What the New Orleans Saints did defensively Sunday against Tennessee is what the team has come to expect of its defense.
The Saints intercepted three passes – cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo and safety Marcus Maye combined for the picks – and produced three red zone stops that led to field goals instead of touchdowns, monumental developments in a 16-15 victory in the season opener in the Caesars Superdome.
"I think all of us have been accustomed to seeing this defense play that way, and be able to take the ball away, create pressure on the quarterback," Coach Dennis Allen said Monday. "I think those have been hallmarks of our defense and it was good to see our guys go out and do that.
"I think if you take the blocked punt into account (linebacker Zack Baun blocked a punt which officially traveled 1 yard, and set up the Saints for a field goal) you'd say there's four takeaways in the game, I think that was a huge factor in the game. Both teams kind of struggled a little bit in the red area offensively, and yet, that was the difference in the game, in that we were able to score a touchdown in the red area and be able to hold those guys to field goals."
Perhaps especially pleasing was after receiver/returner Rashid Shaheed fumbled away the opening kickoff, and the Titans took possession at the Saints' 24-yard line four seconds into the game, the defense held and forced a 50-yard field goal. Credit the Caesars Superdome crowd with an assist; Tennessee twice was penalized for a false start on the drive in the deafening atmosphere.
"It's huge," linebacker Pete Werner said. "Just to start the game with a fumble, and then making a statement right there. We might be losing the game 3-0, but I think we win that game because of the momentum that we showed from that stop right from the get-go. We pride ourselves on having a great red zone defense and eliminating touchdowns. Not having a touchdown scored in that game is massive."
New Orleans also produced some of its best work in the secondary. One of Lattimore's primary assignments was covering five-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins finished with seven catches for 65 yards on 13 targets; Lattimore had an interception, four pass breakups and two tackles.
"They're going to throw it to him, that's what I'm thinking, I can make a play," Lattimore said. "It's my turn to make a play. Whenever it's crunch time in a crucial situation, because I'm usually guarding the best receiver. So, I'm ready. It is what it is.
"For sure. That's what I'm looking for, exactly what I'm looking for. Opportunities. A lot of times, I go the whole game with no opportunities. I like facing the best receiver because it's coming my way. It's on me to make the play."
Lattimore said holding the Titans to field goals in the red zone was an indication of what the Saints can be defensively.
"Our defense is something special," he said. "We've just got to keep growing, keep showing everybody we're one of the best defenses, if not the best defense, in the league."
GAME SYNOPSIS: After reviewing the film, Allen offered an assessment of the offense and defense.
"Overall, I didn't think we did a good enough job up front offensively controlling the line of scrimmage," he said. "I think that's an area that we've got to be better at – we've got to do a better job of protecting the quarterback, we've got to do a better job being able to get something going in the run game. And yet, I feel like there were some plays that we made in critical moments in the game, we were able to make some plays and give ourselves a chance to win the game.
"I thought defensively, a number of things we did well from a coverage standpoint, a number of things that we did well from a pass rush standpoint. I still think there were really two runs in the game that I felt like we didn't fit up like we needed to, we made some mistakes, gave up a little more yards in the running game than we should have. But I thought from a consistency standpoint, we did a pretty good job in the run game. We just let a couple of runs get out on us a little bit that ended up costing us about 30 yards that I think we could have eliminated."
GAME INJURIES: The significant one was a turf toe injury suffered by defensive end Payton Turner, who diligently worked this offseason on prehab in an attempt to prevent injuries. A difficult blow for the third-year pro. "It looks like Payton Turner is probably going to have to have surgery on a turf toe injury, kind of similar to (left tackle) Trevor Penning's deal at the end of preseason last year," Allen said.
The other injury of note was linebacker Ryan Connelly, who likely will miss some time due to a knee injury. He injured the same knee in training camp.