Saints' blueprint for championship repeat may hinge on stingy defense

Publish date:

1. I'm not yet sure the Drew Brees-led Saints are capable of another 510-point season and No. 1 offensive ranking again this year; but if Thursday night was an indication, they might not need to hit those lofty benchmarks to contend for another Lombardi Trophy. And it's because this New Orleans defense looks even more legit in Year 2 of playing in coordinator Gregg Williams' system.

The Saints defense sent a message with their performance against the Vikings, a team that averaged 29.4 points per game (second in the NFL) and finished fifth offense last year (379.6 yards per game). Minnesota scored just nine points, amassed a paltry 253 yards, and had only 12 first downs against a defense that was merely average in most categories last year, except takeaways (25th ranking, 21.3 points and 357.8 yards allowed per game).

"Nine points. Nine points,'' said Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis in a New Orleans locker room that was quite business-like after the hard-fought win in a rematch of last season's NFC title game. "That says it better than anything. We played good tonight, held them to nine points, and we're excited about it.''

There was a lot to be excited about if you're a lover of the Saints defense. Like the strong play of the New Orleans secondary, including new free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who's replacing the injured Darren Sharper for the time being (and maybe longer if he keeps this up). Jenkins and fellow safety Roman Harper had standout games, but cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter were crucial in limiting Brett Favre to just 15 of 27 passing for 171 yards, with one touchdown, one interception and a measly 71.7 QB rating.

The Saints defense didn't blitz or hit Favre anywhere near as much as they did in the NFC championship game, sacking him just once, and getting real pressure only a few other times. But the Saints kept almost everything Favre threw in front of them, and correctly guessed that Minnesota's early focus would be establishing the running game through Adrian Peterson.

Why? Because of history, several Saints defenders said. "We knew we had to be at our best early to stop the run, and we thought they'd run the ball because Brett's only been in camp two weeks or so,'' Saints defensive end Will Smith said. "We thought he'd be a little rusty. We thought he wouldn't throw the ball all that much.''

Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said New Orleans looked at how Minnesota played in a season-opening win at Cleveland last year, with Favre again only having two or three weeks of practice time to prepare. Peterson ran for 180 yards on 25 carries in that game, with Favre only throwing for 110 yards. In Thursday's opener, the Saints held Peterson to just 87 yards on 19 carries, with a long gain of 14, but Favre couldn't make up the slack.

For New Orleans, it was a winning game plan and impressive first display of defensive muscle in 2010. The Saints hadn't won a game scoring 14 points or less since beating Dallas 13-7 in late December 2003, from the Jim Haslett coaching era. Maybe the formula for success in New Orleans has officially begun to evolve: The Saints are still going to thrive on a combination of a high-powered offense and a takeaway-hungry defense, but they might have more ways than ever to win this season.

"I don't think we're the team with the target on our backs,'' Ellis said. "They're not gunning for us, we're gunning for them. We're the ones with the scope.''

2. It's only one game, of course, but I think it's already apparent how much the Vikings miss big-play receiver Sidney Rice, who's out until mid-season thanks to hip surgery. Minnesota's starting two receivers -- Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian -- combined for just two catches and 15 yards against the Saints, and Favre struggled all night to get the ball to anyone but his tight ends and running backs.

Reserve receivers Greg Camarillo and Greg Lewis had some impact in the fourth quarter, catching one pass each for 41 combined yards. But the four-catch, 44-yard production from the Vikings' entire receiving corps represented less than what passed for a good half of work for Rice last season.

Without Rice's ability to stretch the field vertically and keep a defense honest, Minnesota lacked the explosiveness it was known for last year. Only tight end Visanthe Shiancoe resembled a deep threat for Favre, catching a team-best four balls for 76 yards, including a 33-yard gain that set up Minnesota's only touchdown on the next play -- a 20-yard pass to Shiancoe over the deep middle late in the first half.

Favre didn't look in sync with his receivers most of the game, and it appeared the lack of playing and practice this preseason could have been a factor. But maybe it all came down to missing Rice, the receiver who became his big-play partner and security blanket last season, grabbing 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns.

"There were not a lot of throws to be made far down the field,'' Vikings head coach Brad Childress said. "We need to be a little more patient, and we have to be able to run the football. I thought we had a pretty good pulse going at halftime.''

But that pulse wasn't strong enough to lift the Vikings over the defending champion Saints. Not when Favre didn't have a great night, and couldn't make the downfield plays that he routinely produced in 2009.

3. So far, so good with correcting Adrian Peterson's fumbling problem. The Vikings superback touched the ball 22 times (19 rushes and three receptions for 14 yards), and I didn't see one solitary bobble. And No. 28 ran as hard as ever, routinely breaking one or two tackles and struggling free for more yardage at the end of his runs.

It was a strong showing in a return to what was Peterson's personal house of horrors last January -- the Superdome. In the NFC title game, Peterson fumbled twice and caused another turnover after a bad exchange with Favre. Unfortunately for him, Peterson played a key role in Minnesota staying home and New Orleans representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Peterson entered the game with 20 fumbles since 2007 (his rookie season) and spent most of this offseason trying to correct the one serious flaw in his game. He ran like he had something to prove against the Saints, even though his yardage total wasn't eye-catching. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his 19 attempts, and on the Vikings' 16-play, 66-yard second-quarter scoring drive (field goal), he was a horse, touching the ball eight times for 44 yards.

"I'm ready to carry the ball more,'' Peterson said. "I'm ready for that. I was close a lot of times out there to breaking tackles, to make big gains. But they have great players on defense who make plays, and they held us in check.''

And Peterson, though held in check, held onto the ball. For the Vikings, that's the best news of all from Thursday night.

4. You just never know about NFL kickers, and suddenly the Saints have reason to wonder about their guy, Garrett Hartley. The last time Hartley kicked in a game that mattered at the Superdome, he was the hero of heroes, nailing the game-winning field goal in overtime to send the Saints to their first Super Bowl.

This time? Not quite as heroic. Hartley missed both FG attempts against Minnesota, from 46 yards in the second quarter and more glaringly, from 32 yards in the fourth quarter. Both kicks sailed considerably left, with the second one belonging in the shank category. Maybe the Saints' Super Bowl hangover this season will be Hartley's alone.

Hartley's first miss wasted a Vilma interception at the Minnesota 34. His second miss gave the Vikings' restored comeback hopes with 9:14 left in the game, since Minnesota only trailed by five at 14-9 and could still win the game with a touchdown.

"My mindset was great,'' Hartley said. "I was hitting the ball real well in preseason, practice, and warmups. I went 0 for 2, but I was fortunate the way the offense and defense played. The offense puts some points up and the defense shut the Vikings out.

"Both (the misses) were completely on me. The snap and hold were great. Things like that are inexcusable at this level. I just need to go back to my techniques and understand what I did wrong. I need to come out next Monday night against the 49ers and put some points on the board.''

5. Back to Favre for a moment, because, well, we can never talk enough about No. 4, right? He looked pretty jumpy in the pocket all night, and I can't help but think the 2009 Saints -- with their blitz-happy defense and constant pass rush -- were in his head a bit. Favre looked like he was expecting to get the same pummeling from last January, and he was bracing for it.

Some of the Saints defenders I talked to thought the same thing.

"We hit him some, but not as much as we did last game (in the NFC championship),'' Smith said. "When he had the ball, he did not look real comfortable. When we didn't hit him, we had someone in his face and he looked like that bothered him.''

Agreed. The Saints didn't blitz all that much, but Favre looked a bit edgy against New Orleans. Maybe he should have tried coming to training camp for once and getting a little more practice time in before taking on the Super Bowl champions at their home field.

Just a thought.