Saints defense tested by Texans in 31-23 win

HOUSTON — In the days leading up to their 31-23 win on Sunday against the Houston Texans, numerous New Orleans Saints starters said they were eager to test themselves against a team that won its division the past two years and is considered one of the best the AFC has to offer.

The Saints will be happy they outscored the Texans’ starters 17-16 in the first half. That was in large part due to solid outings from Drew Brees and backup Luke McCown as well as the young wide receivers they targeted.

But it was clear there was some fine-tuning left to be done on new coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense after New Orleans surrendered a number of long plays to the best offense they will face before the start of the regular season.

And that offense did not field one of its best players, Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster, who only recently began practicing after missing time with a calf injury and sat out the preseason matchup with the Saints at Reliant Stadium.

“There were still a lot of things we’re going to have to work on and improve on,” coach Sean Payton said afterward.

Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, who went 15-of-26 for 213 yards in one half, got 82 of his yards against New Orleans on three throws. One went to Andre Johnson for 39 yards, another went to Johnson for 22 yards, and another went to Owen Daniels for 21 yards.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis — who led the NFL last year in pass break-ups and was New Orleans’ top free-agent acquisition — was tasked with covering Johnson, who led the game with 131 yards on seven receptions.

Meanwhile, Foster’s replacement, Ben Tate, grabbed 39 of the Texans’ 78 rushing yards against the Saints’ first-team defense on one run.

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had a sack and got in on three tackles, declined to express any concern about the big plays given up to a potent offense similar to the Atlanta Falcons one New Orleans will face in the regular-season opener on Aug. 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“Just to see how much we could get better at, it excites me,” Jordan said. “You can’t expect to be perfect in Week 3 (of the preseason).”

To be sure, the Saints were not at full strength against Houston. They were missing inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma and outside linebacker Junior Galette, both projected starters dealing with injuries.

The Saints, who got five first-half sacks in their last game against the Oakland Raiders’ starters, weren’t able to replicate the pressure against Houston. They sacked Schaub just twice for a combined loss of 10 yards. Defensive end Glenn Foster, an undrafted rookie, got the Saints’ other sack, his fourth this preseason.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise so far,” Payton said of Foster. “He’s going to compete for playing time.”

The Saints’ offense, which got 78 yards on 21 rushing attempts, operated more smoothly in the air, which has been typical so far. Playing for a little more than a quarter, Brees went 8-for-12 for 104 yards, 51 of which came on a short pass in the second quarter to running back Pierre Thomas. Lined up as a receiver, Thomas stiff-armed a Texans linebacker who tried to strip him, Joe Mays, and broke free for a long score.

“He was reaching for the ball, ... but I just put my left arm out, ... got away and took off from there,” Thomas said about the play.

McCown, also appearing for more than a quarter, completed 10 of his 14 attempts for 118 yards and two touchdowns, to wide receivers Kenny Stills and Andy Tanner in the second and third quarters, respectively.

Brees and McCown were both well protected by an offensive line that made do without right guard Jahri Evans, whom Payton said he decided to rest without elaborating. The Saints gave up just one sack, on Brees, in the first quarter.

Tanner in the fourth quarter caught another touchdown pass from No. 3 quarterback Ryan Griffin, who had 86 yards and completed 8 of the 13 passes he tried.

Payton praised Stills, a rookie, and Tanner, who’s spent time on the practice squad the past three season. They are among a handful of wide receivers who have stood out after the Saints lost No. 3 wide receiver candidate Joe Morgan to a torn meniscus and partially torn anterior cruciate ligament earlier in August.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that are stepping up and doing a good job,” Payton said. “There’s some good competition there.”

Furthermore, Stills made the play of the game in the second quarter when he leapt and reached around Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson to catch a 40-yard pass from McCown one-handed along the left sideline.

The Saints’ offense did not have to cope with Houston’s star defensive end J.J. Watt, who didn’t play after previously appearing in just two preseason snaps.

Kicker Garrett Hartley scored New Orleans’ remaining three points on a 51-yard field goal, making him 6-for-6 so far in the preseason.

Houston took a 10-0 lead after a 1-yard touchdown from Tate in the first quarter and a 48-yard Randy Bullock field goal. After Thomas’ touchdown, Bullock hit field goals from 55 and 21 yards, and Hartley and Stills scored before the end of the first half.

In the second half, mostly played by New Orleans’ and Houston’s second- and third-team players, Texans wideout Alec Lemon caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback T.J. Yates in between Tanner’s scores.

New Orleans is 3-0 in the preseason after beating Kansas City on Aug. 9 and Oakland on Aug. 16, both at home. They face the Miami Dolphins on the road Thursday to close out the preseason.