No running game is no problem in Saints’ win over Cardinals

When Drew Brees is your quarterback, Jimmy Graham is your tight end and your defense is getting sacks, forcing punts and picking off passes, it doesn’t matter if you struggle to get yards on the ground.

A New Orleans Saints defense that surrendered an 80-yard touchdown drive to open its game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome responded by forcing eight punts and intercepting Carson Palmer twice the next 10 times it took the field. On offense, Brees threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score, and Graham caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-7 rout.

All of that helped the Saints improve to 3-0 for the first time since winning their only Super Bowl four seasons ago. It ensured four sacks of Brees as well as a running game that lost yardage in the first half became afterthoughts to a victory that will have New Orleanians debating whether it’s too soon to start planning a trip to East Rutherford, N.J., the site of this year’s title game.

“I don’t feel offensively we’ve reached our potential,” said Brees, who already has been sacked 10 times this season. “But we did play complementary football.”

The Cardinals (1-2) got their only points on the game’s first possession, an 11-play drive capped by a 3-yard touchdown run around right end by running back Alfonso Smith.

The Cardinals managed just 167 yards on their next 10 possessions, half of which lasted no more than three plays before ending in punts (four of them) and an interception (one). Drives of four, five, six and eight plays also ended in punts, and another of six plays was cut short by an interception.

The Saints keyed those brief drives with two sacks by defensive end Cameron Jordan, one from outside linebacker Junior Galette and another from defensive end Glenn Foster, an undrafted rookie who made his regular-season debut. The defensive front also hit Palmer nine times and pressured him countless more, culminating in the fourth-quarter interceptions he threw to rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis.

“We had enough disruption that it made it more challenging for the quarterback, and that can lead to accuracy issues,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

Payton offered Vaccaro’s interception as an example of that. On first-and-10 from the New Orleans 19, Palmer (18-of-35 for 187 yards) overthrew tight end Rob Housler on a pass to the right, instead inadvertently finding Vaccaro at the 8. He returned the first interception of his career 29 yards.

“Everybody said I’ve got to work on my return skills,” Vaccaro joked in the locker room. “I’m just glad I got the first one out the way so the next one I can get fancy with it.”

Earlier, the Saints offense answered Arizona’s first drive with an eight-play, 80-yard drive that Brees topped off with a 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Robert Meachem. The score was Meachem’s first since being released by San Diego — with whom he spent the 2012 season — and then being signed Sept. 3 by New Orleans, where he spent the rest of his first six years in the NFL.

The Saints subsequently ventured inside Arizona’s 20 five times. After scoring just one touchdown on seven red-zone trips in their first two games, the Saints scored three against Arizona.

Brees, who finished with 21 rushing yards, threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Graham with 2:52 left in the first half. With 14:42 to go in the fourth, he tucked in a snap from the shotgun formation and ran it up the middle for a 7-yard touchdown. He connected with Graham for a 7-yard score with 5:25 left to put the Saints ahead 31-7.

Graham’s outing followed a 10-catch, 179-yard, one-touchdown performance last week at Tampa Bay.

Garrett Hartley hit a 31-yard field goal on a third-quarter red-zone trip, and Brees on the fifth surge into the red zone kneeled at Arizona’s 12 to let the clock run out.

The Saints’ suffocating defense and efficiency in the red zone made areas where the offense wasn’t so productive less pronounced. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu intercepted a Brees pass in Arizona’s end zone in the third quarter, but the former LSU standout’s first NFL pick proved to be a footnote.

An offensive line that was without veteran right guard Jahri Evans for the first time in 123 games permitted four sacks, the first of which came when Evans’ replacement, undrafted rookie Tim Lelito, let defensive end Darnell Dockett through. But that ultimately did little to slow New Orleans down.

Then there’s the fact New Orleans had minus-5 rushing yards on three handoffs to Pierre Thomas in the first half before the running backs amassed 83 rushing yards in the second.

Thomas had 28 yards on 11 carries; Darren Sproles had 17 yards on three carries; and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson had 38 yards on four carries late in the game.

Payton, though, wasn’t discouraged about the poor rushing results in the first half, saying afterward that Arizona repeatedly presented the Saints with five-man fronts that were impractical to run against. Essentially, Payton said, Arizona prioritized taking the run away, exposing themselves to being attacked through the air.

“It was just about us being smart,” said Payton, whose team already has a two-game lead in the NFC South. “Our quarterback has a great command of what we were wanting to do. We feel like we have a lot of options for him, and fortunately we were able to get to the options.”