Saints force key turnovers to spark first win
NEW ORLEANS — With a chance to get the “much-maligned” tag off its back — at least for one night — the Saints defense did.
After being ripped for 288 yards in the first half and then allowing an embarrassingly easy touchdown early in the third quarter, the league’s bottom-ranked unit shut out the San Diego Chargers the rest of way holding on at the end to secure a 31-24 victory.
“It feels good to get the monkey off our backs,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “It just a collective effort, going from the front four getting pressure to the secondary locking down their man and playing together as a defense.”
The key play — Roman Harper’s interception and 41-yard return of a Phillip Rivers pass which was tipped by Malcolm Jenkins with 5:45 left, brought a response from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd that was louder than Drew Brees’ record-setting touchdown pass to Devery Henderson in the first quarter.
It was Harper’s first interception since 2010 and only his second since 2008.
“I got there clean, got my arm in there, and he (Harper) was able to get the interception,” Jenkins said. “It couldn’t have happened to a better person.”
Then, after the Saints settled for a field goal following the return, Martez Wilson redeemed himself for a hands-to-the-face penalty which got San Diego out of a second-and-37 hole by stripping Rivers from the ball on third down from the Saints’ 33 to seal it.
On the previous play, Wilson’s pressure had forced Rivers into a bad throw.
“Honestly, I was just playing aggressive, and it was a total accident,” Wilson said of the penalty, which gave the Chargers a new set of downs at their 33. “After that, it made the job longer, but we just continued fighting.”
After the call against Wilson, San Diego, needing a touchdown to tie and force overtime, got four straight completions by Rivers to reach the Saints’ 43 with 28 seconds left.
But the Chargers got no further. After an incompletion on first down, Wilson’s pressure on Rivers forced another one to bring up third down.
That’s when Wilson, who had no other tackles in the game, engulfed Rivers, forcing the fumble which he also recovered.
“Actually, the played slowed down,” Wilson said. “I knew their tackle was getting tired, so I just used my speed to get around him and the quarterback was right there.
“Sack, forced fumble and recovery on one play. That feels pretty good.”
It was an unlikely effort over the final 27 minutes of a game that had seen the Saints give up big chunks of yards while generally failing to get pressure on Rivers, a deficit that had contributed greatly to the team’s 0-4 start.
The Chargers had been particularly effective on first down — averaging 9.1 per-play in that situation, including a 21-yard carry by Ronnie Brown to begin a four-play, 86-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half which put San Diego ahead 17-14.
And if that wasn’t soul-sapping enough, following Quentin Jammer’s interception and return to the Saints’ 25 three plays into the third quarter, the Chargers made it look easy in going up 24-14.
Corey White came up on Ryan Mathews after a short pass, but failed to wrap up, and Mathews turned it into a 10-yard gain to the 13.
On the next play, tight end Antonio Gates, known more for his pass catching than his blocking, took care of Saints’ linebacker Will Herring on the left side, allowing Mathews to go unimpeded for the touchdown which gave the visitors a 10-point lead with the prospect of more to come.
But that was it.
The Saints forced fumbles on the next two possessions before Harper’s interception, and Wilson’s recovery ended the final two.
And after rolling up those 288 first-half yards, the Chargers had only 139 in the second half, 43 on the last drive.
“We proved to ourselves and to everyone else that we’re a good defense,” said Lofton, who had a team-high 10 tackles. “We haven’t been able to finish the game out before.
“Tonight, we did.”