Memo to NFC: Beware the adaptable Saints
October, 6, 2013
By Mike Triplett | ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- Meet the patient, methodical version of the New Orleans Saints.
This week's incarnation of the still-perfect Saints (5-0) relied on ball security and a ball-control offense to finally win a game in Soldier Field, 26-18 over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
They're different than the Saints we saw six days earlier, torching the Miami Dolphins for more than 400 passing yards inside the Superdome. And they'll probably look a little different next week, too, when they face another "prove it" game on the road against the New England Patriots.
And that's why New Orleans might be the most dangerous team in the NFC right now.
The Saints are now the only unbeaten team in the conference because they did something the Seattle Seahawks (4-1) couldn't do Sunday -- win on the road, outside of their comfort zone, against a tough opponent.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPierre Thomas carried the load for the Saints, hauling in nine catches for two TDs and rushing 19 times.
The Saints are finding different ways to win every week, whether it's a goal-line stand against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1, a last-second field goal in a 16-14 scuffle at Tampa Bay in Week 2, dominant offensive outbursts at home in Week 3 and 4 or a patient attack on the road at Chicago in Week 5.
"Winning teams do certain things that give them a chance to win every week," said Saints coach Sean Payton, who repeatedly credited his team and quarterback Drew Brees for playing "smart" on Sunday.
"It hasn't been perfect," Brees said. "But I think what we have done is we've found different ways to win each week."
This particular road game meant a lot to the Saints. Soldier Field was a place that had tormented them in the past.
The Saints lost three straight games here -- in the 2006 NFC Championship Game and during the '07 and '08 regular seasons -- mostly because of turnovers and impatience and the inability to win the battles for field position and the time of possession.
All week long, players repeated Payton's message, "To do things you've never done before, you have to do things you've never done before."
On Sunday they delivered, winning the turnover battle 1-0 against a Bears team that has led the NFL in takeaways for the past two years. And they won the time-of-possession battle, 36 minutes to 24 minutes, stubbornly sticking with the run game even though it only averaged 2.4 yards per carry.
"It's about that time," Brees said, laughing when asked about what it meant for him to finally win in Chicago after going 0-for-4 in his career at Soldier Field. "Man, we've come up here quite a few times, in some big games, and unfortunately we were never able to walk away with a victory.
"And you know what their formula is for winning. It's taking the ball away, it's getting their offense opportunities. It's making you try to get impatient. ... You've got to know the formula of the team you're playing. Where have people fallen into the trap, and how can we avoid doing that?"
Brees' NFL-record streak of nine consecutive 300-yard passing games came to an end Sunday. He "only" threw for 288 yards while completing 29 of 35 passes with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. And he didn't care.
"No, those stats don't matter one bit," Brees said. "Especially in this game."
Brees' go-to target, Jimmy Graham, still caught 10 passes for 135 yards -- usually against tight coverage. But the Saints' receivers were barely targeted.
Instead, they relied heavily on running back Pierre Thomas, a Chicago native who has thrived in Soldier Field before. Thomas caught nine passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns Sunday and ran the ball 19 times, albeit for just 36 yards.
"It showed that they have a lot of trust in me, and that's something I really appreciate," said Thomas, who made two terrific plays on his touchdowns, stiff-arming his way around the corner on a 2-yard swing pass and cruising behind his blockers on a 25-yard screen pass before halftime. "And I told myself, this is your chance to show them that you can be that guy that can carry it out till the end of the game."
The Saints' defense also mixed things up Sunday, catching the Bears off guard with frequent blitzes.
The Saints blitzed much more than they had during the first four weeks, which led to first-half sacks by safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro and inside linebacker David Hawthorne. Jenkins forced a fumble on his sack, setting up a first-quarter field goal.
"I think it was just a little wrinkle we wanted to throw in this week. And it showed up big for us early in the game," said Jenkins, who thought defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's switch-up in Week 5 was "perfect timing."
"Those things, Rob is gonna come up with these blitzes, he's gonna come up with things that affect the quarterback, and it's gonna be different every week," Jenkins said. "And I think that was a good one."
The Saints also leaned heavily on their special teams in a complete effort. Kicker Garrett Hartley was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goals. Punter Thomas Morstead was outstanding as usual, booming one kick 55 yards and out of bounds at the 2-yard line, making dangerous return man Devin Hester a nonfactor.
"You can look at every one of our games and point to something different," Brees said. "You see constant improvement, and that's really what we're looking for at this point."
And it's looking awfully scary to the rest of the NFC contenders.