NEW ORLEANS — A little more than midway through the first quarter, the New Orleans Saints’ defense was on the ropes, having given up 120 yards and two touchdowns on 13 plays.
Vanilla play-calling or not, it wasn’t the way the Saints and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wanted the starters’ exhibition season to end.
So Spagnuolo gathered the defense – all of it – on the sideline. They huddled around him and listened, not as he yelled or chastised them, but as he explained to them what was going to happen next.
He told them not that they were embarrassing themselves and not that they were failing, but that they simply had to make a few a tweaks, a few adjustments to slow down one of the NFL’s most potent offenses.
“Just to keep playing, stay together,” Saints safety Roman Harper said Spagnuolo told them. “Nothing was broken or anything.”
Spagnuolo isn’t the loudest man. He rarely raises his Boston-thick accent and when he does, he’s not using words your local nun would blush at.
Saturday night, that changed. Sort of.
“He was fiery for Spags,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said, before hinting that it was still different than the previous regime.
Indeed, on three of the next four Houston possessions, the Saints’ defense did its job, forcing a fumble, a punt and another fumble.
The touchdown scored in that stretch can’t necessarily be attributed to the defense; New Orleans receiver Joe Morgan fumbled the ball inside the Saints’ 20 and the Texans recovered.
What the Saints showed in the final 48 minutes, in fact, is what they hope to show the rest of the season. In 46 plays, the Texans gained only 196 yards, including four possessions in which New Orleans pushed Houston backwards.
After allowing 9.23 yards per play on the first two series, they allowed just 4.26 on the final 46.
The third preseason game always is the closest to the regular season. The first-team always plays longer. The intensity always is ratcheted up.
A week after a sub-par performance against Jacksonville, the Saints were better.
“I thought we were more physical tonight,” Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. “I thought we were more resilient tonight. I thought we played better.”
The biggest thing that can be taken from Saturday night has nothing to do with whether the Saints won or lost (they won, 34-27, by the way) and has everything to do with how the team reacted.
It has everything to do with how Spags took control of the situation and guided the defense through the rough spot.
“It looked bleak early, we were down 14-0, we hung in there, forced a few short fields and our guys competed,” Vitt said.
And that’s what the Saints can take out of this exhibition game.