After early woes, Saints’ defense comes up big

After one quarter Sunday, the Saints defense actually was on pace to give up more yards this season than the NFL record of 7,042 it set last year.

And had Atlanta managed 3 more yards at the end, it would have been here-we-go-again time.

But the Falcons didn’t — thanks to rookie Kenny Vaccaro’s tip and Roman Harper’s interception, giving the much-maligned unit of 2012 a confidence boost after one game in 2013 via the Saints’ 23-17 victory.

“Coach (Sean) Payton gave us a lot of stuff this week about how bad we were last year,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We wanted to prove him and everybody else wrong.”

Or, as Falcons coach Mike Smith put it, “This was not their 2012 defense.”

Likely lost in the late-game dramatics was what the defense did before them. Atlanta scored on two of its first three possessions to go up 10-0. After 15 minutes, the Falcons had 123 yards, which extrapolates to 7,872 over 16 regular-season games.

But in their remaining eight possessions, the Falcons scored just seven points and had 244 yards — 77 on that last fruitless drive.

“We knew they’d start fast,” outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “That’s always part of their game plan, and they have a real good offense. Nobody panicked. We just had to finish, and we did.”

The game-changer came early in the second quarter after the Saints had cut the gap to 10-3. From his 20-yard line, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones for what would have been a 22-yard gain. But as Jabari Greer was tackling Jones, Malcolm Jenkins got a hand in to pop the ball loose just before Jones’ knee touched the ground.

Harper picked it up and returned it to the Atlanta 31. Three plays later, Drew Brees connected with Marques Colston for the tying touchdown.

“We were lucky (Jones) didn’t go to the ground before it came out,” Jenkins said. “But it was definitely a huge momentum shift in our favor. They can be the defining moments in these kinds of games. We needed something right there.”

After that, the Saints found a way to make big plays and keep the Falcons in check, save for their third-quarter touchdown drive:

Tom Johnson pressured Ryan into throwing short to Steven Jackson on third-and-3 from the Saints 44, forcing a punt.

Galette sacked Ryan for a 10-yard loss at the Saints 47, then pressed him into an intentional grounding call just before halftime.

Newly acquired Parys Haralson sacked Ryan to facilitate a three-and-out after the Saints had retaken the lead.

Akiem Hicks sacked Ryan on the first play following a Brees interception, and the visitors again went three-and-out.

Galette’s pressure resulted in a third-down holding call, negating a 17-yard completion to Harry Douglas that would have advanced the ball to midfield.

Jenkins, Rafael Bush and Ramon Humber made plays that stopped the Falcons shy of the end zone on the three downs before Harper’s interception.

All of this was accomplished by a somewhat makeshift defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan. The group lost four starters to injuries in the preseason, and nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley exited early Sunday, meaning rookie John Jenkins had to fill in.

“We had a lot of guys who hadn’t played much here before really step up today,” said Harper, now the longest-tenured player on the defense. “That’s why you bring young guys like Jenkins in and get them ready for moments like this.

“That’s part of what made this a great win.”