Saints first-team defense struggles early, then slows down Rams

Associated Press photo by SCOTT KANE -- Saints free safety Rafael Bush tries to drag down St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy in the first quarter of Friday's exhibition game in St. Louis. Show caption
Associated Press photo by SCOTT KANE -- Saints free safety Rafael Bush tries to drag down St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy in the first quarter of Friday's exhibition game in St. Louis.

Sound familiar? Much like last year, Saints defense struggles early, then settles in, slows down St. Louis

ST. LOUIS — Maybe the defense needs to bleed a little bit.

During the 2013 regular season and playoffs, the Saints allowed opponents to score first 10 times.

That trend continued in this year’s exhibition opener Friday at the Edward Jones Dome.

Tight end Cory Harkey was all alone in the left flat and walked in an easy 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Shaun Hill to give the Rams the first points of the game with 8:10 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

Linebacker David Hawthorne was the closest defender to Harkey — and he was a good 10 yards away when Hill delivered the ball into the flat.

“It was obviously a busted coverage. It was a red zone coverage and we didn’t do a good enough job,” coach Sean Payton said. “We got hung up inside and they end up with a pretty easy touchdown. It was just a coverage error.”

But the Saints continued another trend from last year: After taking that initial hit, the defense dug in.

The Saints defense allowed the Rams to march 47 yards on their opening drive. The defensive starters then forced two punts and gave up 5 combined yards on St. Louis’ next two possessions before many of the regulars were removed from action.

“After last season, we’re known to handle adversity well,” defensive end Glenn Foster said. “So we have to forget about the last bad play, fix our miscues and go back and have a better series.”

Nose tackle Broderick Bunkley had the highlight play of those two defensive stands as he bull-rushed up the middle to swallow Hill.

Bunkley didn’t record a sack during the regular season in 12 games (10 starts) after picking up 21/2 the year before. This was the 10-year veteran’s first preseason sack with the Saints, and it reminded fans why the team wanted him in the first place.

Drafted in 2006 by the Eagles, he’s in the third year of a five-year, $25 million contract.

Defensive ends Tyrunn Walker and Glenn Walker each sacked Rams third-string quarterback Garrett Gilbert in the third quarter.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was brought in to remake a unit that was the worst in NFL history after the 2012 season. Last year, of course, it was much improved, ranking fourth in total defense.

But you may have heard that one area that was lacking: turnovers. The Saints defense created 19 takeaways and finished 29th in the league.

Friday’s preseason opener came and went without the Saints forcing a single turnover.

Then again, former Pro Bowl selections Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey, vital free-agent acquisitions, were unavailable Friday. Byrd has a back injury. The reason for Bailey’s absence was undisclosed.

Byrd did play catch with quarterback Drew Brees during warmups. It was bit of a homecoming for Byrd, he led Clayton High School in suburban St. Louis to the 2004 Class 4 Missouri state championship at the Edward Jones Dome.

Byrd and Bailey are ballhawks capable of wreaking havoc in the defensive backfield.

Even without them, the defense was aching to create some takeaways and was unable to do so. It was something Payton listed among his disappointments in the preseason opener.

“I thought we were physical and sloppy at times. The penalties and some of the minus plays we had on offense and the fact we didn’t have any turnovers,” Payton said. “We had on opportunity to get our hands on the ball in the first half, maybe the third quarter and dropped an interception. That was close as we got.”