Three wins, in three different ways.
The New Orleans Saints (4-1) have shown the willingness and ability to adapt on the fly, using whatever formula is necessary to win, including Sunday’s 31-24 victory over Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The defense and special teams scored touchdowns against Seattle, the defense totally dominated against Dallas, and the offense found its groove against Tampa Bay. It’s what successful teams do, and it’s why the Saints are alone atop the NFC South Division standings.
OFFENSE: We’ve seen this type of production from the Saints offense before. In the past, Drew Brees and his receivers, including Michael Thomas, were making the opponents pay defensively. Sunday, Teddy Bridgewater (26 of 34 for 314 yards and four touchdowns, with an interception) and Thomas (11 catches for 182 yards and two scores) distributed the punishment. Bridgewater and Thomas were ruthlessly efficient, with Bridgewater tying his career high for touchdown passes. But, too, the Saints bruised their way to 112 rushing yards, on 31 carries, against the league’s top-rated run defense (59.2 yards per game allowed before Sunday). The passing game was able to take some shots because of excellent offensive line protection, and it gave future opponents a glimpse of what could happen if they dare Bridgewater to make plays.
DEFENSE: First, the final score is a bit misleading. The Bucs scored a touchdown with 13 seconds left and the Saints just wanting the clock to expire and while that’s not great – you’d like to see the defense get off the field without a score in that situation – it wasn’t enough to cancel an otherwise solid performance. The Saints allowed 252 yards (less than 260 for the second straight week) and posted six sacks – two by Marcus Davenport and one each by Sheldon Rankins, Cam Jordan, Malcom Brown and Carl Granderson. Toss in eight quarterback hits, a forced fumble and six passes defensed – two interceptions were overturned, one by a delay of game and the other by a defensive hold – and it was punishing work. Tampa Bay ran for 94 yards and was unsuccessful eight times in 11 third-down attempts. Not quite as complete as in the 12-10 victory over Dallas, but plenty good enough.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Deonte Harris has added excitement to the punt return game. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been all positive. Sunday, he muffed a punt and recovered it. The next time he had a chance to handle a punt, he was ruled down by contact and it was a stroke of good fortune that it wasn’t ruled a fumble and Tampa Bay recovery. And all that happened in the first quarter. The rookie receiver is explosive; he has a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown. But he has to be more consistent with the routine stuff (instead of fielding a punt on a fair catch, the ball bounced and wound up costing the Saints another 10, 11 yards in field position) and the ball protection (he muffed and lost a punt against Seattle). It won’t matter how explosive he is if the ball continues to end up on the turf, either after it touched his hands or because it should have touched his hands. Really, that was the only blemish for special teams Sunday. Everything else was solid.