From the worst defense in the history of the NFL, to a unit that can stop one of the best offenses in the league. The New Orleans Saints have new pride in their defensive unit, while the old and lasting strength; the ability of Drew Brees to take this team forward, seems to be just as good as ever.
In the first NFC South divisional clash of the season, the New Orleans Saints held the Atlanta Falcons, a team some consider to be the best in the NFC going into this season, at only 17 points, with an impressive defensive stand, intercepting Matt Ryan as the Falcons were only three yards away from a game winning touchdown. The Saints came out on top 23-17, in what was quite similar to the way the Falcons lost in the NFC championship game last year to the 49ers – coming up a few yards too short.
Brees wasn’t perfect. He threw an interception to Robert Alford and was kind of close to getting picked off again facing a defense that knows him pretty well despite their changes in the secondary. And yet he did finish with two touchdown passes and 357 yards, as the running-game-by-committee continued to stagnate, gaining only 78 yards on 29 carries.
Brees did find a lot of use for one of his running backs, as Darren Sporles led the team in receptions with six catches for 88 yards. The touchdowns came from Jimmy Graham, who was dominant all afternoon, catching four passes for 45 yards and a touchdown, and Marques Colston, Brees’ most reliable target, setting a record for career receptions for the Saints, catching 5 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
As we said, the difference wasn’t Brees, but the defense. Matt Ryan was sacked three times during the game, but that wasn’t the end of it. The Saint put him under pressure or got to him 12 times during the game, compared to a total of 13 times in both meetings last season. He went 3-of-9 in those situations, throwing one touchdown pass but also the interception that ended the game.
The Falcons had a chance to score on late drives at the end of both halves, but Matt Ryan couldn’t find his targets and hardly had enough time to settle in the pocket, finishing with a 4-for-9 and an interception in the final two minutes of each half, compared to his league best 70.5% completion ratio in that situation last season.
It was the first time ever for the Saints in one aspect at least: They’ve never beaten the Falcons in a week 1 meeting between the rivals, losing on their previous six attempts. In a division that hasn’t had a consecutive winner since 2002, the New Orleans Saints made early sounds of denying that streak from happening once again.
Drew Brees has Sean Payton talking to him on the headset, which is a huge difference from last year. His protection isn’t perfect, but with a lot less pressure on him to score on each drive thanks to the improved defense, it seems like the Saints can get back to normal after something of a missed year in 2012.