NEW ORLEANS — As Atlanta smoothly moved down the field late Sunday afternoon, you would have been forgiven for thinking “not again.”
The Saints defense, which had played so well for so much of the day, was on its heels, looking more like the unit from a season earlier than the one from earlier in the day.
“I’m pretty sure there were a lot of people at home panicking because Atlanta is a good offense,” Saints defensive captain Malcolm Jenkins said. “But the situation was not too big for anybody that was on the field.”
It most certainly wasn’t.
Four plays inside the Saints 10 with 1 minute, 9 seconds to play netted only four yards for Atlanta and on fourth-and-goal, rookie defensive back Kenny Vaccaro made the right read, knocking the ball enough that Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez couldn’t catch it.
Roman Harper’s interception on the tip drill play sealed the Saints win and sent the more than 70,000 fans into a delirious release.
It also put the finishing touches on a performance that can give a defense that was verbally and physically abused a season earlier confidence that the tide has turned.
A season after giving up an NFL record 7,000-plus yards – yes, this still has to be brought up – the newly rebuilt Rob Ryan defense held an explosive Atlanta offense laden with weapons to just 17 points, 367 total yards (including 88 rushing yards) and 3 of 11 on third down.
To put this in perspective, Atlanta was the second-best third-down team in the NFL in 2012 and the league’s eighth-best offense.
The Saints sacked Matt Ryan three times and hit him six total times.
“That was not their 2012 defense,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said, later adding that the new scheme allowed the Saints to make plays and get pressure on Ryan.
New Orleans was able to do it with a three- and four-man rush, something that has been missing for some time. Ryan didn’t need to call exotic blitzes, allowing him to play coverage on the Falcons’ bevy of playmakers.
Julio Jones had seven catches, but for only 76 yards, and he fumbled. Gonzalez had only three catches for 36 yards. Roddy White had two catches for 19 yards. And Steven Jackson had only 77 yards on 11 carries, buoyed mostly by one 50-yard run.
“Having a chip on our shoulder and going 7-9 and missing the playoffs, we knew that we had to come out here and dominate up front,” hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker Junior Galette said.
But before we anoint the New Orleans defense as new and improved and championship-worthy, we can’t forget the breakdowns.
The 50-yard catch by Harry Douglas that set up an Atlanta touchdown. Jackson’s 50-yard dash that setup the Falcons’ other touchdown. And Atlanta’s ability to move 77 yards in 10 plays on the final drive, getting to within a batted pass in the end zone for the go-ahead score.
And we can't forget that if Jackson holds on to the pass from Ryan on third down, this isn't what's being written because he likely scores on the play.
New Orleans’ defense is still a work in progress, one that will likely give fans and coaches some more stomach-churning moments early this season.
The defense did what it had to Sunday, however, and that’s what counts. It will give them confidence heading into a Week 2 matchup on the road at Tampa Bay.
“Just a whole different feel and the things that we’re trying to accomplish, this is just one step in the right direction of where we’re trying to go this year,” Harper said.