It would have been understandable if Saints fans had that “here-we-go-again” look on their faces just after the start of Friday night’s exhibition opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The first drive looked a lot like the 2012 season — when the Saints set an NFL single-season record by allowing 7,042 total yards — as the Chiefs marched 80 yards in 14 plays to a touchdown.
But there’s a new defensive coordinator in town, as well as a new 3-4 scheme and new players, and the Saints more than held their own after the shaky start.
When the Saints’ offense began to click late in the first quarter, it worked hand-in-hand with the new-look defense to secure a 17-13 win over the Chiefs in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Saints quarterback Luke McCown tossed a pair of 2-yard touchdown passes to wide receiver Preston Parker in the third quarter to help Sean Payton win in his return to the sideline after a season-long suspension in 2012.
“I thought there were some things that happened during the course of the game that were positive,” Payton said in eyeing both sides of the ball. “But there are a lot of things to clean up.”
It certainly didn’t look good early.
New Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith completed his first six passes and was 7-of-8 on the opening drive for 68 yards — drawing groans from the crowd — while marching his team down the field to Jamaal Charles’ 1-yard TD run.
After the Saints picked up only one first down on their initial possession, Chiefs running back Dexter McCluster set up his offense again with a 55-yard punt return.
Backed up to their 32, the Saints held on the next three plays and forced the Chiefs to settle for a 42-yard Ryan Succop field goal and a 10-0 lead with 4:06 left in the opening quarter.
Thanks to a 22-yard pass from Drew Brees to rookie receiver Kenny Stills, the Saints drove 74 yards in 10 plays to Garrett Hartley’s 24-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 10-3 early in the second period.
Through it all, the defense began to gain confidence. After the Chiefs’ only touchdown of the night, new coordinator Rob Ryan’s unit came up with three consecutive three-and-outs after former Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel replaced Smith.
“I thought we settled in after that first series,” Payton said. “We kind of felt like we were going to get a little up-tempo offense from them. There was a good pace to it, and they ran a little no-huddle. It was a little unsettling, but we settled in and played a little better.”
After picking up 80 total yards on their first drive, the Chiefs picked up just 50 more the rest of the half. They managed only 81 yards in the next 21/2 quarters and had 161 by the end of the third period.
“They set a fast tempo, and we adjusted according to what they did on that first drive,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “They did a good job getting the ball out fast, but we adjusted on that second drive.”
The Saints, who ranked near the bottom of the NFL with only 30 sacks last season, had three in the first half and four for the game. Cornerback Jabari Greer had one on the first drive, and rookie nose tackle John Jenkins, outside linebacker Baraka Atkins and defensive end Glenn Mason recorded the others.
“There were some positive things,” Payton said. “After that first series, I thought we affected the passer and got them into the right down and distance. That was encouraging.
“We started winning the down and distance and got their offense in predictable situations, which began to work in our favor. We had good energy and got hands on them. That was certainly evident for everyone watching, so that was good news.”
The offense did its part, too, behind Brees and McCown.
Brees connected on 7 of 10 pass attempts for 65 yards in his two series. McCown replaced him early in the second quarter and was only 4-for-10 for 54 yards in three series before picking it up in the second half.
Much like the Chiefs did at the start the game, the Saints went 80 yards in 13 plays to open the second half, with McCown completing 7 of 9 attempts for 75 yards. Receivers Nick Toon and Andy Tanner combined for five catches on the drive, with each reception producing a first down.
Toon had back-to-back catches of 22 and 17 yards and added a 7-yarder later, while Tanner’s grabs netted 22 yards before McCown rolled to his right and found Parker for the touchdown in the back of the end zone.
After the teams exchanged turnovers, McCown led his team on a 10-play, 82-yard drive that ended with another 2-yard TD pass to Parker, who was released early last season by Tampa Bay.
McCown turned the game over to rookie Ryan Griffin after completing 18 of 28 passes for 216 yards, and the Saints finished with 427 total yards to the Chiefs’ 215.
Still, Payton said his team was sloppy in all three phases of the game — including not lining up properly and not having the right personnel on the field at times. He even pointed a finger at himself in his first game back as play-caller.
“I wanted to be measured about reacting to my first impression,” he said. “Obviously, there’s frustration ,and it shows we have a lot of work to do.
“There are a lot of new faces, but certainly as a play-caller and getting the call in on offense, I wasn’t very good. I was slow, and I’ve got to improve in that area.”