The Saints’ 31-24 victory over the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday night could hardly have packed more of the horrors commonly seen in mid-August NFL preseason action for New Orleans.
An apparent leg injury forced the second-quarter exit of the Saints’ Keenan Lewis, the only cornerback on the roster entrenched as a starter at that position. There were 22 accepted penalties against the Saints for a mind-numbing 184 lost yards — 14 of those calls and 116 of those yards in the first half, when a significant number of starters — especially on defense — were in.
Nonetheless, the Saints managed something in which they might find a measure of comfort: five total takeaways resulting in 17 points. Those are the kind of plays their defense has prioritized all offseason, plays it could’ve used in a 2013 campaign that ended at Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs, two wins shy of a Super Bowl appearance.
“That’s something we emphasized — to get five turnovers is big,” said Saints safety Rafael Bush, who snatched up a fumble. “But at the same time, we still got to make sure we can tone down these penalties, and we’re going to work on that as soon as we get back (to practice).”
All throughout offseason practices and training camp, any time the pigskin hits the ground, whether because of a strip or an incomplete pass, Saints coaches and players have pointed at it shouting, “Ball! Ball! Ball!” The closest player must either secure it or endure the wrath of his peers and bosses, who want the Saints to accumulate many more than 2013’s 19 turnovers, the fourth-fewest in the NFL.
The Saints were disappointed when they didn’t create any at their preseason debut, a 26-24 win at St. Louis on Aug. 8. But then, trailing Tennessee 10-7 with 5:37 to go in the first half, New Orleans broke the seal, thanks to last year’s most impressive Saints rookie, Kenny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro stripped Titans running back Shonn Greene at the Tennessee 35. Bush recovered, and Greene left hurt. Three plays later, Saints quarterback Luke McCown threw his second of two touchdown passes to tight end Jimmy Graham to put New Orleans ahead 14-10.
That post-takeaway drive had a vastly better outcome than the two previous ones the Saints had put together, moving just 35 yards and punting twice.
The hope for a Saints defense that otherwise was brilliant in its first campaign under coordinator Rob Ryan last year (holding opponents to the fourth-fewest yards and points in the NFL) is that one takeaway opens the floodgates for more on any given day. And on Friday it did.
On the seven Titans drives that followed Bush’s recovery of Vaccaro’s strip, four concluded in Saints takeaways. Three of those were recovered fumbles, validating the Saints’ emphasis on scooping up the “ball! ball! ball!” at practice.
There was Saints defensive end Cam Jordan stripping Titans backup and former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger on a sack at the New Orleans 38. Jordan’s linemate Akiem Hicks pounced on it for the recovery with fewer than 40 seconds to go in the first half.
The Saints didn’t score, but they preserved a 21-17 lead.
After running out the first half and punting on their first drive of the third quarter, the Titans’ next three advances ended in turnovers.
Rookie Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste recovered a Derek Hagan fumble. Mettenberger then tossed an interception to ex-Alabama and rookie Saints safety Vinnie Sunseri on the first play that the Titans got the ball back via a New Orleans punt. That set up a 34-yard Shayne Graham field goal that gave New Orleans a 24-17 lead with 11:46 to go in the game.
And, lastly, on the second play of their next drive, reserve nose tackle Brandon Deaderick fell atop a botched handoff to Titans running back Bishop Sankey at Tennessee’s 30.
That eventually led to a 3-yard touchdown pass from backup Saints quarterback Ryan Griffin to bubble rookie receiver Seantavius Jones that gave New Orleans a 31-17 lead with 8:54 to go, which Tennessee wouldn’t cut into until there were 10 seconds left.
It limited Tennessee to a paltry three plays and 5 yards on the drives that concluded with Deaderick’s and Sunseri’s takeaways.
As always, the usual caveats about making too much ado about a preseason performance apply. But, with maybe the exception of bubble player Deaderick, it’s safe to assume the Saints are going to want to count on all of the players involved with Friday’s takeaways — either this year (Vaccaro, Bush, Jordan, Hicks) or not too long afterward (Sunseri, a fifth-round draft pick; or Jean-Baptiste, chosen in the second round).
A defense that last season took the ball away just four times during its final 11 games shouldn’t turn up its nose at an outing like Friday, no matter what time of the year it is. But they weren’t about to admit to that, not moments after the game ended.
“Here’s a number for you: five takeaways, ... we’re at the nine-minute mark in the fourth quarter, we’re up seven,” Saints coach Sean Payton said in a disgusted tone while discussing the penalties. “Listen, we’ll say, ‘Hey, when we get to the regular season, it’ll clean itself up.’ But, hey, that’s silliness. That’s crazy.”
Hicks added, “All the takeaways that we get aren’t going to do anything for us if we can’t stop ourselves from putting ourselves in bad positions.”