With the New Orleans Saints' 23-17 triumph over the division rival Atlanta Falcons, they've essentially distanced themselves by two games. With everyone else in the division taking a loss on opening weekend, the Saints have sole possession of first place—with a chance to add to it with next week's tilt with Tampa.
The Saints have a ton of things to hang their hats on. The thing is, they may just be scratching the surface of what they can do in all phases.
Let's take a look at some key things that stood out to me in this pivotal matchup between two upper-echelon teams.
The three sacks of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan doesn't quite tell the whole story. He seemed to be under duress for most of the game, which in turn had him operating from different launch points. The combination of Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Junior Galette and Parys Haralson came through in a major way.
This has to be what head coach Sean Payton had in mind when he hired Rob Ryan to coordinate the Saints defense. The ability to get pressure from all over the formation will have quarterbacks seeing ghosts.
The front was able to generate pressure without having to blitz. Now that's scary!
Payton loves to pass the ball. If he knew he could pass it 100 percent of the time and get away with it, I actually think he might. That theory may now be a thing of the past.
Collectively, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Mark Ingram carried the ball 26 times for 76 yards. The lack of success in the ground game was not a deterrent for Payton's attempt to establish continuity in the run game.
You have to think that Payton's time off allowed him to take a look at the man in the mirror. For the Saints to get to where they need to be, they need the ability to control the clock at all times. Running the ball provides that.
It also allows for the Saints' attacking defense to get a breather in-between series. When you score quickly, you do so at the detriment of your defense. Running the ball—regardless of the result—does positives for a team in more ways than one would think.
The time of possession favored the Saints by more than 10 minutes (24:49 for the Falcons, 35:11 for the Saints). This is a recipe for the disaster, for opponents of the Saints.
The best thing that happened to Keenan Lewis may have been his early injury. Early signs pointed to him being "burned toast" similar to the third preseason against the Houston Texans. The Falcons were going to pick on him for the duration of the game, and it was going to get ugly.
Beyond Lewis, the combination of Corey White, Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson didn't have much to offer Atlanta's receivers. With Falcons star receiver Roddy White hobbled with a high-ankle sprain, you wouldn't expect slot receiver Harry Douglas to step up and embarrass the Saints.
Well, that's exactly what he did! His four catches for 83 yards looked very Roddy White-like. For the Saints to get back to the top, they will need to lock down receivers in case the rush doesn't hit home.
Luckily, the rush aided the corners when it was absolutely necessary.
Saints fans are going to enjoy watching the safeties compete this year. They will be prevalent in the weekly game plan for the defense in numerous packages.
Rob Ryan's dime defense is clearly his sub-package of choice.
In this game alone, I saw rookie Kenny Vaccaro line up at outside linebacker, slot corner and free safety. He will get better at covering slot receivers, but his physicality is already a tone-setter for the Saints defense.
His late hit on Matt Ryan was a gift and a curse. Penalties are a form of football suicide, but Vaccaro's aggressiveness put Ryan on alert to keep his head on a swivel when leaving the pocket.
After that hit, Ryan was very hesitant to do anything but extend plays in an attempt to throw the ball. After taking the blow to the ribs, Matt turned down quite a few opportunities to bolt the pocket to pick up yards on the ground.
Rafael Bush, Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Vaccaro will be a fun group of safeties to watch this season. All four can be very physical at all times.
And as we all know, physical play reverberates through all units of a team. The Saints' performance was a direct representative of that theory.
When the Saints decided to switch to an odd-front defense, the word around town was that defensive end Junior Galette would benefit the most from being moved to outside linebacker. If the game against the Falcons is any indication, the pundits got that one correct.
Galette looked like former Indianapolis Colts defensive end/outside linebacker Dwight Freeney in a myriad of ways. He represented Freeney's No. 93 jersey number very well through his ability to get pressure and sacks. The leverage from with he plays (6'2", 258 pounds)—and the dexterity that he displays—makes him the perfect fit as a stand-up edge-rusher.
His stats (one tackle, one sack) don't necessarily scream superstar, but the fact that he missed the entire preseason and was able to live in the Falcons backfield should.
One of the undertones I had to sift through involved a perceived decline in Saints all-world quarterback Drew Brees. I honestly don't understand what Saints fans want from Brees. If his league-leading 43 TDs weren't enough, his conducting of the second overall offense should have been.
The game against the Falcons was much of the same.
Going 26-of-35 for 357 yards (two TDs) was vintage Brees. His command of the huddle may be only superseded by his ability to execute. Any talk of his decline is premature at this point.
Fans expect perfection from Brees; they should just settle for him being better than 95 percent of the other quarterbacks in the league.
When I chronicled the misfits throughout the Saints' roster, I should have made sure Mark Ingram's name was at the top of the list. It's clear now that he is a square peg trying to be fit in a round hole.
He's having trouble establishing a rhythm above all else. Receiving nine carries—spread throughout a 60-minute game—is the culprit of that. To be effective in the Payton scheme, a back must make the most of a few opportunities (i.e., Pierre Thomas).
Ingram clearly looked like the worst running back on the field. His nine carries for 11 yards support that claim. If the Saints won't feed him the ball enough times for him to establish said rhythm, it may be time for a demotion and a subsequent promotion for running backs Travaris Cadet or Khiry Robinson.
The Saints actually made the win against the Falcons a lot more difficult than it needed to be. Penalties extended drives for the Falcons on more than one occasion. Giving up 57 yards on six penalties, to a team like the Falcons, will eventually be the Saints' undoing.
Teams like that don't need much help to win—giving them assistance is a form of football suicide. If the Saints can corral the mental mistakes, they will surely put away great teams like the Falcons a lot more cleanly.
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