Victory gives Saints hope, though flaws remain exposed
METAIRIE, La. (AP) The New Orleans Saints feel a lot better about themselves after securing their first victory of this season, but they know they still face an uphill battle to climb into playoff contention.
A 26-20 overtime-home victory against injury-ravaged Dallas on Sunday night left the Saints (1-3) three games behind NFC South co-leaders Atlanta and Carolina and nowhere near where they want to be.
”We finally got the monkey off our back, but like we’ve been saying all morning, it’s just the first one,” said rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony, who had seven tackles and a sack for a youth-infused defense. ”We have to go get some more. You can’t get two without getting one, so it’s a good start.”
Topping the list of positives was quarterback Drew Brees’ solid performance after missing his first game due to injury in his 15-year NFL career. Playing with a bruised rotator cuff, he completed 33 of 41 passes for 359 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Most of his completions were short throws, including the sideline floater that running back C.J. Spiller turned into an 80-yard game-winner in overtime, but Brees appeared to get stronger as the game went along. He directed scoring drives on four of the Saints’ six possessions after halftime, and another one ended in Zach Hocker’s missed 30-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in regulation.
”We are always going to take what they give us,” Brees said. ”I felt like we were getting separation early, so the opportunity was there for those quick hitters.”
He also found a new favorite target, connecting with second-year pro Willie Snead six times for 89 yards. Snead, an undrafted free agent in 2014 who has 16 catches for the year, bounced from Cleveland to Carolina to New Orleans last season, but never played in a regular season game until this season.
”He’s a smart player,” coach Sean Payton said. ”He’s tough. He’s extremely competitive and that’s something we saw early in training camp. He competes every snap.”
So did the rookies on defense against Dallas. Five of them finished among the top six tacklers despite the return of veteran cornerback Keenan Lewis, safety Jairus Byrd and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.
Anthony, taken with the No. 31 overall pick, second-round selection Hau’oli Kikaha and fifth-round addition Tyeler Davison became the first rookie trio in franchise history to register sacks in a non-strike game.
Kikaha added a team-high 11 tackles, while rookie end Bobby Richardson made two tackles for loss.
”We have a good core of young guys,” said Anthony, who was drafted with a pick acquired in the Jimmy Graham trade to Seattle. ”It’s early for all of us, and we’re still trying to figure this thing out. Hopefully in time we can become something special.”
First, the Saints need to cut back on mistakes. The defensive backs drew four penalties on a Dallas touchdown drive in the first half – holding, illegal use of hands, face mask and pass interference – and two more flags prolonged possessions on third downs.
The secondary ran its season total for penalties to 19, including seven on cornerback Brandon Browner and six on cornerback Delvin Breaux.
”The first thing you look at is leverage and being on the right side of the receiver,” Payton said. ”There’s one or two (penalties) in there that are kind of like, `Are you kidding me?’ But’s it’s been (a) pretty consistent (problem) and something we’ll continue to work on.”
With a trip to struggling Philadelphia (1-3) next, New Orleans will see if it can string victories together. That’s the only way the Saints can dig themselves out of the hole they created in the first three weeks.
”We are still on the bottom,” said tight end Ben Watson, who had three catches for 30 yards. ”We still have a ways to go. But it’s encouraging to just come out on top.”
NOTES: Payton confirmed an NBC report during the game Sunday night that four-time All-Pro guard Jahri Evans had arthroscopic knee surgery, adding it took place a week-and-a-half ago. Senio Kelemete has started for Evans in the past two games. . Payton said Brees came out of the Dallas game healthy aside from normal soreness.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL