Missing three regulars, Saints give up TD on opening drive of exhibition
So which defense will it be for the Saints this season?
The one caught off-guard by Kansas City’s up-tempo attack on the opening series, when the Chiefs went 80 efficient yards for a touchdown?
Or the one that settled in, albeit with reserves for both sides coming on as quickly as the next possession, allowing just a pair of field goals and 135 more yards in three-plus quarters as the Saints prevailed 17-13 in their exhibition opener Friday?
A little bit of both, it seems.
“I think we were being a little more exotic than what the tempo was allowing,” Saints inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “The fact was, after that first drive, we settled in, pretty much started running our base defense and shut ’em down.”
But a defense that returns 10 of 11 starters from the what was statistically the worst in league history (giving up 510 of those 7,042 yards to Kansas City in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last year), leading to the hiring of coordinator Rob Ryan to install 3-4, surely would’ve liked to have made a better initial impression.
The Chiefs, making their debut under Andy Reid and with new quarterback Alex Smith in control, were no doubt just as anxious to impress. And they did, as Smith completed 7 of 8 passes, all on short routes, while mixing in the run.
The Saints had one decent defensive play — third-team nose tackle Tyrunn Walker’s chasing Smith out the pocket and forcing his only incompletion of the drive.
That brought up third-and-six from the 14 and put the Saints in position to make Kansas City settle for a field goal.
But backup inside linebacker Chris Chamberlain seemingly got caught up in presnap adjustments. He didn’t pick up Jamaal Charles, who ran by Chamberlain as he hauled in a pass from Smith.
Charles — who infamously gained 233 rushing yards and 55 receiving yards in last year’s game — wasn’t brought down until he reached the 1.
Charles scored on the next play.
“I was dropping into coverage and they converted on us,” Chamberlain said. “They came out trying to get us off-balance with the tempo, and it was our first time out there together, running a few new things.
“We just had to get organized; that’s all. Once we got calmed down, the defense settled in and played good ball.”
That was the early view of Saints coach Sean Payton, as well.
“After that first series, we started to play better defense, affect the passer and get into the right down-and-distances,” he said. “I thought Andy would come out the way he did, and those guys did a good job and had a good pace. We gave up some technique things where we lost leverage inside and we lost leverage in the flat a few times, too. But I thought we settled down after that first series.”
There were individuals making their marks after that opening series, as well.
Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who has been the most aggressive defensive player in training camp, played the entire first half and wound up as the leading tackler with six stops.
And early in the second quarter, rookie nose tackle John Jenkins — who’d been having a quiet training camp after earlier being touted to push Broderick Bunkley for a starting spot — came up with a sack of ex-Saints quarterback Chase Daniel.
Walker, who was inactive for all but one game last year, also improved his status with three tackles, plus the hurry of Smith on that opening drive.
In the third quarter, rookie free agent Glenn Foster earned some attention with a sack and strip of Chiefs quarterback Tyler Bray.
The regulars will get a longer chance next week against a less-potent Oakland offense. Also, inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma and outside linebacker Junior Galette — the star of last week’s scrimmage, who sat out Friday — should be back.
And no matter what, it doesn’t count until Atlanta comes to town Sept. 8.
“We definitely have some things to work out,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “But that’s what it’s all about getting experience and then moving on to face the next opponent. We had some young guys who definitely took over the game in the second half tonight. We’re all excited about the direction we’re headed.”