NASHVILLE, Tenn. — New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said his defense doesn’t subscribe to the old bend-but-don’t-break theory.
Never has, never will.
“We defend every blade of grass,” Greer said Sunday afternoon. “We’ve never been a bend-but-don’t-break defense. We’re going to fight and protect our turf.”
They did Sunday, giving up big plays and chunks of yardage but keeping the Tennessee Titans out of the end zone on their final two drives to preserve a 22-17 victory in LP Field.
The Titans reached the Saints’ 24 and 5 on their last two drives, but were turned away both times — the first on fourth-and-inches with 2:18 left and the second when Tennessee had two snaps from point-blank range with seven seconds remaining.
Three hours later, the Saints (10-3) clinched at least a wild-card playoff berth when the Chicago Bears dropped a 13-10 overtime decision to the Denver Broncos. The Saints retained a two-game lead over the Atlanta Falcons in the race for the NFC South title with three games to play.
It looked like Sunday’s game was getting away from the Saints after they bounced back from a 10-9 deficit on fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 35 and 28 yards from Drew Brees to Marques Colston, the latter with 7:01 left.
The Titans (7-6) needed just three plays to strike back, however, getting a 40-yard scoring pass from rookie quarterback Jake Locker to wide receiver Nate Washington to climb back into it at 22-17 with 5:58 to play.
That’s when the Saints defense tightened.
First, Locker was stopped short on a sneak on fourth-and-inches with 2:18 remaining. On the play, Saints defensive tackle Shaun Rogers stopped the initial surge at the bottom of the pile while his teammates helped out.
That play came after free safety Malcolm Jenkins stopped Titans running back Chris Johnson short of a first down following a 9-yard gain on a pass from starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck left the game in the second quarter with a calf injury, but came back for one play when Locker was shaken up after taking a hit from blitzing cornerback Tracy Porter.
“We were just running to the ball,” Jenkins said of his play. “We always teach population to the ball. Once we see the play declared, everybody goes and I was able to make a good tackle. Then, we stopped them on fourth-and-1, so it was a good play for us.”
“We can’t point to one defense, there are a couple of different defenses called and they made a couple of big throws and catches — especially in the middle of the field,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There were a couple of them that were real good plays by them — credit them.”
The Saints gave the ball back to the Titans offense with 1:34 left when Payton went for the knockout punch on third-and-7. But Brees’ pass to running back Chris Ivory was incomplete, giving the Titans one final shot.
Locker, who completed 13 of 29 passes for 282 yards with one touchdown, connected on a 25-yard pass to Lavelle Hawkins, then hit Nate Washington for 10 and 40 yards which brought them to the Saints’ 5.
After Locker spiked the ball to stop the clock, Porter knocked away a pass intended for wide receiver Marc Mariani at the goal line before strong-side linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar sacked Locker as he broke the pocket and drifted toward the sideline on the game’s final play.
Porter said he was mad he didn’t get a sack on Locker when he knocked him out of the game on the previous drive. The play was ruled a sack and fumble, but the Titans challenged and referee Mike Carey overturned it.
“I missed a play on a sack, and I was angry,” Porter said. “I was determined to make up for it.
“There was man-to-man coverage and the quarterback checked to another play, so you knew the ball was coming out quick,” he said of diagnosing the play. “I played my leverage and believed in the technique I was playing. He checked to a slant, so I went and made a play on the ball.”
His defensive gem set the stage for Dunbar to get Locker, who had a 6-yard touchdown run with 2:19 to play in the third period to give the Titans a 10-9 lead, down on the ground when his receivers were covered.
“We were in coverage, and I just see Locker trying to make a play,” Dunbar said. “I figured he was going to run the ball.
“There was tight coverage in the back end, so when he took off as if he was running I just took off with him. I was supposed to be in coverage … but hey, I made a play.”
“From where I was at, I didn’t see anybody that had a good chance of getting it to,” said Locker, whose mobility allowed him to lead the Titans with 36 rushing yards on six carries. “I thought I could make that guy miss. I just need to throw it away or give somebody a chance.”
The Saints held Chris Johnson to 23 yards on 11 carries.
The final quarter was action-packed after the two teams muddled through a penalty-filled first three quarters in which they combined for 18 penalties.
The Saints finished with 11 penalties, tying their season high, for 95 yards — including two personal fouls on strong safety Roman Harper — and the Titans were flagged eight times for 54 yards.
After Locker’s touchdown run in the third quarter, which came after John Kasay had field goals of 25, 29 and 22 yards and the Titans’ Rob Bironas connected on a 43-yarder, the Saints’ offense came up with back-to-back touchdown drives.
Brees, who was 36-of-47 passes for 337 yards, led a 72-yard drive that ended with his 35-yard TD throw to a wide-open Colston. Then, after the Titans scored on Locker’s throw to Washington, Brees mounted a 50-yard march that ended with a 28-yard strike to Colston for another score.
From there, the defense did what it had to when it had to.
“It was a hard-fought game,” said Payton. “I thought both teams played hard and fought through some adversity. It was a gut-check win for us.”