NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints sent a powerful message to the rest of the NFC with their 20-12 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday. They really are a different team when compared with those the Saints have fielded the past few seasons, and this drastic change in style isn’t about to end soon. The Saints clearly are committed to a blue-collar blueprint, a thirst for grinding out wins by any means necessary. It’s an approach that has turned them into one of the NFL’s hottest teams, and it might just take them to places they haven’t been in a very long time.
Let’s get this out of the way first: The Bears aren’t going to make anybody fear the legacy of the 1999 St. Louis Rams. What they are is the kind of opponent that could prove to be yet another quality litmus test for a Saints squad that is transforming itself right before our eyes. Chicago’s best hopes of winning this game came down to running the ball and playing tough defense, what Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro referred to as “bully ball.” We now know that New Orleans is pretty good at pushing people around as well.
Instead of relying on the pass-heavy offense that has carried this team for most of the 11 years that Sean Payton has coached it, the Saints are now asking their defense to do more heavy lifting. As a result, they’ve won five straight games after starting the season 0-2.
“This does wonders for your confidence as a defense,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. “At the same time, at this point, we’re expecting ourselves to get better every week. And we’re slowly getting there.”
The Saints should take pride in winning ugly. It’s a testament to how far they’ve come in just over a month. Two games into this season, they had surrendered 1,025 total yards and 65 points in blowout losses to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots. That was before this drastic makeover, one that is so startling that Sunday marked the first time in eight years that New Orleans won a game without record-setting quarterback Drew Brees throwing a touchdown pass.
The significance of that 2009 season — one that ended with New Orleans winning the Super Bowl — shouldn’t be lost on anybody who roots for the Saints. It was the last time they were blessed with the type of reliable defense that showed up Sunday in the Superdome against Chicago. Yes, the Saints did allow some big plays, including a 50-yard run by Bears running back Jordan Howard and a 46-yard scramble by Bears rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky. What New Orleans didn’t do was wilt when the game was on the line.
When Chicago safety Adrian Amos recovered a fumble by Saints running back Mark Ingram with 2:12 left in the game, it seemed that the Bears were primed to pull off a devastating upset. Instead, Chicago gave the ball right back to New Orleans after failing to convert a fourth-and-1 from their own 39-yard line. The Bears also had one last shot at tying the score after the Saints increased their lead to 20-12 on a 49-yard field goal by Will Lutz. That drive ended two plays later, when Saints rookie cornerback Marshawn Lattimore intercepted Trubisky.
These are the kind of plays the Saints haven’t made in years. They’ve ranked 28th or worse in points allowed in four of the past five seasons. However, this current bunch has only given up more than 17 points once in the last five games.
“Generally, the confidence you gain is through experience,” Payton said. “The two-game road trip we took to Carolina and London (against Miami) were good games for us (the Saints gave up a total of 13 points in their first two victories of the season). We’ve been able to build on that and get confidence. We have a lot of young guys playing and you can see the growth right in front of your eyes.”
“In the past, there’s been very little room for error,” Brees said. “While it’s frustrating that I don’t think we’re playing anywhere near our best football, we’re still finding ways to win. And winning in different ways. Different strategies depending on the opponent, the flow of the game, and making those adjustments accordingly. That is something that I’m pleased with because the results have been wins.”
The Saints‘ defense also has benefitted from an offensive strategy that has helped that defense prosper. It’s not a coincidence that New Orleans has become better at stopping opponents at the same time their running game has taken off. For all the drama that surrounded this ground attack at the start of the year — when Payton couldn’t find carries in a crowded backfield for the since-traded Adrian Peterson — the Saints have an ideal setup today. The same team that was averaging 70.5 rushing yards a game in those first two defeats has put up 142 yards per game over the last five wins.
That doesn’t just mean less pressure on Brees (who completed 23 of 28 passes for 299 yards against Chicago). That means fresher legs for a defensive front that can constantly pressure quarterbacks and more game-changing opportunities for a secondary that is thriving at forcing turnovers. The Saints have generated all 11 of their takeaways during this winning streak. They’ve also watched Lattimore, the 11th overall selection in this year’s draft, turn into a rising star.
The Saints have never had a talent like Lattimore in their defensive backfield during the Payton era. He’s instinctive, agile and blessed with the kind of ball skills that would make a lot of wide receivers jealous. So far Lattimore has shut down New England’s Brandin Cooks and Green Bay’s Davante Adams while also scoring on an interception return against Detroit. His rapid maturation as a shut-down corner means New Orleans can be even more creative with its coverage schemes.
Lattimore’s growth also exemplifies the entire attitude of this defense. Even though there is a lot of youth on that side of the ball, they feel like they can do more than their part.
“We’re a team,” Lattimore said. “When we’re down, they pick us up. And when they’re down, we pick them up. That’s how we operate.”
Lattimore probably doesn’t care too much about what happened with the Saints‘ defense in recent years. He wasn’t around for those struggles and they don’t really matter today. As with all of Lattimore’s teammates, his focus is on what is ahead of this team, what might happen with all this momentum they’re building. It’s been four years since the Saints could talk regularly about something other than all the crazy numbers Brees was producing.
These Saints feel more like a contender again because they are a more balanced team. They still have the ability to generate the flashy highlights but that element no longer defines them. In fact, what the Saints did against Chicago says more about how much they’ve evolved. It means a team that looked dead over a month ago is only going to become scarier in the weeks to come.
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