Great start, but more work to do for Saints in Brees’ absence

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METAIRIE – Well, that was surprisingly easy.

The closeness of the final score in the New Orleans Saints’ 33-27 victory at Seattle on Sunday belies how well the Saints controlled that game.

A road victory against a 2-0 team in the first full game after Drew Brees’ thumb injury was significant in itself. But to get significant contributions from all three phases, including an offensive touchdown, a defensive touchdown and a special-teams touchdown in the same game for just the third time in franchise history, was remarkable.

New Orleans led by multiple touchdowns for the majority of the game against a team considered one of the best in the NFC in one of the most challenging road environments in the NFL.

Sean Payton did an outstanding job of tailoring a game plan suited to Teddy Bridgewater’s talent in the former Pro Bowl quarterback’s first significant game action since 2015.

Payton was wise to limit Taysom Hill’s role to something similar to what he does when Brees is healthy and focus on allowing Bridgewater to use his mobility and quick passes to maintain an efficient passing game.

Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas did what they always do. Payton leaned on Kamara a bit more than he usually does and Kamara showed why he is one of the players in the NFL who is most difficult to defend and tackle.

After a rough start with a series of penalties reminiscent of problems that surfaced after Brees was hurt early in the loss at the Rams a week earlier, the offensive line settled in played better as the game progressed, opening enough holes for Kamara and creating sufficient time for Bridgewater to operate.

The defense certainly rose to the occasion in a game that required it to. Forget the 515 yards that the Seahawks wound up with. A significant portion of that came when Russell Wilson was dinking and dunking against a defense determined to stop any big plays in a game that the Saints could only lose control of if it allowed a couple of big plays.

When the Saints were taking control of the game they were doing so in large measure by containing Wilson and the entire Seattle offense. Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Demario Davis, Kiko Alonso, Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore all made big plays as did Vonn Bell, who had the biggest play of all by returning a fumble 33 yards for a touchdown.

Thomas Morstead performed much as Kamara did – even more outstanding than his typical outstanding play.

Rookie Deonte Harris got things started with a 53-yard punt return for a touchdown that allowed Bridgewater and the offense to hold a 7-0 lead as they took take the field for their first snap.

Later Harris would lose a fumble on another punt return, giving Seattle a chance to turn the game around after New Orleans seemed in command midway through the third quarter.

But the defense would stiffen and make a fourth-down stop, something it did three times as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and his staff made a few questionable decisions.

Carroll wore a bandage over his injured nose throughout the game after being plunked in the face by a football thrown by one of his players as the coach ran onto the field before the game.

Maybe the jolt had a lingering effect on Carroll, but whatever the reason, Payton and his staff clearly got the better of Carroll and his.

Afterward Payton alluded to the fact that sometimes “the more desperate team” responds in a positive way in such circumstances. That probably had a lot to do with Sunday’s performance.

The Saints were a desperate team as they embarked on an estimated six-week stretch without the NFL’s all-time leading passer and they channeled that desperation in a positive manner, putting together an excellent three hours of complementary football.

It would be unwise to think this is the new normal, that this is precisely the way New Orleans is going to play during Brees’ absence. There will be ups and downs just as there will be once Brees returns.

But the significance of Sunday’s performance was that the Saints, with Bridgewater leading the way, showed that they can still play at a playoff-caliber level without Brees. They have the coaching staff, the offensive skill stars and solid line, a capable defense and special-teams weapons to collectively mitigate Brees’ absence.

This week they play a better team in the Dallas Cowboys than the good one they just played, but the environment inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday Night Football will be the polar opposite of what it was in Seattle.

This is still going to be a week-by-week, day-by-day, hour-by-hour grind to stay at or near the top of the NFC South during Brees’ absence.

But the challenge of doing so seems a lot more manageable than it did a week ago.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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