Saints offense finds the right steps

For once, the New Orleans Saints offense didn’t have to score more than 30 points to win a shootout with a quality opponent Sunday.

After a bit of a slow start in their season opener, the Saints found their rhythm with a little help from the defense — of all people — in a 23-17 win against the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The first two offensive series of the season for the Saints weren’t the way coach Sean Payton drew them up. Their opening possession ended with a punt after four plays, and the second was stopped on a fourth-and-inches play when running back Mark Ingram was dropped for a 1-yard loss.

That nearly sucked the life out of 72,348 fans in the Superdome before the first quarter was even over as the Falcons jumped out to a 10-0 advantage on a 3-yard TD pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez and a 23-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.

“I thought the first quarter was obviously not our best quarter,” Payton said. “I thought it was kind of flat.”

It easily could have been a disaster for the Saints, who found themselves down by double digits time and again a year ago when they had to try to carry the load for a defense that struggled to get off the field.

But a decent third drive ended with a 48-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley before the defense came up with a takeaway on the first play of the Falcons’ next drive.

Free safety Malcolm Jenkins stripped Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones after a catch and strong safety Roman Harper recovered, which led to Drew Brees’ 25-yard TD pass to Marques Colston just three plays later.

That series of events helped get the Saints back in the game, and they outscored the Falcons 23-7 after that early deficit and won when Harper intercepted a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 43 seconds to play.

“The Superdome is always alive, but we were definitely a little flat,” said tight end Jimmy Graham, whose 7-yard TD catch late in the third quarter gave the Saints a 20-17 lead that the defense would nurse the rest of the way. “They jumped on us 10-0, and luckily, we got that big momentum swing.”

The Saints offense finished with 419 total yards, but the game was left in the defense’s hands when Brees and his teammates couldn’t score a late touchdown that could have given them a 10-point cushion.

Instead, a trip to the Falcons’ 4 produced just a field goal by Hartley that doubled their three-point lead to six with 3:12 remaining.

Even though Brees went 26 of 35 for 357 yards with two TDs, he wasn’t happy that his team scored just one touchdown in three trips to the Falcons’ red zone.

“Quite a few,” Brees said when asked how many points they left on the field. “We were one-for-three in the red zone, and I really felt we had opportunities to score touchdowns on those possessions.

“With a big play here or there, we would have gotten them. But we know there’s work to be done and corrections to be made. We came out with a win despite those things, so that’s a good thing.”

That left the game squarely in the hands of the defense, which surrendered a single-season NFL record 7,042 total yards last season.

At that point, all the offense could do was sit on the sideline and root for that defense, which sealed the game on Harper’s interception after rookie Kenny Vaccaro tipped a pass away from Gonzalez in the end zone.

“They were awesome,” Brees said of a Saints defense that held the Falcons offense to 244 yards in the final three quarters after giving up allowing 123 in the first period. “They played well the whole game. But that was just kind of a fitting way for it to end.”