that go into winning football games. That's where our focus is now and I think the players understand that. We have a lot of work to do still.''

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