There’s no doubt the defense is a concern. But let’s keep a few things in mind. Houston is one of the league’s better offenses, the Saints were starting backup linebackers and, most importantly, the defense doesn’t have to be great when you’ve got Drew Brees and this offense. The Saints fell behind 14-0 quickly, but Brees put the Saints right back into the game. Brees and the offense are good enough to keep the Saints in any regular-season game.
With starting linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton sidelined by injuries, the Saints started Jonathan Casillas in the middle with Scott Shanle and Will Herring on the outside. Lofton has a high-ankle sprain and Hawthorne is recovering from knee surgery. There’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. At the start of training camp, I thought Herring wouldn’t be on the opening-day roster and Shanle would be pushed into a backup role. Casillas is an outside guy, who was forced into the middle because there really was no alternative. Veteran Barrett Ruud recently was brought in via trade and played in the second half, but I’m not sure he has much left. If the Saints have to go a few games into the regular season with that trio starting, they’ll have big problems. I’m thinking there’s a linebacker (or two) on another roster at the moment that could end up with the Saints shortly.
I did see some individual bright spots on the defense. Second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan produced an early sack, even though he blatantly was held. I really believe Jordan will prosper in the system of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is another guy I think is going to emerge in Spagnuolo’s system. Jenkins showed signs of that when he read a reverse perfectly and popped the ball out of Keshawn Martin’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by Will Smith.
I think it was pretty telling that rookie cornerback Corey White was getting some playing time in the first quarter. White knocked a ball out of Martin’s hands and Sedrick Ellis recovered. It’s looking more and more like White is going to get some playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
A couple of other young defensive players that I think are on the rise made big plays on special teams. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus forced a Trindon Holliday fumble on a kickoff return and defensive end Junior Galette scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
The competition for the fourth running back spot between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet continues to provide some drama. Ivory lost a fumble on the first drive. But Ivory might have redeemed himself with some nice running in the third quarter, although that came against Houston’s second-team defense. But Cadet also looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. This one is going to be a very close call.
Speaking of guys fighting for roster spots and fumbles, wide receiver Joseph Morgan put the ball on the ground once. He made a nice catch, but kept fighting too long after his forward progress was stopped by three guys and one of them popped the ball loose. Morgan’s fumble led to a quick and easy touchdown for Houston. But Morgan might have redeemed himself a bit with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
Tight end Jimmy Graham won’t say if he bulked up in the offseason, but he sure looks like he did. If so, it hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Graham looks even better than he did last season, when he had 99 catches.