BAYHAM: Improved Defense, Lots Of Class Highlight Saints’ Opener

For the New Orleans Saints, winning the first game starts the season off on the right foot…especially if that cleat-clad foot is crushing a “dirty bird.”

With the win, the Black and Gold enjoy a one-and-one-half lead over their NFC South rivals through tie-breakers. That it was a conference victory could make the difference down the line for a wild card playoff spot. After opening up last season with a four-game losing streak, the team will be playing with confidence instead of being vexed with desperation.

Virtually everyone has showered the defense and new coordinator Rob Ryan with praise for their role in securing the victory. Justifiably so.

The Atlanta Falcons’ offense was seventh in scoring in 2012, averaging 26.2 points per game.

In agonizing contrast, the Saints defense was historically porous, surrendering a record 7,042 yards. Often ignored was that the Black and Gold “D” did not have the distinction of giving up the most points, which put things in a slightly better perspective for the 2012 defensive squad.

And on Sunday the Saints defense gave up yards but not many third down conversions or points while also putting uncharacteristic pressure on the other team’s quarterback. The Saints defense finished the day with three sacks.

Though free-agent running back Steven Jackson managed to pick up 77 yards on only 11 carries (an impressive average of 7 yards per run), that statistic, like most in general, is more than a bit deceiving.

One of those Jackson runs was for 50 yards and once factoring out that statistical outlier, the Saints defense held the ATL running back to a paltry average of 2.7 yards a carry, hence the Falcons gave up on the ground game and put the ball up in the air.

That strong safety Roman ended up icing the game with an interception had to be satisfying as the defensive back is regularly reminded on sports radio and internet message boards how he did not snag a single pick during the entire 2011 season.

The Saints defense, riddled with injuries- especially to some key free agents, faced off against one of the best offenses in the league and managed to win the game.

With Drew Brees leading the offense, the Saints defense doesn’t have to be great in order to win games, just not terrible.

The Future Is Now

Though it was not a flashy draft, the Saints managed to score a few players who have been pressed into active roles faster than they may have anticipated.

Three Saints draftees from 2013 saw action in the season opener, including first round draft pick safety Kenny Vaccaro, who led the team in unassisted tackles and tipped the pass that Harper ended up intercepting; third round selection defensive tackle John Jenkins, who filled in for an injured nosetackle Brodrick Bunkley and will be starting against Tampa Bay this Sunday; and fifth round pick wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has ably filled in the role vacated by wide receiver Joseph Morgan’s season ending injury, making two catches against the Falcons, including one for 43 yards.

Gleason Lights Up the Dome Again

People who write about politics and sports like to make predictions, especially of the recklessly bold variety. As Chris Matthews infamously proclaimed while predicting Michele Bachmann would win the GOP nomination, it’s what we’re paid to do.

With “Gleason Gras” happening the Friday before the game and the game ticket including a reference to the former Saints special team member’s charity, I speculated that #37 would have a role in some kind of pre-game ceremony, either being named an honorary team captain for the coin toss or leading the stadium in the Who Dat chant.

If an ALS-stricken Gleason could make it up to cloud shrouded Machu Picchu, surely he could make it to mid-field.

I could not have been more excited to have been right when I saw Gleason motoring in his eye-controlled scooter on to the dome turf along with Saints head coach Sean Payton and retired Saints outside linebacker Scott Fujita as they fired up the Who Dat Nation before kickoff.

It might not have been Lou Gehrig’s iconic farewell speech, but Gleason’s appearance certainly was an emotional moment for fans and players as they expressed their love and admiration for the man whose now memorialized punt block signaled the beginning of a new era of Saints football and the rebirth of a ravaged city and whose struggle against ALS has inspired countless others battling terminal illness.

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