The New Orleans Saints have been far from perfect during their 2-0 start, especially on offense in Sunday's 16-14 victory at Tampa Bay. But they've shown tremendous resilience and confidence on both sides of the ball -- two elements that went missing last year.
As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "There's been a feeling here for a long time that it's going to take a lot for us to be out of a game" with quarterback Drew Brees behind center and coach Sean Payton calling the shots. And after their furious rally in the final seconds to beat the Buccaneers, the young players and veteran newcomers are starting to develop that same confidence.
"We've had some character-building these first two games. I think to go into these games and have a chance to have some of the young guys [play], some of the news guys start to really kind of believe," Strief said of the Saints, 26 of whom were not with the team during its last playoff season in 2011.
"With the guy that we have behind center, we've always got a shot," Strief said of Brees. "And sometimes guys that haven't played with somebody like that before, maybe that's not a consistent feeling. But two games like this you start saying, 'Boy, you know, this team can win.'
"We can win close games, and there are going to be a lot of them. There always is."
A lot of that feeling can be credited to Payton's return from a season-long suspension. His mere presence instills a comfort level and even a familiar swagger that went missing last season, when the Saints missed the playoffs.
Just as importantly, that same swagger has returned to the defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan -- an aggressive, fiery coach who has clearly been embraced by his players. Ryan's creative schemes, his ability to play to individual players' strengths and his insistence on making the game fun have clearly lit a spark under the defense -- reminiscent of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' time in New Orleans.
The defense might still take its knocks from time to time this year. But it's already proving to be capable of stepping up big in big moments.
"I think we are a confident bunch, and to win the first game with a four-down stop [against the Atlanta Falcons] and then come to this game [against Tampa Bay] and having to get the ball back to our offense, I feel like we are flying pretty high as a defense," linebacker Curtis Lofton said, though he cautioned that the Saints can still get better.
When Payton was asked to talk about the difference Ryan has made from last year, when the Saints' defense struggled mightily under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, he said he wasn't interested in making a direct comparison.
"I would say this, though: Our job is to build confidence. Our job is to instill a plan and try to put our players in the best position possible," Payton said. "And I think one of the things that Rob brings is that contagious spirit. I think from the very beginning in the spring, when we were installing the defense and coming together as a team and getting ready for what was the OTAs, the offseason, the minicamps, that was important, especially coming off of last season."
Best of all, after two narrow victories, the Saints now have that confidence that they can win close games and come up big in key situations -- but they're also well aware that they need to play better on both sides of the ball.
And they're confident that they will.
"You want to hear disappointment [when guys watch the tape]," Strief said. "Because it's not good enough."