The issue for the New Orleans Saints defense in its last game wasn't that it never could figure out Houston rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Texans' offense.
New Orleans did exactly that in the second half, holding Stroud to three completions in 10 attempts for 58 yards, sacking him twice – the first times he had been sacked since Week 2 – and limiting the Texans to 59 yards and a field goal. And the Saints bowed up for five third-down stops on as many attempts in the final two quarters.
The issue was that, unfortunately, it was too late to offset what Stroud and the offense did in the first half of Houston's 20-13 victory. The quarterback completed 10 of 17 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception (which was fumbled back to the Texans during the return), and the Texans amassed 238 yards and scored 17 points in the first half. And Houston converted 4 of 6 attempts on third down.
For the Saints (3-3) to taste victory Thursday night against Jacksonville (4-2) in the Caesars Superdome, the defense knows it will have to bring its "A" game early, and often.
"We need to come out with that second-half energy on defense," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "The way we took the second half, that's how we need to start every game. And even in the first half, there's just some things that we needed to clean up. There are three or four plays that you wish you could have back, that you can't.
"We have to be able to affect this game early, and consistently. If it's up to the defense, we have to be able to take over from jump."
New Orleans was able to do so in the previous game, a 34-0 victory over New England, and strong starts and/or finishes have been a staple of the unit this season. But Stroud and the Texans shook off his first-quarter interception by scoring a touchdown on the drive after Houston's fumble recovery, and Stroud's mobility and precision were effective against New Orleans' pressure.
But once the Saints locked in for the second half, the defense kept the rookie and his offense out of the end zone and gave their own offense a chance to win the game.
"Just doing more of what we did in the second half. Just executing consistently," linebacker Demario Davis said. "I think that's pretty much what we've got to be able to do. When we execute, we do well. When we don't, we don't do so well. Just being able to be consistent, I think that's the main thing for us.
"You want to start fast, you want to finish fast. You're not always going to be able to do that. Got to give credit to the Texans, they did some great things early on that made it difficult on us. We were trying to adjust in the second half, we felt like we did a pretty good job of that. But you've got to give them credit, they ended up putting together a better four quarters of football than we did.
"Everybody's in a race to get better. We're sitting at 3-3, and we feel like we're a team that could be sitting at 6-0. That's just how we feel and that's the standard of what our locker room is. But you've got to give credit to these other teams, they've made it challenging on us. They've played good football.
"I think that's the parity in this league, that week in and week out you've just got to be on your stuff. It doesn't mean necessarily that we're not on our stuff or not executing at a high level. Another team can out-execute you, and that's what you want to work to prevent, and I think that's the grit of the week, is to be at your best, not just to do it at a high level."