Somehow, someway a much maligned New Orleans Saints defense played its best game of the season despite several injuries. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore (concussion) and cornerback Sterling Moore (chest injury) both missed the 34-13 win over the Carolina Panthers.
The Saints secondary was already missing cornerback Delvin Breaux to a broken leg. That same New Orleans secondary still managed to make three interceptions against Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Those were the first forced turnovers from the defense all season.
One of those interceptions came via safety Kenny Vaccaro, who got benched during the Saints game against the New England Patriots before coming up with the big play against Carolina. But one victory doesn’t fix everything for the defense—and trading linebacker Stephone Anthony to the Miami Dolphins before the Carolina game doesn’t help.
Last week was the first time this unit was able to look like it did in the preseason, as it raised expectations heading into the regular season. It certainly didn’t look like the same defense that played against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots in the first two weeks
Instead, both the Patriots and Minnesota Vikings were able to do just about anything on offense through two games. Minnesota was nine for 14 on third-down conversions and New England ended up six for 12.
But against the Panthers, New Orleans was able to get off the field on third down, and it went a long way to helping out this defense. Forcing teams to punt will help this unit rest since both the Vikings and Patriots led time of possession. And that is exactly what happened on Sunday, as New Orleans had a slight lead in time of possession against Carolina.
The Saints offense couldn’t help the defense in the first two games of the season, with both starting offensive tackles watching from the sidelines. Zach Strief is dealing with a knee injury, and Terron Armstead is still recovering from a shoulder injury.
Those injuries were showing up in pass protection but mainly in the running game, where the Saints averaged just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt at the beginning of the season. Struggling to run the ball is leading to the offense having to punt more since New Orleans is eight of 23 on third down in two games.
On Sunday, New Orleans averaged 5.5 yards per rush, and the team ran for 149 yards on 27 carries. The improved rushing attack helped the Saints go six for 12 on third-down conversions.
One win doesn’t fix every problem, but it does help give the defense confidence moving forward. If the Saints can continue to play like they did against Carolina, it, in theory, could only get better once the injured players return.
New Orleans was finally able to get a lead and use quarterback Drew Brees for big pass plays down field and controlling the game with the ground attack. The Saints might have found a winning formula, but was Sunday for real or fools gold?
The injured players were supposed to be major contributors to this team this season. This Sunday in London, it will be interesting to see if New Orleans turned a corner against Carolina, or whether the missing pieces mean more losing.