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John DeShazier: Rob Ryan's defense stands tall in win over Atlanta Falcons

Defense came up with two turnovers, three sacks

Of the myriad storylines present Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, one stood tallest.

Taller than Marques Colston's record-setting reception, a graceful, outstretched 25-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees in the second quarter that gave him the franchise career receptions lead, with 533.

Looking down even on the regular-season return of Coach Sean Payton, who missed the 2012 regular season and whose presence and influence was felt even before kickoff, as he teamed with former Saints safety Steve Gleason to initiate an emotional "Who Dat" chant by Saints fans.

Alone, deserving of its own marquee in a 23-17 New Orleans victory over Atlanta, was Rob Ryan's defense.

With two forced turnovers (a fumble recovery and interception by safety Roman Harper), three sacks (Parys Haralson, Akiem Hicks and Junior Galette), a fourth down that clinched the win, 367 yards allowed and a sterling third-down stop rate (the Falcons were 3 for 11), the Saints' defense was as prideful and stout as it could've hoped to be entering the season-opening game.

"It was obviously big," Payton said of the fourth-down stop. "It was the difference between winning and losing. We gave up some plays and some yardage and I thought after that first quarter, we settled in and mixed some things up. That is a real good offense we played."

Against the defending NFC South Division champions, owners of one of the league's most potent offenses, New Orleans' defense stiffened after allowing a first-quarter touchdown. And it came to the rescue at the end, courtesy of Harper's end-zone interception on fourth down.

"He instills confidence," linebacker Curtis Lofton said of Ryan. "He makes you want to go out and prove him right, that we are a great defense."

"Sean (Payton) sent the defense out first (in player introductions), which would never happen in the past," Harper joked. "It's just a whole different feel. (But) it's just one step in the right direction."

Clearly, a good and needed one, after the Saints surrendered an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season.

Atlanta struck first, taking its second offensive possession and driving 82 yards in six plays, a drive that culminated with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez. And the Falcons' defense locked down on the next possession, forcing the Saints to turn over the ball on downs after New Orleans couldn't convert on fourth-and-1 from its 47-yard line.

That's where the momentum shifted – to the Saints.

Given a short field to defend – Atlanta took over at the Saints' 45-yard line – the defense was backed down until the Falcons reached the 7. From first-and-goal from the 7, New Orleans allowed two yards in three plays and the Falcons settled for Matt Bryant's 23-yard field goal, and a 10-0 lead with 1:28 left in the first quarter.

The Saints generated Garrett Hartley's 48-yard field goal on their next possession and on Atlanta's next possession, a 22-yard hookup between Ryan and Julio Jones resulted in a fumble when safety Malcolm Jenkins stripped Atlanta's receiver on the tackle.

Harper recovered, returned it 19 yards to Atlanta's 31 and on third down from the 25, Brees found Colston behind the defense down the right seam.

After forcing a three-and-out defensively, the offense marched 67 yards in six plays to set up Hartley's 31-yard field goal and a 13-10 Saints lead, which New Orleans carried into halftime.

The Falcons scored on their first possession of the second half – a five-play, 59-yard drive – to take a 17-13 lead, but never scored again. New Orleans retook the lead on its next possession, Brees capping the 10-play, 80-yard drive with a 7-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, and the Saints added a fourth-quarter field goal for their 23-17 lead.

Atlanta's final offensive possession allowed the defense to provide a crowning achievement.

The Falcons took possession with 3:12 remaining and drove from their 20 to the Saints' 27-yard line in four plays. Then, after a run for no gain, Ryan connected with receiver Harry Douglas for 20 yards to the Saints' 7, with 1:09 left.

But Ryan passed incomplete on first down, completed a 4-yard pass to Roddy White on second down and threw incomplete for running back Steven Jackson on third down.

Then, under pressure, he tossed a jump ball into the end zone that was intended for Gonzalez but was tipped by rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, and intercepted by Harper in the end zone with 43 seconds remaining.

"I definitely think it's a confidence booster," said defensive end Cam Jordan, who was credited with three tackles and a pressure. "That being said, it's one game.

"It would've been preferable to blow them out and they never come back and we just get to rush the quarterback in the second half. But it came down to the wire and I loved everybody's grit and strength to get that done."

Said Galette: "We just want to keep improving. We know we're not there yet. Everybody on the defensive line has a chip on their shoulder."

Probably, every player who was a member of the defense last season carries that chip. Throughout the long offseason, all eyes stared down that unit, wondering if it sufficiently could complement an offense that has ranked among the best in the league since Payton took over in 2006.

One game into the 2013 regular season isn't a fair sample size. But it is a more than satisfactory start.

"That was not their 2012 defense," Falcons Coach Mike Smith said. "You know every year it's a different team. Rob Ryan is their new defensive coordinator and he came in and they made some plays and they were able to put some pressure on our quarterback.

"I don't think you can compare what their defense was last year to this year. It's a new season and it's a new unit for them."

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