The cavalry came back to solidify the secondary.
It held tight, for the most part, but it still sprung leaks.
Sunday’s performance wasn’t perfect. The most positive takeaway for the secondary from Sunday’s 26-20 victory over the Dallas Cowboys was that safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Keenan Lewis were on the field.
Having those guys back means that things can start to jell and get better. Players can line up in their best spots, start building some chemistry and potentially become the backbone of the defense.
“We didn’t panic,” Lewis said. “It’s amazing when you get everybody back. It’s just a matter of time before we put it together.”
The were elements there, but it didn’t show up fully. That’s going to take some time, and there are going to be things the coaching staff and players don’t like about the performance, even if it did lead to the first victory.
Too many penalties. Too many easy catches. Dallas’ final drive, in particular, which tied the game at 20, left something to be desired. If grading against perfection — or even a scale where you’d hope the group would sustain — it came up short in some spots.
“We played a lot of man-to-man coverage, and we held up for the most part,” coach Sean Payton said. “There are some (defensive) flags that we have to clean up, but overall, we got some pressure on the quarterback.”
Those things are all true. In the end, it was good enough. Dallas converted only 25 percent of its third downs. There was pressure. The secondary didn’t give up many yards outside of a few drives. It worked well enough to get a win, and that’s what was most important on Sunday.
In theory, with the missing pieces back and Cowboys starting quarterback Tony Romo and star wide receiver Dez Bryant on the shelf, it should have tilted things in New Orleans’ favor to a large degree. But this wasn’t the full-blown secondary on the field.
Byrd and Lewis played only in sub-packages, with Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux standing in at cornerback and Kenny Phillips at safety in the base defense. In nickel packages, Breaux and Lewis were the cornerbacks with Byrd at safety. Browner often came in and covered tight end Jason Witten in dime packages.
Breaux, outside of a costly penalty, performed as good as could one could hope for most of the game. He shadowed wide receiver Terrance Williams throughout the contest and surrendered only two receptions, both on Dallas’ final drive of the game. On the first, he was picked by Witten. The second came in the end zone after he broke up a pass on the play before. Williams’ third reception came against broken coverage.
The question of whether or not he should remain in the starting lineup over Browner didn’t become any easier. This became a conversation last week after Browner, who was signed this offseason to a lucrative contract, surrendered a pair of 50-yard receptions against the Carolina Panthers.
That problem was back Sunday night. The miscues were somewhat justifiable against the Panthers since both plays came against zone coverage, which isn’t Browner’s forte. The 67-yard reception he gave up to Cowboys wide receiver Brice Butler came with Browner aligned at the line of scrimmage. Browner was simply beat.
Luckily, Breaux broke up passes to Williams on first and second downs, and rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha sacked Weeden on third down to force a field goal.
It wasn’t all bad for Browner. He showed up with a key run stuff in the fourth quarter on a third-and-1 play that forced a punt, and he later snuffed out a screen pass. He also did a decent job against Witten, playing a role in holding him to four receptions for 57 yards. After the struggles the Saints have had against other tight ends this season, that stat line will be taken as a victory.
One thing the Saints certainly won’t stomach is the number of penalties called against the team. Overall, New Orleans was flagged eight times for 64 yards. Many of those were by the secondary. Of those, many came on the same drive.
On Dallas’ first touchdown drive, Browner (holding), Lewis (illegal hands to the face), Damian Swann (facemask) and Breaux (pass interference) all drew penalties. Breaux’s penalty put the Cowboys at the 1-yard line, where they punched it in the next play.
These are the kind of things the Saints need to make an effort to clean up. Breaux, in particular, has to break his penchant for grabbing onto his receiver when he falls out of phase in his coverage. He’s one of the better cover guys on the team, but until he stops drawing penalties, he’ll continue to undermine his efforts.
Overall it was a step in the right direction. And the Saints were kind of the Saints on Sunday. The players were out there, but this still isn’t the secondary as it was designed. Byrd and Lewis will eventually play every snap.
“We got our momentum back,” Lewis said. “This shows we can do it.”
They can, but there are still have things to clean up. When that happens, this group has the potential to become one of the strengths of the roster.