HOUSTON — The word of the day Sunday for the New Orleans Saints was this:
Optimism. Guarded optimism.
OK, that’s two words. But it’s preseason, and I’m not columnizing yet in regular season form (no snarky comments, please).
The Saints aren’t completely ready for the regular season yet either. Some key pieces of the defense are injured — like just about everyone who has ever played linebacker for New Orleans — and the offensive balance (78 yards rushing) is still not ideal.
But the Saints’ 31-23 victory over the Houston Texans was a more than an encouraging sign with the regular season now just one more rehearsal (Thursday’s game at Miami) away from being here.
The Texans — who came in 2-0 in the preseason as well — were not at the top of their form, either. Defensive end J.J. Watt spent more time in an ESPN feature video earlier this week than he has on the field this preseason, and starting running back Arian Foster was inactive.
You could make the argument, though, that given the key players both teams were without — Watt and Foster for the Texans, linebackers Jonathan Vilma, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson for the Saints — this is about as good an indication of New Orleans’ strength relative to the rest of the NFL you’re going to get.
The Texans have all the tools to be considered an elite team in the AFC again this season. The big question a couple hundred miles east of here along I-10 is: Are the Saints ready to be welcomed back into the upper echelons in the NFC?
Saints coach Sean Payton isn’t one to ask. Despite a typically humid August day outside roof-enclosed Reliant Stadium, Payton was showing signs of icing over like a bridge in Manitoba.
“There’s still a number of things we’re going to have to work on,” said Payton, who gave three “we want to see the tape” type of comments during his terse postgame talk. A question about the health of linebacker Will Smith, who got injured in the first half, met with the kind of stone wall that backup linebacker Ramon Humber greeted the Texans’ Deji Karim with on fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the third quarter.
Payton’s less than expansive comments were understandable, though. The Saints coach is rarely if ever given to hyperbole and the preseason — even when your team has just taken its most informative turn on the field — is no time to start bubbling and frothing.
Still, the fact the Saints were able to take their act on the road and beat the best team they’re certain to see this preseason is not an insignificant achievement.
Yes, the defense got gashed for 496 yards, just about double what the Saints grudgingly gave up in their first two preseason games against the Chiefs and Raiders. The use of a 4-3 look brought back visions of how the Saints got rolled up last season as New Orleans surrendered five plays of 21 yards or more.
But New Orleans stiffened near the goal line when it was needed. Even the most ardent Texans fans had to be a little thankful that the Saints held Houston out of the end zone in the game’s final minute.
The only thing worse than preseason football is preseason overtime football.
“It’s a new defense, and you can’t expect to be perfect by game three,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan, who has impressed each time out in Rob Ryan’s scheme. “It’s a process, and we’re striving for perfection.”
Drew Brees was talking about chasing perfection afterward as well, perfection as in trying to score on every possession.
Neither side of the Saints’ ball needs to be perfect. The offense has been consistently productive — even with young receivers like Andy Tanner and Kenny Stills in the game taking throws from backups Luke McCown and Ryan Griffin. The defense can give up nearly 500 yards as it did Sunday if it keeps the game from turning into an NBA-like scoring feast.
“I felt like we were moving the ball very effectively and playing with a lot of confidence,” Brees said.
Confidence well deserved by the way the Saints have played this month, paving the path to next month with optimism, guarded or not.