INDIANAPOLIS New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't need the whole first half to prepare for the season. In fact, head coach Sean Payton saw all he needed in less than 15 minutes, pulling Brees after the third series, before the first quarter had ended.
The Saints franchise quarterback slid right back into his spot behind center and looked as if he hadn't missed two weeks worth camp and as many preseason games with an oblique injury.
He methodically marched the Saints down the field on two 80-yard touchdown drives and the team kept on marching after that, straight to a 23-17 over the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday evening.
'It was good to see Drew back on the field,' said head coach Sean Payton after the game. 'It was good to see the third down conversions. I thought he (Brees) looked good all week.'
If Brees was rusty, he surely didn't show it, going 9 of 15 for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Austin Johnson was the recipient of Brees' first touchdown on a three-yard fullback screen, while Marques Colston hauled in the second on a 13-yard post-seam route.
Still, Brees said he's not quite 100 percent yet.
However, 'the tempo and ryhthem are coming back as expected,' he said. 'We had great balance and converted a few third downs. It's wasn't really any big chunks, it was really just marching it down the field and obviously we were able to punch it in, so a great way to start the game.
'We talked about coming in and playing with great tempo and with great balance and we talked about taking our shots where we could. But for the most part, I felt like when the ones were in there, I thought it was methodical.'
The Saints starters got healthy just in time for their annual third-game dress rehearsal. And Brees was just the tip of the iceberg.
The running game, led by Mark Ingram's eight carries for 46 yards, is as healthy as it's been in years. Ingram keeps insisting he's ready for a bigger role, and thus far he's done nothing to prove otherwise. Through three preseason games he's carried 21 times for 148 yards and a touchdown, with a 7-yard per carry average.
Offensively, the Saints were no doubt helped by the return of offensive guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, both of whom missed time with back injuries and exited with Brees after the third series.
Running back Pierre Thomas led all Saints with four receptions for 66 yards.
Meanwhile, on defense, Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis, Patrick Robinson and Champ Bailey were finally healthy enough to allow the Saints' revamped secondary to collectively take the field. A unit that had previously looked good only on paper now looks much the same on the field, holding Andrew Luck to a meager 10 of 18 for 103 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
That interception came courtesy of safety Kenny Vaccaro, who baited Luck into a bad throw near the end of the first quarter. The Saints made turnovers an area of emphasis over the offseason after their fourth-ranked defense forced just 19 a year ago. In three preseason games the Saints have forced 8 (five fumbles, three interceptions).
While Byrd is still working to achieve on-field familiarity with the unit, Saturday's effort was a good first step.
The Colts starting offense reached the end zone just once. On second-and-5 from the Saints 21, the Saints blew a coverage and Luck found Coby Fleener to tie the game at 7 after an Adam Vinatieri extra point
Offensively, the Saints sputtered after Luke McCown replaced Brees with just 26 second remaining in the first and Ryan Griffin was no better in the second half.
After a scoreless third quarter by both teams, the Saints held on, adding a 45-yard field goal by Derek Dimke late in the fourth quarter. The Colts had pulled within 3 early in the fourth after an extra point following a 22-yard touchdown from third-string quarterback Chandler Harnish to Josh Lenz.
The Saints kickers were perfect on the evening led by Shayne Graham's second-quarter makes of 39 and 24 yards.