Mickles: Defense deserves beaucoup credit

TAMPA, Fla. In the immediate aftermath of the New Orleans Saints’ dramatic win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night, few people — if any at all — paused to think about how it happened.

That the Saints, who stumbled badly out of the gate in losing their first four games a year ago, were 2-0 was the main thing, of course.

That they did it against two NFC South foes, especially the Atlanta Falcons in the season opener a week earlier in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, made it extra sweet.

But how they accomplished it was the real shocker.

After much was said and written about a defense that set an NFL single-season record for total yards allowed last season, don’t forget to give Rob Ryan and his group some love and a lot of credit for both wins.

Perhaps Saints fans have taken it for granted that their potent offense would somehow always (most of the time, anyway) get the job done, which has been the norm since Sean Payton’s arrival in 2006. But the defense has certainly done its part the first two weeks.

No, they’re not a top-five defense after two weeks. No, they haven’t completely stymied opposing quarterbacks, shut down running backs or thrown a blanket over wide receivers and tight ends.

But they’re getting the job done so far, and Saints fans have to be ecstatic about that.

The Saints won their first game by six points when the defense made a play in the end zone after it looked like the Falcons were going to take a one-point lead with less than a minute remaining.

They won 16-14 on Sunday in soggy Raymond James Stadium when Garrett Hartley nailed a 27-yard field goal on the final play of the game after Drew Brees and the offense got Hartley close enough for a chip-shot attempt.

What many may not remember is how the defense had to dig deep and keep the Bucs from getting a first down inside the two-minute warning that would have enabled them to take a knee and dance off with a victory.

With first-and-10 at the Saints’ 36 with 2:24 to play, the Bucs’ Doug Martin, who had 137 rushing yards on 26 attempts at that point, needed just 10 more yards to wrap up the win. But on three straight runs, he picked up 4 yards, was held to no gain by inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and then had a 3-yard gain end on a tackle by rookie nose tackle John Jenkins.

That was followed by a missed 47-yard field-goal attempt by Rian Lindell that left the Saints needing only a field goal instead of a touchdown to win.

What happened next is something we’ve all seen before: Brees, who earlier threw two interceptions, with one returned 85 yards for a touchdown, calmly directing the drive that got them in field-goal range.

Brees connected with Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles, then delivered the dagger: a perfectly-thrown 31-yard pass to Marques Colston on a skinny post that Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson had no chance to defend.

That brought in Hartley and the wild celebration that ensued, which brought a long, drawn-out game — which included a 69-minute weather delay in the first quarter — to a happy conclusion for the Saints.

It turned out to be the 31st comeback victory for Brees when his team is trailing or tied in the fourth quarter.

“What was very important at the very end was just getting the stop, where they couldn’t take a knee and win the game,” Payton said.

“The defense made the stop. And if (the Bucs) were able to get the first down, you know they’re (going to take) a knee.Then we made a few plays there and got out of our end.”

Brees said visualizing the defense getting the crucial stop to give them a chance played a huge part in the process and, in turn, helped them envision being where they are today rather than a year ago after back-to-back losses to open the season.

“This is where we imagined ourselves being, and obviously, the manner that we won these two games has been pretty exciting,” he said. “These are the ones you have to win in order to get to the goals you set for yourself.”