NEW ORELANS — Roman Harper watched defensive back Kenny Vaccaro and hoped the rookie saw the same thing he was seeing as the Falcons’ final play began.
Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez turning a certain way, handing the Saints’ secondary the key piece of information it needed in a frantic situation.
Vaccaro did, in fact, see it and knocked the pass from Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan up and away from Gonzalez, into the hands of a lunging Harper.
For the second season in a row, the Saints’ secondary handed their teammates a win with a goal-line stand against the Falcons.
But this time, a 23-17 victory, the Saints also grabbed a 1-0 record and an early lead in the NFL marathon.
“Those defensive guys, it has been great to watch them come together and gain an identity,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said afterward. “We’re going to be a tough bunch and just going to get after people and we’re going to have fun doing it and we’re going to come up with big plays and they did today.”
A year after finishing with the league’s worst defense, the rebuilt and reconfigured unit was the story Sunday, holding a prolific Atlanta offense to just 17 points and 3 of 11 on third downs.
And they made up for an offense that couldn’t seem to get on track, scoring a touchdown on only one of three opportunities in the red zone.
Not exactly what you would have imagined in coach Sean Payton’s first meaningful game since being suspended for a season. Payton hasn’t lost in the Superdome in 980 days and counting.
“It was just important to get the first win,” Payton said. “You try to compartmentalize each week, each game and we played a good team. It was good to get the win, it’s good to start the season that way.”
While Brees finished the game 26 of 35 for 357 yards, two touchdowns and interception and the offense went 6 of 13 on third down, the defense kept the team in the game for most of it.
A three- and four-man pass rush finished with three sacks and six quarterback hits and allowed first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to use coverages to keep Atlanta bottled up.
Ryan finished 25 of 38 for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but his interception came when the Falcons could least afford it. Running back Steven Jackson, meanwhile, finished with 77 yards rushing, but 50 of that came on one run.
“It makes it difficult for them when you can rush for and get into the passing lanes,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We got pressure on the quarterback, but goes hand-in-hand. The secondary and linebackers had great coverage, which leads to sacks. That’s how we play as a defense.”
After defensive stops by both teams to begin the game, Atlanta got on the board first when Ryan hit Gonzalez for a 7-yard touchdown. The play was set up when two snaps earlier, receiver Harry Douglas found a hole in the Saints secondary and went 50 yards to the New Orleans 10 before being tackled by Keenan Lewis.
Payton gambled on fourth-and-inches near midfield on the ensuing series but it backfired. Atlanta had the stretch run play right figured out and stopped Mark Ingram short.
The Falcons then drove 40 yards in eight plays, partly thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty on Vaccaro, who hit a sliding Ryan on a run. But the defense stiffened and held the Falcons to a 23-yard Matt Bosher field goal.
Instead of being down 14-0, it was only 10-0 late in the first quarter and that proved to be key.
New Orleans finally got on the board with a 48-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley when a 12-play drive stalled at Atlanta’s 30.
It didn’t take long for New Orleans to tie the game. Roman Harper returned a Julio Jones fumble 18 yards to Atlanta’s 31 and two plays later, Brees hit Marques Colston for a 25-yard touchdown and a 10-10 tie. The catch made Colston the Saints’ all-time leader in receptions at 533 and counting.
“It feels pretty good,” Colston said of the record. “Sean talked about it all week, but he told me it would only be special if we got the win.”
A Saints defensive stop nearly turned into a touchdown lead after Brees hit Kenny Stills for a 67-yard pass that ended with first-and-goal at the Atlanta 7. But two consecutive holding penalties on Jahri Evans put them in second-and-goal at the 27 and New Orleans couldn’t recover, settling instead on a 31-yard Hartley field goal and a 13-10 lead.
A three-and-out by New Orleans’ offense to start the third quarter put the Saints in bad position off the bat. Steven Jackson’s 50-yard run to the Saints’ 5-yard line put New Orleans in worse position. And Ryan’s four-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones gave Atlanta a 17-13 lead with 11:41 to go in the third quarter.
The deficit didn’t last long. Using a variety of short passes and run plays, Brees guided New Orleans 80 yards in 10 plays and gave the Saints a 20-17 lead when he found Jimmy Graham for a seven-yard touchdown. It was only Graham’s third touch of the day and it came with 6:22 to go in the third quarter.
Hartley’s third field goal of the day, a 22-yarder, pushed New Orleans’ lead to 23-17 with 3:12 to go in the game.