Defensive takeaways give Saints what they've been missing

PITTSBURGH -- I gave my game ball to QB Drew Brees. But the biggest play of the New Orleans Saints’ 35-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers came courtesy of defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Early in the third quarter, Jordan tipped up a pass at the line of scrimmage, intercepted it himself and returned it 6 yards to Pittsburgh’s 15-yard line.

It was just the second time all season that the Saints took possession inside the opponent's 20-yard line. And two plays later, New Orleans scored a touchdown to go ahead 21-6.

“That was the play of the game. I told him on the sideline, we needed that bad,” said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who then stood up for Jordan, who has been having a quiet season as a pass-rusher with just five sacks after making his Pro Bowl debut last year.

“I told you during the week, [Jordan is a] Pro Bowl-caliber player, and those plays are gonna come for him,” Galette said. “He balled out today.”

Earlier in the game, the Saints got a similar big play from another highly touted but underachieving defensive playmaker, safety Kenny Vaccaro, who snagged his second interception of the season. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger overthrew a deep ball in the end zone, and Vaccaro grabbed it and hung on before being tackled.

The momentum shift sparked an 80-yard touchdown drive and a 14-6 lead.

“I don’t know, just made a play, man. It’s about time,” Vaccaro said. “I couldn’t even get excited, man, because that’s what I expect from myself every game. So I really just went on to the next play, was glad I got a turnover for Drew.”

Those two plays were the type New Orleans’ defense has so sorely lacked this season. The Saints entered Sunday’s game ranked 29th in the NFL with just 11 takeaways. And they still have the longest drought in the NFL without a defensive touchdown (since 2012).

But they were incredibly clutch on this day. And even before those two takeaways, Vaccaro said he was even more proud of the way the Saints played “bend but don’t break” defense early in the game, holding Pittsburgh to just two field goals over its first four drives.

“We faced a little adversity, but we kept pressing,” Vaccaro said. “The D-line did a great job, Rob [Ryan] called it good and coach [Sean] Payton made sure our heads were in the game the whole time.”

Roethlisberger looked surprisingly off target through the first 35 minutes -- though a hand injury late in the first quarter exacerbated his problems.

Still, it was clear that New Orleans’ pass coverage held up much better than it had in recent weeks, with Roethlisberger repeatedly missing receivers or throwing the ball away out of frustration.

Roethlisberger started the game 9-of-24 passing for 126 yards, with two interceptions, in the first 35 minutes.

The only thing that would have made the Saints’ start better? More turnovers. Cornerbacks Patrick Robinson and Corey White each dropped possible interceptions -- with Robinson dropping a sure touchdown opportunity that bounced right off his stomach.

Robinson actually missed multiple interception opportunities in the game -- though he was credited with three passes defensed as a result.

“P-Rob should be NFL player of the week [if he had hung on to those picks],” Vaccaro said.

The Saints’ other lament was their poor finish, with Pittsburgh scoring 16 points over the final 2:34 to make the final score look closer than it appeared. Stay tuned for more on the Saints’ thoughts about still needing to finish.