Three days before hosting the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro said the mission for him and the rest of the New Orleans Saints was to avoid surrendering big plays to their NFC South rivals.
The Saints either accomplished that during most of their 23-17 win to open the regular season or failed on two conspicuous occasions — depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person.
An opportunistic defense answered that pair of lapses with big moments of its own, recording sacks and forcing takeaways. It got the job done Sunday, if barely.
Wins undoubtedly will be more comfortable for the Saints if their defense can stay opportunistic and keep big plays to a minimum.
The two touchdowns the Saints gave up to the Falcons followed 50-yard plays by Atlanta.
On the first one, quarterback Matt Ryan completed a 15-yard throw to receiver Harry Douglas, who rumbled for another 35 yards before Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis shoved him out of bounds at the New Orleans 10. Two plays later, tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a 7-yard touchdown pass to help Atlanta take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
The second huge play had running back Steven Jackson taking a third-quarter handoff from Atlanta’s 45 to the New Orleans 5 before he was pushed out of bounds. The Falcons took a 17-13 lead when Ryan connected with receiver Julio Jones for a 4-yard touchdown.
Wounded but not finished, the Saints defense salvaged the day with its own big moments, impressive given the fact that nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley, defensive end Tyrunn Walker and cornerback Patrick Robinson had left the game with injuries.
Outside linebackers Junior Galette and Parys Haralson and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks each sacked Ryan, rewarding the pressure they applied without needing to blitz.
The Saints limited Jackson to 27 yards on his other 10 carries. Safety Malcolm Jenkins forced a Jones fumble that fellow safety Roman Harper recovered. Then, on Atlanta’s last play, Vaccaro tipped a would-be touchdown pass to Gonzalez, and Harper picked off the deflection, denying the Falcons the chance to take the lead with 49 seconds left.
The Saints got the usual from their offense. Quarterback Drew Brees passed for 357 yards and two touchdowns, one each to wideout Marques Colston and tight end Jimmy Graham. The offense also turned the ball over just once.
Nonetheless, having given up Douglas’ reception and Jackson’s run, that was nearly not enough. On the play before Harper iced the contest with his interception, Jackson dropped what could’ve been a game-winning score for Atlanta, sparing New Orleans from starting the race for the division at a disadvantage.
After New Orleans permitted the most yards in league history in 2012, resulting in the firing of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Saints fans were hoping someone would come in and install a scheme that put the ball in defenders’ hands and kept opposing quarterbacks on their backs.
New coordinator Rob Ryan has shown through the preseason and now one regular-season game that he can devise game plans that translate those hopes into reality.
But if and when the sacks and takeaways dry up and the offense coughs up a few more turnovers, containing the big plays will be the difference between stirring victories and heartbreaking defeats.
Editor’s Note: This column initially stated the Saints didn’t turn the ball over. However, Brees threw an interception, and this piece has been corrected.