DETROIT — If New Orleans Saints cornerback Corey White could do it again, he would.
He would go for the interception and not the tackle on the short, third-and-14 pass that Lions wide receiver Golden Tate turned into a 73-yard touchdown Sunday. That play sparked Detroit’s comeback from a 13-point deficit with less than four minutes to go, leaving the Saints with a 24-23 loss at Ford Field.
The only thing White would change is that he would run at the ball — not just leap straight in the air the way like he did Sunday.
“I had a beat on it, but (Tate) just did a good job coming back, working towards the ball and stepping in front of me,” White said. “I would ... (not hesitate to again) go for the pick, but I’d try to work toward the ball more like (Tate) did.”
Nonetheless, White’s failure to do that or ensure he tackled Tate short of the first-down marker rendered what had been New Orleans’ best defensive outing in recent memory meaningless.
The Saints (2-4) created more than one takeaway — an interception each from cornerback Keenan Lewis and safety Kenny Vaccaro — for the first time since an Oct. 27, 2013, home win against Buffalo. Lewis’ pick led to the Saints offense’s best starting field position of the season — at the Detroit 29 — and it set up the first of Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ two touchdown passes against the Lions, who improved to 5-2 and had the NFL’s top-ranked defense heading into Sunday.
Vaccaro’s interception allowed the Saints offense to begin a drive inside the opponent’s territory (at the Detroit 49) for only the second time this season. Six plays later, kicker Shayne Graham buried his third of three field-goal tries from 36 yards to give New Orleans what seemed to be a secure 23-10 lead with 5:24 to go.
Also, White, Parys Haralson and Junior Galette each took down Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford behind the line of scrimmage to give the Saints a season-high three sacks and push their season total to nine. They took advantage of the fact that two of the Lions’ top Lions receiving threats, three-time first-team All-Pro Calvin Johnson and rookie tight end Eric Ebron, were out with injuries.
Vaccaro explained that the defense played loose because “it really didn’t have anything to lose” since it ranked 23rd in total defense and 28th in scoring defense.
“It (was) just like, ‘Go out there and just ball out,’ ” Vaccaro said. “When you watch the tape, you’re going to see a lot of good things.”
That’s true — as long as you stop rolling the footage with about 3:52 to go in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Stafford went short right to Tate on third-and-14 from Detroit’s 27. White leapt vertically, thinking Stafford was off target and he’d come away with a game-sealing interception. But Tate got in front of White and hauled the ball in.
White was out of position when he landed, and Tate escaped the Saints cornerback. Tate outran the only two Saints who had any prayer of halting him, Vaccaro and Lewis, as Detroit reduced New Orleans’ deficit to 23-17.
To make matters much worse, Lewis strained his left leg during the pursuit and had to sit out the rest of the game. That injury would haunt the Saints spectacularly after Brees threw an interception that gave the Lions the ball at New Orleans’ 14. It was New Orleans’ second turnover; running back Khiry Robinson had lost a fumble, resulting in a Lions field goal.
When Detroit faced a third-and-goal from the Saints’ 5 with 1:54 left, it was up to rookies Brian Dixon (undrafted) and Stanley Jean-Baptiste (a second-round selection who has been inactive for three games) to defend the outside spots. White was working in the slot.
After the ball was snapped, first-year Lions receiver Corey Fuller slipped inside of Jean-Baptiste, who appeared to believe someone was behind him. Jean-Baptiste let Fuller go, and the wideout caught his first career touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to help Detroit take a 24-23 lead it would not relinquish.
Both of the touchdowns Stafford tossed, as well as 114 of the 344 yards the Lions gained, came on Detroit’s last two drives.
More than 63,000 voices in Ford Field erupted. New Orleans’ meltdown was complete. And the Saints’ season was in serious peril with 10 games left.
White had that one regret — not doing more to work toward the ball — but he wasn’t alone. At his locker, Lewis found himself wishing his leg hadn’t given out chasing Tate on the play when the collapse began.
“It sucks,” Lewis said of sitting atop a Gatorade cooler when Fuller won the game for the Lions. “It hurts when my team needs me.”