NEW ORLEANS -- All that preparation by New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams went down the tubes.
So much for the 15 pots of coffee in a three-day span and several sleepless nights leading to Saturday's NFC divisional playoff matchup with the Arizona Cardinals. It was all wiped away on the first play from scrimmage, when Tim Hightower took the ball and sprinted untouched for a 70-yard scoring run.
Then the Saints offense came right back on the next possession and tied the game up.
|Early Doucet has to take his hat off to Scott Shanle and the Saints defense. (US Presswire)|
Williams said leading up to the Saints' 45-14 demolition of the Cardinals that you plan all week for how you think the game is going to pan out. He added that it rarely turns out that way.
He was right. No one thought the Saints defense would put the clamps on the Cardinals' explosive offense.
No one except the Saints.
"It wasn't us questioning ourselves," safety Roman Harper said. "It was more the media. We understood that. We just have to go out there, stay focused and play some ball. That's what we are concerned about."
There's a major difference in the defense the Saints played in the final eight games of the regular season than in the first half of 2009. With the exception of defensive end Charles Grant, it's the healthiest the Saints defense has been since midway through the season.
The secondary that was maybe the most turnover-happy bunch in the league was back in tact for the first time since Week 10 with Harper, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter completely healthy -- and the difference was staggering.
Washington's Jason Campbell torched the Saints in Week 13 for 367 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints couldn't get any pressure on the erratic passer and he picked apart the secondary. Who were the Saints' corners that game? Malcolm Jenkins and Chris McAlister.
On Saturday, Arizona's Kurt Warner was a non-factor at best as he only threw for 205 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. With Greer and Porter back healthy, the Saints didn't need to give more support on the back end, and in turn, were able to put more pressure on Warner and take his rhythm away.
"I think you can see the difference out there [being healthy]," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "It's like night and day. You have both of your corners back. You have your safety [Sharper] back. You have your D-line, it's great. It's like a new season."
The Saints won the turnover battle 2-0 and turned both into touchdowns.
Randall Gay began the defensive resurrection by stripping the ball away from the Cardinals' Jerheme Urban, allowing Sharper to scoop up the loose ball. It answered back at the Hightower run.
Then Warner made a poor decision that nearly knocked him into next week. Saints defensive end Will Smith picked off a badly thrown screen pass and what followed set the tone for the rest of the game
What Warner didn't see coming on Smith's interception return was defensive end Bobby McCray, who landed a pulverizing block on Warner. The Cardinals quarterback lay on the turf for a couple of minutes and briefly left the game with a chest injury.
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"I saw it up close and personal," Sharper said. "I told Bobby that was a game-changing play. A lot of times when there is a turnover, the quarterback, he's fair game like everyone else."
With the back end secure, the Saints were able to create pressure on Warner most of the time through a four- and even three-man rush. The Saints only sacked Warner once and only hit him three times (even though it felt like more), but Warner was flustered before the McCray hit and after.
Linebacker Scott Fujita said there wasn't a real exotic game plan from Williams going in to the game. Smith said the defensive front simply overpowered Arizona.
"We did what we wanted to do going into the game and that's confuse Warner and get some pressure on him," Smith said. "We hit him a lot. I think we only got one or two sacks, but we hit him a lot. We were affecting his throws. A lot of his throws just weren't as accurate as they've been in the past."
Smith said the Cardinals didn't run the ball as much as the Saints thought they would, and that's pretty accurate. After the Hightower touchdown, Arizona only ran the ball 14 times the rest of the game for 31 yards.
"This is the best we've felt [on defense] in a long time," Fujita said.
It's the best the Saints have looked on defense in a long time, too.