There were moments throughout the contest when the ball was flying through the air and it brought back the high-flying feelings that have come to define the Saints in recent years.
But those moments were fleeting. A 34-yard touchdown to Josh Hill was followed a few minutes later by a dropped pass or missed opportunity. It wasn’t sustained Saints football.
Sunday’s 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome might have even been a little bit ugly by New Orleans’ standards. But there are parts of this team that loved it.
“It wasn’t perfect, but I thought we played hard,” coach Sean Payton said. “I thought we corrected some of the things we really spent much of the week working on from an emphasis standpoint.”
There are nits to pick with how the defense performed. There were some letdowns and perhaps a few too many third-down conversions were allowed (Minnesota was 6-for-15), but that the Vikings, who were without star running back Adrian Peterson, only gained 247 yards and did not score a touchdown supersedes all other arguments.
The pass rush was active, the linebackers made plays, the secondary (for the most part) did not give up easy yards and there were few communication breakdowns.
The Saints spent plenty of time in the backfield, making quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Cassel uncomfortable and forcing them into mistakes. Junior Galette (one sack, two quarterback hits, at least three other pressures) and Cameron Jordan (one sack, one quarterback hit) were active throughout the afternoon, and both pressured Bridgewater into throwing the ball into the dirt on a critical third-and-13 play in the fourth quarter when Minnesota was trying to fight back.
And while he might not have gotten after the quarterback, linebacker Curtis Lofton brought his own brand of mayhem to the defense. He recorded at least three run stuffs and blew up a pair of screens for a combined loss of 12 yards.
The secondary was especially thankful the Vikings quarterbacks were hurried into quick decisions.
“It always helps. I think all great secondaries have a great D-line,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “You can look across the league. When you ain’t got to cover very long, it makes it easy on us.”
One other thing that helped the New Orleans defense was a shift in personnel in the secondary. After a handful of negative plays last week in the loss at Cleveland, the Saints inserted Corey White to start opposite Keenan Lewis at cornerback. The secondary responded by holding Minnesota to 188 passing yards.
One might argue that Cassel suffering a foot injury that knocked him out of action in the second quarter and brought in the rookie Bridgewater worked to the secondary’s benefit, but they believe the opposite to be true. Bridgewater’s mobility created issues at times, and the Saints weren’t completely prepared for his style of play.
“He’s a rookie quarterback, and he’s more mobile,” Lofton said. “We had to switch it up and keep him in the pocket.”
The defensive performance came on a day when the offense wasn’t at its best. The first two drives, Drew Brees completed 9 of 9 passes and led the Saints to two touchdowns. But there was a lull in the middle of the game, and the offense did not wake back up until after Brees was slammed to turf by Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on the final play of the third quarter.
The score was 13-9 at that point, and Brees (27-of-35, 293 yards) was sacked on third-and-13. Minnesota would have had an opportunity to take the lead, but the play drew a flag for unnecessary roughness and gave the Saints a first down. More importantly, Brees went after safety Robert Blanton after the play, which fired up everyone in the building.
New Orleans responded by scoring a touchdown on the drive.
The offense was pleased with how the game started and ended, but they know the acts in between could have been better. That will get fixed next week.
Right now, this team is happy to get the monkey off its back.
“I’m going to sleep with a smile on my face,” running back Pierre Thomas said. “It’s been rough the last two weeks, but we’ve put that behind us and are moving forward.”