NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Without two top receiving targets, the Saints' offense managed to produce the way it often has for the past decade and a half since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined forces in New Orleans.
It was a refreshing development for a unit that had looked out of sync during much of its first three games — and for Brees, whose 41-year-old arm has been a subject of increased scrutiny.
“We knew that the last two weeks, we have not had the level of execution, we have not had the tempo and rhythm that we know we can have," Brees said in reference to losses in Weeks 2 and 3 to the Raiders and Packers. “We’ve set the bar high — high expectations. There’s a reason we won more (regular-season) games over the last three years than any other team."
With touchdowns on five consecutive drives in a 35-29 victory at Detroit on Sunday — not to mention clutch third down conversions that allowed New Orleans to run out the final 3:44 — Brees saw a Saints offense that was "obviously the closest to where I know we can be.”
With 39 rushes for 167 yards (not including Brees kneeling for 1-yard losses three times to run out the clock), and with Brees completing 19 of 25 passes for 246 yards, the Saints had the type of balance that helped them win the NFC South the past three seasons. They had 29 first downs and possessed the ball for nearly 37 minutes.
And they spread the wealth; four of their five touchdowns were scored by players not named Alvin Kamara or Michael Thomas. Thomas, a two-time All-Pro receiver, did not play because of an ankle injury that has sidelined him for three games. Top tight end Jared Cook also did not play.
Running back Latavius Murray and receiver Tre'Quan Smith stepped up with two TDs apiece. Kamara had the other, as well as a 5-yard run on third-and-3 that sealed the victory.
While the Saints' defense remained shaky at times, an interception by Patrick Robinson, along with sacks by Cameron Jordan, Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata, helped keep Matthew Stafford and the Lions at bay long enough.
The victory also was gratifying for the Saints because, in addition to the Lions, they had to overcome disruptions caused by a player's false positive COVID-19 test. The erroneous result forced retesting that went late into the night and a number of players reported trouble sleeping because of anxiety about a possible outbreak.
“We’ve handled some of the early adversity pretty well,” coach Sean Payton said Monday. "Yesterday was a good win for us. We’ll leave it at that.”
The offensive line. Kamara and Murray raved about their blockers’ performance in Detroit.
“They were moving guys. They were putting hats on guys,” Murray said. “They were giving us opportunities. I’ve always been taught when you can get the running back to the line of scrimmage clean or to the linebackers, they’ve done their job and the rest is up to you. We had a lot of those opportunities.”
That was despite the absence of starting left guard Andrus Peat, who has an injured ankle. Cesar Ruiz, the Saints' 2020 first-round pick, got his first start at right guard and veteran Nick Easton, who had started the first three games at right guard, moved to left guard and continued to draw praise.
“He played extremely well,” Payton said.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Saints’ red-zone defense ranks last in the NFL. When opponents have driven inside the Saints 20, they’ve concluded 82.4% of those possessions with touchdowns.
Smith. The third-year receiver caught two touchdown passes and had a third-down reception that sustained a late drive and helped the Saints run out the clock.
“I would say this guy’s impressive relative to traffic and noise. He’s sturdy. He’s tough. And I think that’s a great asset as a receiver,” Payton said. “There’s a toughness to his play. He blocks extremely well. I think he’s doing well.”
Taysom Hill. The utility player who at times has been highly effective as a change-of-pace, read-option QB or tight end has had a rough couple of games. After a lost fumble in a Week 3 loss to Green Bay, he fumbled a snap at Detroit, but Kamara was able to pounce on it to prevent a turnover. In Hill's past two games, he is averaging 2.4 yards per rush and has two receptions for 9 yards.
RT Ryan Ramczyk left the Detroit game with concussion symptoms. New Orleans entered the game without six starters: Thomas (ankle), LG Andrus Peat (ankle), CB Marshon Lattimore (hamstring), CB Janoris Jenkins (shoulder), TE Jared Cook (groin) and DE Marcus Davenport (elbow, toe).
78.7% — Brees’ completion rate during New Orleans’ past two games combined, in which he’s connected on 48 of 61 passes.
The Saints have an extra day to let injured players heal before hosting the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday night.
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