METAIRIE, La. — For the most part, the axiom that any NFL team can win on any given Sunday rings true.
But it’s much harder when there’s waning confidence, which is why the performance of New Orleans’ defense in Sunday’s 23-17 win was so meaningful.
A season after setting an NFL record for mediocrity, holding one of the league’s most prolific offenses to 17 points and coming up with four straight stops inside the 10-yard line at game’s end is a much-needed confidence boost.
“It brings a lot,” reserve inside linebacker Ramon Humber said. “There’s just always stuff to correct and mistakes we had. But we created turnovers, got sacks, got a lot of three-and-outs. I think they were 3-for-11 (on third down). That’s critical.”
Sunday’s opener was much different than a season earlier, when a rookie-led Washington Redskins piled up 459 total yards en route to scoring 40 points. Robert Griffin III, in his first-ever NFL start, went 19 of 26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns. He finished with a 139.9 QB rating.
That was the beginning of a 10-game stretch in which New Orleans’ opponents rang up at least 400 total yards, including three games of more than 500 yards allowed.
As yards allowed remained high, confidence began to plummet. The final result was 7,042 yards given up and an end to the one-year Steve Spagnuolo trial.
Lest that history go to waste, cornerback Jabari Greer said for the defense to begin its recovery and get to where it needs to be, it can’t forget what happened in 2012.
“Because it happened and a lot of us had our hand in that pot,” Greer said. “It’s something as a professional you have to acknowledge. You realize that there are some things you’ve done in the past that contribute to who you are in the present.
“Living through that and seeing the resiliency of the guys helps us understand what can happened when A) you’re not focused and B) you are not putting your best product on the field. We’re in a position right now where with the new scheme and new coach and new opportunities, we aren’t going to let that happen again.”
To that end, Sunday was a good start.
The Saints were able to sustain a game plan that worked, rarely using blitzes to pressure quarterback Matt Ryan. Those on New Orleans’ defensive line were able to keep Ryan harried throughout the afternoon without much help from the linebackers. The Saints sacked Ryan three times and hit him three other instances and consistently collapsed the pocket in the quarterback’s face.
And New Orleans only allowed 88 yards on the ground, nearly 60 yards less than they allowed on average a season ago. Take away a 50-yard run by Steven Jackson early in the third quarter and Atlanta had only 38 yards on 13 carries.
That’s because New Orleans’ defense “populated” to the football. Several players, in other words, ran to make the tackle instead of just one player.
“That was one of the big things we’ve improved on since last year,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “That was one of the things we had to clean up. We got back to guys swarming the football.”
Only one game in and defensive players have a little bit more pep in their step. That bodes well for this coming Sunday, when the Saints travel to Tampa Bay.
They just hope to keep the ball rolling.
“I think that confidence is starting to build,” Jenkins said. “We don’t worry about the stats. We just want to come in and hit people and take the ball away.”