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John DeShazier: New Orleans Saints learned they can take a punch, bounce back

Posted Aug 25, 2013

First string units rally after early deficit and improve to 3-0

pierre thomasHouston – New Orleans learned against Houston on Sunday exactly what it probably wanted to learn in Reliant Stadium, against the two-time, defending AFC South Division champions.

Namely, that the Saints’ jaw appears to be sturdy enough to take a flush punch or two, and their own counter punches pack a force that can be pretty formidable.

In their third preseason game – the one that traditionally, most-closely has approximated a regular-season game – the Saints’ front-liners spotted the Texans a 10-0 lead, then clawed back to take a 17-16 lead into halftime of New Orleans’ 31-23 victory over Houston.

The Saints, in fact, stretched their halftime lead to 24-16 on the first drive of the third quarter when backup quarterback Luke McCown, who replaced Drew Brees on the Saints’ second series of the second quarter, led his second consecutive touchdown drive.

“There’s some encouraging things,” Coach Sean Payton said. “There are also some things we’ve got to get cleaned up.

“There’s still a number of things we’re going to have to work on and improve on.”

The improvement and work are ongoing, and the trajectory appears to be upward.

By the time McCown connected with Andy Tanner for an 8-yard score and the eight-point lead, the Saints had seen all they needed to see. With the Texans providing a measuring stick, New Orleans couldn’t have been displeased with how it sized up against a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Houston zipped to a 7-0 lead after the first quarter, as it piled up 164 yards, 136 more than the Saints. And the Texans added a field goal to open the second quarter, completing a drive that ended the first period.

But even though Houston’s drive ended on Randy Bullock’s 48-yarder, it was a harbinger of New Orleans turning the momentum in its favor. Because in the three plays the Texans ran to open the quarter, they lost eight yards – defensive end Cam Jordan sacked Matt Schaub for a 9-yard loss on third-and-9 from the Saints’ 21-yard line.

From there, the Saints more than held their own in their first road game of the preseason.

The next offensive possession, and the final one for Brees, was a 3-play, 80-yard, 94-second bolt of lightning – a 29-yard screen pass to Mark Ingram, a run for no gain by Ingram, and a bullet pass to running back Pierre Thomas, who lined up in the slot right and beat his defender inside, dodged a couple of more and sprinted down the middle of the field to the end zone.

“The play to Pierre kind of sparked us a little bit,” Payton said.

Houston answered with a 55-yard field goal by Bullock, the Saints responded with a 51-yarder by Garrett Hartley and after the Saints' defense forced a punt on a three-and-out, McCown directed a 7-play, 90-yard touchdown drive that lasted 120 seconds, and culminated with a 14-yard pass to rookie receiver Kenny Stills with 1:14 left in the first half.

The 17-13 lead was shaved to one point when Bullock kicked a 21-yard field goal as the clock expired, but the message already had been delivered.

New Orleans’ defense held the high-powered Texans offense to 117 yards in the second quarter, and Houston converted just one of four third-down attempts. The Saint offense piled up 217 yards, and converted two of three third-down attempts.

While Schaub required 26 attempts to register his 213 passing yards in the first half, Brees and McCown combined for 18 attempts to get the Saints to 208 passing yards.

The Saints' ground game that had averaged 2.9 yards per attempt in the first two preseason games, posted a 5.4-yard average in the first two quarters against the Texas.

And while the defense totally didn’t fulfill its goal of preventing big plays (the Texans produced a couple of 39-yard plays and a 21-yarder) and snuffing out the run (Houston ran for 78 yards, and averaged 6 yards per carry in the half), it forced three field-goal attempts rather than allowed touchdowns.

“There’s still a lot of room for improvement, which is always a plus,” Jordan said. “I think our defense definitely got a little more stout (after the first quarter). I’m just excited to be a part of such a young D-line that can be so talented.”

Meanwhile, several players who stood out in the previous two preseason games continued their stellar work, including Jordan, who continued to manhandle in his transition from left to right defensive end.

Stills caught a couple of passes for 54 yards, including a 40-yarder. Undrafted rookie defensive end Glenn Foster picked up a sack, his fourth of the preseason.

“He has been a pleasant surprise,” Payton said of Foster. “He’s going to compete, not just to make this team. He’s going to compete for playing time.”

Linebacker Ramon Humber had five tackles through three quarters, after picking up nine in the first half against Oakland. Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro added a couple of more crushing hits among his six tackles through three quarters. And Tanner added another touchdown grab - plucking a dart in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter – as he continued to impress at a crowded position.

As dress rehearsals go, the Saints’ clothes appeared to fit well, a fact that was all the more pleasing considering the opponent and venue.

New Orleans Saints