With or without Drew Brees, the Saints are the Saints

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NEW ORLEANS – Maybe this is the new normal for the New Orleans Saints.

Maybe the expectations for this team should be essentially the same as they were before Drew Brees was injured.

Maybe this season shouldn’t be viewed in the context of Brees games and Teddy Bridgewater games.

Sure the Saints aren’t precisely the same team or exactly the same offense with Bridgewater at quarterback as they are with Brees at quarterback.

But head coach Sean Payton, his staff and their players have figured out how to win without Brees, improving to 3-0 since Brees’ thumb injury and 4-1 overall after a 31-24 victory against Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints are the Saints, the leaders of the NFC South, with or without Brees.

On Sunday, Payton seemed more confident in going deeper into the playbook than he had in the 33-27 victory at Seattle in Bridgewater’s debut as the starter and in the 12-10 victory against Dallas last week.

Bridgewater completed 19 of 27 for 177 yards and threw two touchdown passes against Seattle. Against Dallas he was 23 of 30 for 193 yards and no touchdowns as the Saints managed just four Wil Lutz field goals.

But against Tampa Bay, Bridgewater threw 34 times, completing 26, and finished with 314 yards and four touchdowns.

“We knew that we were playing a real good run front,” Payton said, “so we were going to throw it a little bit more early on. We got the ball down the field more.”

Also of note was the fact that Taysom Hill was more involved in the game plan than he had been in the two previous games, suggesting Payton had become more comfortable with Bridgewater’s ability to handle periodic disruptions to his snaps than he might have been in the first two games.

The Saints’ defense came up with its second consecutive outstanding performance. It limited a Dallas team that had totaled more than 400 yards and 30 points in winning each of its first three games to a mere 256 yards and 10 points while doing something a Saints team had never done since Payton’s arrival in 2006 – win a game without scoring a touchdown.

On Sunday the defense allowed even fewer yards (252) to a Tampa Bay team that had set a franchise scoring record in a 55-40 victory against the Rams a week earlier as Jameis Winston threw four touchdown passes and was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

But the Saints harassed Winston all day, sacking him six times, and limiting him to two touchdown passes, the second of which came with 13 seconds left as Tampa Bay moved 78 yards against a defense that was playing to the clock.

“I thought we did a good job of disrupting the passer,” Payton said.

All of the sacks came from defensive linemen as Marcus Davenport had two and Cameron Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown and rookie Carl Ganderson had one each.

It was fitting that the line played as it did on a day when the late Will Smith, one of the best defensive ends in Saints history, was added to the Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen talked Friday about the defense accepting its responsibility to help the Saints succeed in Brees’ absence.

“How you respond to and handle adversity says a lot about both the individuals on the team and the team collectively,” Allen said. “Certainly not having your leader in Drew Brees is an adverse situation that we have to deal with.

“We understand that this is a team game and certainly we know that we’re called upon to play at a high level on defense. We think our guys are at a point were they enjoy that challenge and appreciate that challenge. We feel like we’re a pretty good defense and we feel like this is a great opportunity for us to go out and prove ourselves.”

The Saints are 3-0 without Brees primarily because they haven’t viewed the absence of the NFL’s all-time leading passer as a loss but as an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to compete for a division championship by continuing to win games. Having to find different ways to win games doesn’t necessitate winning less frequently.

Bridgewater and the Saints have evolved noticeably in the two-plus weeks since Brees underwent thumb surgery. It appears they are approaching the halfway point of Brees’ absence, though the timetable for his return has always been a rough estimate.

The key thing is that it’s no longer a situation where New Orleans should be hoping and praying that Brees can somehow shorten the original six-week timetable but one in which it should be comfortable in waiting until Brees is fully healed – however long that takes.

If Brees sits out three more games – at Jacksonville and Chicago and a home game against Arizona – then he’ll have the additional week that comes with the bye in order to return against Atlanta on Nov. 10 in the Superdome.

That game will take place 53 days after Brees underwent surgery, a significant recuperative period.

As comfortable as Bridgewater and this team appear to be, that time is just flying by.

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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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