Saints first teams’ play ‘encouraging’

Much like the first week, the New Orleans Saints’ performance in Friday night’s exhibition game with the Oakland Raiders was a mixed bag in the eyes of coach Sean Payton.

There was some good, some bad and a whole lot in between — which certainly isn’t unusual or unexpected in the preseason when coaches are more focused on evaluating personnel than winning games that don’t count.

Which is why Payton wasn’t overly generous with his praise after a 28-20 victory against the Raiders in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

While the starting offense scored on all five of its first-half possessions with three field goals and two touchdowns, and the first-team defense limited the Raiders to 48 total yards until the final three minutes of the first half, there was a lot to be pleased with.

Like Payton’s new 3-4 defense that allowed 185 total yards and is giving up a scant 200.0 yards a game — second in the NFL going into Saturday’s games. It has also yielded just two touchdowns in two games.

“Defensively, we handled the short field really well tonight,” Payton said, “so that was encouraging.”

Payton was also pleased with the overall effort and emotion the Saints (2-0) played with — especially in the first half when the starters were still in the game.

The No. 1 offense and defense dominated even with some players who have been swinging between the first and second teams on both sides of the line of scrimmage — like linebackers Ramon Humber and David Hawthorne, who were starting for the injured Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma, respectively, and wide receivers Nick Toon and Kenny Stills.

Each made plays that gave Payton reason to smile.

Humber and Hawthorne combined to make the first big play of the game as they stopped Darren McFadden cold on fourth-and-1 from the Saints’ 43 on the first possession of the night for the Raiders (1-1).

That momentum carried the Saints on both sides of the ball for most of the first half, helping them build a 23-0 lead before the Raiders finally scored just 31 seconds before halftime.

“Mentally, we were ready to play,” Payton said. “Because of that, we were able to move the football, and defensively, we did a good job.”

Toon caught a 56-yard pass from Drew Brees to set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram on the next play. On the next drive, Stills made a toe-tapping 16-yard touchdown catch at the end of a 78-yard drive in which Brees was 6-of-6 for 67 yards.

Toon and Stills, who caught four passes for 64 yards, were both in the starting lineup because Payton and his staff wanted to get them a lot of snaps and test them after they had problems lining up properly a week earlier.

“It was good to see it on the field (Friday night) from both of them,” Payton said. “I thought (after last week) the biggest thing was the tempo we’re used to was maybe different than the tempo they’re used to.

“So it’s getting them up to speed. When the player knows where he needs to be, he’s quicker to get out of the huddle and get (lined up). But when there’s some indecision, they’re going to slow down the process. I thought they handled it better (Friday night).”

In the second half, Payton was reminded that they’re only halfway through the preseason and are playing with a large number of players who won’t be on the 53-man roster when they open the regular season Sept. 8.

There were three turnovers by the offense and another fumble that the Saints managed to recover to avoid a complete disaster as the Raiders turned a deficit of 23 points into a three-point game early in the fourth quarter.

The Raiders converted a fumble and interception by quarterback Seneca Wallace into 10 points. And running back Travaris Cadet had two fumbles — losing one.

“At this time of the year, a lot of stuff eats at you,” Payton said sternly.

In other words, players who are in a fight for roster spots —- like Wallace and Cadet — can’t afford to make mistakes like that.

“We did everything in the second half to allow them a chance to get back in the game,” Payton said. “The three turnovers, nine penalties (in the game). That frustrated me, that’s way too many.

“We did some good things, but listen, there were a lot of things you can build on. More importantly, I thought we were emotionally ready and played with some excitement. So that was pleasing.”