LONDON — The New Orleans Saints had to fight on Sunday.
A team that has become known over the years for eye-popping highlights and offensive fireworks had to grind out a win over a Miami Dolphins team that has been punchless on offense but punishing on defense.
New Orleans won that fight, overwhelming Miami 20-0 for the team's first shutout since 2012, battling back to equilibrium through the most difficult part of the schedule and avoiding the kind of start that has sunk the team the past three seasons.
"You knew it was important, the two-game schedule for us after New England was going to be important, at Carolina and then off to England," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Really, this month was challenging."
Unlike last week's wire-to-wire win over Carolina, New Orleans (2-2) failed to establish itself on both sides of the ball from the start.
The defense followed the same blueprint. Initially on their heels, the Saints got a big play in the form of Ken Crawley's end zone interception of Jay Cutler at the end of the first drive and rode the momentum to a dominant performance, allowing a paltry 95 yards the rest of the way.
New Orleans sacked Cutler four times, bottled up Ajayi in key short-yardage situations and allowed just 185 yards, the fewest a Saints team has allowed in a single game since giving up just 142 to the New York Giants on Christmas Eve in 2006.
The New Orleans offense took a little longer to get going. A promising opening drive ended with a missed Wil Lutz field goal, and a combination of field position and Miami's defense kept the Saints from scoring the touchdown that would have given them control early.
But Drew Brees and the offense capitalized when they got a chance. With the game still hanging in the balance and the end of the first half approaching, Miami self-destructed, committing three penalties and punting the ball away to midfield with a little more than a minute left.
A key 14-yard throw to Michael Thomas on third-and-10 helped set up a field goal, and the Saints suddenly had the momentum they needed.
"Our defense was playing strong, we got down and got the field goal before the half," running back Mark Ingram said. "We had to help them out."
Lutz's field goal failed to open the floodgates and start producing big plays downfield.
But the New Orleans offense matched a gritty performance by the defense by putting together the kind of drives that Miami's offense couldn't. New Orleans scored 17 points in the second half, on three drives that required 11 plays, 12 plays and 11 more plays.
Other than a 31-yard completion to Brandon Coleman and another 30-yard throw to Michael Thomas, the Saints played a very similar game to Miami's offense, trying to piece together short throws and long drives.
"I feel like their mindset was to keep it in front of them," Brees said. "You could tell that very early on. So I think we knew we were going to have to be pretty methodical, very efficient in both the run game and the pass game. Completions, 2 and 3-yard runs at times are a good thing to get yourself into third and manageable."
The difference was that New Orleans didn't make the kinds of mistakes the Dolphins made. Brees completed 29-of-41 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns — one to Michael Thomas and one to Alvin Kamara — but didn't throw an interception, and for the fourth straight game, the Saints did not commit a turnover.
New Orleans is now only the third team since 1933 to make it through the first four games without a turnover.
"There's times where it would be easy to get overaggressive, especially in a game that's hard-fought and back and forth, but at times you've got to play the field-position game," Brees said. "At the end of the day, if you can get some first downs, pin them down in there, maybe get a short field the next time around because your defense stops them or maybe they feel the pressure and defense is able to get a turnover or something of that nature, that's — you know, that creates momentum, that creates confidence, that creates points."
And in this case, it created a chance to get back into playoff contention when the Saints return from the bye in two weeks.