The Saints’ win over the Carolina Panthers on the road Thursday did more than move the team into the division lead and prove that the Black and Gold can win away from the Superdome: it also marked the best game so far for what’s been a floundering defensive unit.
"I feel like we definitely came out that way," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "We were firing on all cylinders. As a defensive unit, we held it together and were able to come back after some not so favorable plays. I would say that this was an overall team effort."
Up until now, the Saints defense has shouldered most of the blame for the team’s slow start. Communication errors and a mass exodus of leadership added up to problems on the field. Defensive captain Junior Galette says those issues never followed the team back into the locker room.
"We stuck together. No one pointed fingers at each other," Galette said. "We have a lot of young guys, but we still have guys like Curtis Lofton and I who just brought the team together. We told each other that we were going to get through this. Tough times don’t last, and here we are: first place in the division. We can’t get complacent because we know how bad it feels to be number three, or whatever we were, before this win."
After Thursday’s victory, head coach Sean Payton was standing outside the locker room to congratulate each player individually.
"It’s big," Hicks said. "He’s a very passionate guy. That’s what you really love about our coaching staff. We have Joe Vitt, Sean Payton, Rob Ryan and all these guys are just so passionate about the game. You can see it when they come to us and we feel it. It’s a special thing to have with our coaching staff."
Although this was the Saints first road win after losing seven straight away from the Dome, many players insist the press and public was more preoccupied with that storyline than the players.
"We knew we were a good football team," cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "If you look at the games we lost on the road, it was a total of six points in three games, so we knew it could be done."
The Saints won’t have to do it again on the road for another three weeks. The 49ers, the Bengals and the Ravens all travel to New Orleans to face the Saints on their home turf in the coming weeks.
The Panthers Cam Newton was a good warm up for the next mobile quarterback New Orleans will try to contain: Colin Kaepernick.
"It’s a fine line and you have to maintain your discipline and not allow a quarterback that’s great with his feet to get out there," Hicks said of the Saints’ defensive strategy against play callers like Newton and Kaepernick. "I felt like as a quarterback that plays with their feet they sometimes get that mojo going if you let them get out of the pocket too much. You definitely want to limit that, but you have to play your style of defense."
While this past was week’s schedule was a strenuous sprint for the Saints, the players now have a few extra days, almost a mini bye week right at the season’s halfway point, to prepare for San Francisco next Sunday at noon.