ST. LOUIS — The confidence is what stood out most to Zach Strief.
It wasn’t like this last year. Ryan Griffin had some talent, but he didn’t lead a huddle quite like this, or stand up in the face of pressure quite like that. He had moments, but they were sustained like they were during the New Orleans Saints 26-24 victory over the St. Louis Rams Friday night at the Edward Jones Dome.
“Ryan has turned into that quickly,” offensive lineman Zach Strief said. “Obviously just his second year, kind of a sponge. He’s absorbed a lot of information. He did a really good job of getting us in the right place tonight.”
Friday’s game ended on a missed field goal by the Rams in the waning seconds. The result matters, but it wouldn’t have made much a difference internally if the kick had been good. At this point in the schedule, the Saints are more looking for answers to their own problems than to cause them for the opposition.
At the forefront of those issues is the battle to for the top backup job. With Drew Brees sidelined with a left oblique injury, the preseason opener created the perfect opportunity for the Saints to get a better look at his understudies, Ryan Griffin and Luke McCown.
McCown, who was the top backup last season, was given the start and played the first two series, finishing 7-of-10 for 103 yards with an interception. McCown came in late in the first quarter and played until the waning seconds of the third. He finished 17-of-24 for 190 yards with a touchdown.
Coach Sean Payton explained that McCown’s snaps were limited because he was part of the first wave of players, and that he could see more action in the next game.
“It’s pretty normal, our rotation tonight, probably for the last eight years,” Payton said.
Given the disparity in snaps, it would difficult to gauge a winner in the first round of the quarterback battle, but Griffin ensured that it will last for at least the next few weeks. He was also helped by a few early McCown mistakes.
A cornerback blitz by Rams cornerback LaMarucs Joyner cause McCown to throw an interception to defensive end Chris Long, which put the quarterback on the ropes early, but he battled back with a solid second series.
McCown started out by finding tight end Benjamin Watson for a 10-yard gain on a short pass with two pass rushers closing in, and then a pair of runs by Khiry Robinson that gained 17 yards opened up the passing lanes and forced the Rams to respect New Orleans’ play-action attempts. McCown took advantage by connecting with Travaris Cadet for a 14-yard catch-and-run.
The drive stalled near the 20-yard line, which brought out kicker Shayne Graham out to connect on a 37-yard field goal that pulled the Saints within 7-3.
McCown’s day was over. But on this night, with Brees sidelined, the Saints appeared more interested in finding out what kind of growth Griffin has made since last season.
The second-year quarterback out of Tulane was ready for the measuring tape. With the help of a running attack led by Mark Ingram (eight carries, 83 yards), Griffin began to state his case soon after stepping on the field.
In his first brush with danger, Griffin appeared more ready to face adversity than his counterpart. On a third-and-10 play during his opening series, three Rams’ pass rushers flooded the pocket, including rookie defensive end Michael Sam, but instead of panicking or speeding up, Griffin stood tall, stepped through the pressure, and managed to get a pass off. It fell incomplete, but New Orleans was awarded a first down on a holding call.
The Saints stumbled through the rest of the series, and were forced to punt when Griffin made his biggest mistake of the night by missing an open Brandin Cooks on the next third-down play. The Saints ran a similar play on its next offensive play from scrimmage. This time, Griffin found Cooks.
It’s all Griffin and the offense needed to get out of the gate.
Following a failed run by Robinson, Griffin found Josh Hill on the right side of the field, and the tight end did his best impression of Jimmy Graham. After catching the ball, he stepped through two would-be tacklers, took off over the middle, laid a stiff-arm on another Rams player, and was eventually pushed out of bounds on the left side of the field for a 50-yard gain.
“He’s someone that demonstrated a year ago when he got in here that he has good speed,” Payton said.
The Saints lost 10 yards on the play thanks to a block in the back by wide receiver Nick Toon, and lost another 10 yards during the series on penalties. It didn’t matter. Griffin hit on four of his next five passes to put New Orleans on the 1-yard line, where Robinson punched it in to give the Saints a 9-7 lead. Graham clanked the extra-point attempt off the left upright.
After the Rams scored on the next drive, Griffin played the part of game manager, playing sidekick to Ingram, who picked up a pair of 22-yard runs, one of which resulted in a touchdown that gave the Saints a 16-14 lead. The Rams hit another field goal to steal the lead heading into halftime.
Griffin played two more series in the second half, and though there were some hiccups, including a fumbled snap, he led the Saints into the red zone on the first series and was forced to settle for a field goal after Cadet dropped a third-down pass.
On the next series, Griffin connected with running back Derrick Strozier on third down to push inside the red zone. Two plays later, Griffin stood in the pocket, took a hit, and delivered a pass to Cooks, who stopped, cut back, and ran it in for a 25-yard touchdown to give New Orleans a 26-17 lead.
“Showed a lot of poise on the touchdown pass,” Strief said. “Standing in, knows he’s going to get drilled, and delivers the ball perfectly.”
Griffin gave way to Logan Kilgore right before the fourth quarter. The Rams fought back, pulling within two, before missing the potential game-winning field goal.
But the result didn’t matter. This night, with Brees out, was about quarterback battle. And while Griffin might not have been perfect, he put enough good things on film to ensure that that the next three games will matter.