NEW ORLEANS -- Think New Orleans Saints and think offense, right? They've been pretty, electrifying, fun, innovative, creative and downright successful on that side of the ball.
The defense has languished in the shadows like the warmup act that just isn't quite good enough to steal the show.
|Jonathan Vilma (right) plays a part in the stout defensive effort with an interception. (US Presswire)|
The New Orleans offense scored 14 points Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings at the Superdome. Under offensive-minded head coach Sean Payton, they had never won a game scoring that low of a point total, but you can wipe that away now thanks to the defense.
The Saints defense limited the Vikings to nine points, 20 below their average of last season, as New Orleans opened the NFL season with a 14-9 victory in the first game of their quest to repeat as world champions.
That means in the past two games the Saints have played, including beating Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV last February, it's the defense that stood out. After all, it was Tracy Porter's interception return for a touchdown that iced that game and gave the franchise its first Super Bowl victory.
"Until Gregg got here, we [the defense] were kind of an eyesore around here," Porter said. "That's something we're working hard to change."
So are they now evening things up with the Saints offense?
"Slowly, but surely, we're getting there," Porter said.
I won't go that far, but I will say this: I had questions about that Saints defense heading into this season, and they answered some of them in a big way Thursday night. I wondered if the Saints could be good on defense without getting the 39 takeaways they got last season to finish second in the NFL. You can't expect those kinds of bounces again.
They got one takeaway against the Vikings, but still shut them down. The Vikings had 253 total yards and 12 first downs as Vikings quarterback Brett Favre looked every bit of 40 for most of the night.
Wonder if he's thinking maybe playing on that tractor in Mississippi might have been a better idea than what we saw against the Saints.
Sure, he made a darling throw for a touchdown to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, but other than that it wasn't all that pretty. The Saints hit Favre so much in the NFC Championship Game here last January that Vikings coach Brad Childress spent the past month complaining to anyone and everyone about it. He thought the Saints pushed too far, even though they didn't even get a sack in that game.
New Orleans did hit Favre a bunch that night, but that's because they blitzed a lot. They didn't blitz much at all this time, but they still made Favre jumpier than a first-time flier dealing with turbulence.
Favre never seemed to get into a groove. He finished 15 of 27 for 171 yards, but he was also picked on a terrible throw and almost had two others intercepted.
The Saints used both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, but they didn't blitz because they thought Adrian Peterson would be the focal point of the offense. Why so? Actually, it's because Selfish Favre didn't go to camp.
Favre missed camp last summer and the Vikings ran wild in the opener at Cleveland. So the idea made sense. Running back Adrian Peterson ran for 180 yards on 25 carries that day, while Favre threw for 110 yards, so wouldn't it make sense to think the Vikings would go to that plan again to help offset Selfish Favre not being in camp?
|If you'd tell me the Vikings would hold the Saints to 14 points, I'd say they'd be the runaway winner. The Vikings wanted to keep it safe for Favre by calling short pass plays. but that didn't work. -- Larry Holder, RapidReports Correspondent||C-|
|New Orleans Saints|
|Sean Payton was smart enough to shift to the run game in the second half after going overboard passing in the first. The obvious positive was the D. The Saints started vanilla, then dialed it up with exotic blitzes, making Favre look his age. -- Larry Holder, RapidReports Correspondent||B-|
"We thought they would run the ball because Brett was in camp for only two weeks," Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "We thought he'd be rusty."
It helped that Minnesota is without receiver Sidney Rice, who is expected to miss half the season with a hip injury. Rice is the Vikings' deep threat. Without him, the Saints could squat on routes and not worry about much over the top. The Vikings' starting receivers Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin had one catch each for a combined 15 yards.
"We didn't fluster him [Favre]," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "They were a little conservative in their play-calling. They had a lot of second- and third-and-long situations. That's where we strive."
The Saints surprisingly needed every bit of the defensive effort. After an opening drive that had the Saints with a touchdown only 2:04 into the game, it looked like we might see a shootout between the league's two highest-scoring teams from 2009.
But after that 77-yard drive, the Saints were held to 231 yards the rest of the game. The explosive offense was a dud.
"I've been saying all week that this is a different game by two different teams," Payton said.
The Saints' defensive players have preached all summer that being in Williams' system for another year has helped. It has all slowed down. They understand things better. That makes them react and not think as much.
Williams is also a master at calling defenses. He surprised even Smith with the way he called this game.
"I expected more blitz," Smith said.
If his defense continues to play like it did Thursday night, Williams is bound to get his name back in the mix to be a head coach again. He had one stint in Buffalo, but this is the kind of effort that can earn him another.
It's also the kind that takes away the spotlight from that offense, which can't make Payton happy, no matter how he spins it. This is his team, built his way, which is offensive. He's the brightest offensive mind in football, but Williams might be stealing some of that spotlight. Keep an eye on this one. "We're not used to 14-9 victories," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
We're not used to them either. But if the defense plays like that this season, they might want to make room for another of those Lombardi Trophies, and not the inflatable one that seemed to taunt the Vikings as they took the field Thursday night.
Repeating is tough. And I still think they won't do it. But after watching what I saw against the Vikings, a dominant defense, I'm certainly more open to it than I was before kickoff.