- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton praised several of his players for being smart and patient during Sunday’s 26-18 victory against the Chicago Bears, namely quarterback Drew Brees. But Payton himself deserves the most credit.
New Orleans’ plan of attack Sunday went against Payton’s aggressive, attacking nature.
The Saints’ offense was patient and methodical. They settled for check-down passes and punts and field goals. They took very few shots deep down the field, stressing the need to avoid turnovers and sustain long drives.
And they stuck to it, even when they were only leading 6-0 midway through the second quarter.
It was a smart, clinical approach to beating a Bears team that thrives on forcing turnovers. It was a plan the Saints had not followed before in three previous losses at Soldier Field. And it might have been the best example yet of how Payton has changed since returning from his season-long suspension.
People ask all the time if there’s anything new or different with Payton this season. And the answer is nothing dramatic. But the one thing that stands out most is that Payton has been focused to take a hard look at the things that were hurting his team and preventing them from winning games -- many of which he gleaned while watching them from afar.
Payton, who said he filled notebooks with observations and ideas during his hiatus, revamped the defense and the run game (to varying degrees of success so far). He also turned the conditioning program up several notches -- wanting his team to be better equipped to finish strong late in games and late in the season.
And in the case of his weekly game plans, Payton has placed an emphasis on playing “complementary football,” focusing on things like time of possession and field position.
Although the Saints’ offense still put up a ton of points and passing yards last season, they had way too many three-and-outs that didn’t keep the defense off the field for long. This season, the Saints are leading the NFL in time of possession at 34:37 per game. Last season, they ranked 26th at 28:36.
Make no mistake -- Payton still takes plenty of shots down the field (just ask the Miami Dolphins, who served as the latest victims inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome two weeks ago). But in Sunday’s victory, Payton was hyper-focused on what would be the best specific approach to beating this specific Bears opponent in this specific situation on the road.
Even if it meant tweaking what the Saints’ offense usually does best.
“Well, we talked a lot in the offseason about just playing a complementary football game,” Payton said. “Part of that is possessing the football. You know, you want to score every time you have it. So we’re not purposely trying to create long drives. But be efficient with your plays, and if you’re winning on third down, for instance, you stay on the field.
“So it’s protecting the ball, doing a good job on third down, and getting off the field defensively.”
Obviously that “getting off the field defensively” part helped Payton stick to his patient attack quite a bit on Sunday. The Saints’ defense did its part by forcing a turnover and four punts on the Bears’ first five possessions.
Clearly, Payton showed a lot of trust in his defense Sunday. But he insisted Monday that it is not a new development.
“We’ve always had trust in defense,” Payton said. “I thought in the offseason, training camp, we felt like as a team that the guys were working hard. So that really hasn’t been a factor.”
Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, who forced a fumble while sacking Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the first quarter, said he feels that trust from Payton. And he also feels the responsibility that comes with it.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Jenkins said. “I think our offense and our head coach obviously trusts us to play well on defense. At the same time, it’s our responsibility. … We had to keep the ball in front of us, and we couldn’t give up the big play early to get them off to that start that puts teams in position where they feel like they’ve got to catch up.”
The Saints’ offense and defense might be playing the best brand of “complementary football” in the NFL right now.
And that’s a compliment to their head coach.