JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In order to secure their first road win this season, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton knew he had to come up with a tried-and-true plan to beat a Jacksonville Jaguars team that plays well at home.
Taking a page from the championship season of 2009, when they ground out a harder-than-it-had-to-be 27-7 victory over the lowly Buffalo Bills in Week 3, Payton wanted to run the ball against the Jaguars’ fourth-ranked defense and turn the game over to his defense.
The plan worked to perfection.
The Saints rushed for a season-high 177 yards, their highest total since pounding the Tampa Bay Bucs for 212 yards in Week 6 last season, and their defense limited Jacksonville to 105 total yards in the second half in a workmanlike 23-10 win over the Jaguars at EverBank Field.
“We talked all week about some of the things that we thought would be important in this game,” Payton said after his team’s third straight win. “We out-rushed them, and that was a goal for us.
“We thought that was going to be critical,” he added. “Statistically, when you look at their history playing at home, they’re about an 85 percent winner when they win the rushing battle. So that was important.”
The Saints’ three-headed monster at halfback — Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles — combined for 166 rushing yards. Together, they nearly doubled the output of Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who had 84 of the Jaguars’ 104 yards on the ground.
“We all have our roles,” said Sproles, who led the Saints with 75 yards on just seven carries and caught five passes for 56 yards. “We’ve all got roles and whatever play is called, we just have to make something happen.”
That’s exactly what Sproles did in the Saints’ first two drives of the game, which resulted in touchdowns after he set them up at the Jaguars’ 1 both times.
On those two drives, which covered 62 and 96 yards, Sproles had runs of 19 and 15 yards and caught passes of 9, 14, 11 and 12 yards.
Those plays set up fullback Jed Collins for a 1-yard touchdown blast on the first carry of his NFL career and a 1-yard TD pass from Drew Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught 10 balls for 132 yards.
The touchdown by Collins was the first score for the Saints (3-1) on their opening possession this season, which was big considering the Jaguars (1-3) came into the game averaging just 9.7 points a game.
“We emphasized coming out strong in the first quarter in this game,” said Thomas. “We needed to do that, score on our first possession. We worked on that this week and everybody knew that we needed that.”
Thomas added 36 yards on six carries and Ingram finished with 55 yards on 17 carries.
They were the perfect complements for an offensive attack that netted the Saints 503 total yards as Brees hit on 31 of 44 attempts for 351 yards. But he was intercepted twice and sacked three times as the offense sputtered at times after getting off to that quick 14-0 lead.
“We wanted to run the ball, but we also wanted a big lead, too,” said Sproles. “But in this league, it’s hard to win games on the road.”
The Saints found out as they had to settle for John Kasay field goals of 38, 39 and 21 yards on three second-half trips into the Jaguars’ red zone. Two other scoring chances ended when Kasay missed on long field goal tries of 53 and 50 yards.
“We weren’t very efficient,” Brees said. “We had three instances where we got inside the 20 and just couldn’t convert. I’m confident that when we bear down and work on it, we’ll get results.
“If you would have told us before the game that we were going to have 500 yards of total offense and be 50 percent on third down, I would have said that’s 40 points. Unfortunately, we got inside the 20 three times in the second half and didn’t come away with touchdowns.”
But the offense didn’t have to put up a lot of points even though Payton and his coaching staff made sure that they didn’t forget losing on the road to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 5 last season when they went in as a favorite against a rookie quarterback.
This time, the defense made things difficult on Jaguars’ rookie Blaine Gabbert. The Jaguars decided to try to let Gabbert, who was making just his second start, throw the ball first and run with Jones-Drew later.
Gabbert completed 14 of 42 passes for 196 yards, but was just 4-of-18 for 31 yards in the second half. He was sacked three times in all and had a passer rating of 51.3.
The Jaguars, who got a 14-yard TD pass from Gabbert to tight end Zach Miller and a 31-yard Josh Scobee field goal to cut the deficit to 14-10 at halftime, never got going after halftime.
Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson got his first NFL interception after Jones-Drew ripped off a 41-yard run on their first play of the third quarter, taking the wind out of their sails. They finished the game with just 274 total yards.
The Jaguars were 4 of 15 on third down and failed to convert on all four of their fourth-down opportunities — including three in the second half.
“We knew the key to the victory was stopping the run,” said Saints defensive end Will Smith, who had two of their three sacks. “We were surprised they didn’t try to establish the run a little bit earlier in the game. They kind of waited until later in the game, but that kind of played into our (hands). So it worked out for us.”