Saints, Payton return as contenders

NEW ORLEANS -- Like their head coach, the New Orleans Saints appear back from a one-year exile from relevance. They are a player again, a contender, a force similar to the New England Patriots.

Are they dominant on both sides of the ball? Certainly not. Can they be good enough to hang together through a grueling 17-week season and make a run to New Jersey in February? Absolutely.

The reason is the Saints' defense won't be a pushover this year. It won't be an embarrassment, a laughingstock, or historic in the worst way imaginable. No, against a ridiculously talented and multidimensional Atlanta Falcons team on Sunday, New Orleans looked like a defense that could actually hold its own. It made an impressive defensive stop at the end of the game to keep the Falcons out of the end zone and out of the win column.

The Saints -- with Sean Payton as the head coach and Drew Brees as the quarterback -- will always win with offense, but unlike last season, maybe they won't lose with defense. The defense didn't burn them against the Falcons. It saved them, and they walked away from the NFL's opening weekend with a satisfying 23-17 victory over last season's NFC South champs.

Atlanta won 13 games last season. It was the NFC's No. 1 overall seed. It hosted the NFC Championship Game and came one Matt Ryan incompletion away from winning it.

Against a talented opponent, the New Orleans defense held its own, and given the firepower the Saints have on offense -- Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jimmy Graham, running back Darren Sproles, the list goes on – a defense that can hold its own might be better than good enough.

"I think that if everything pans out right," second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan said, "we'll be where we need to be."

Like, where?

"How you like that answer?" Jordan said. "How you like that? You like it? Boom. Left to be interpreted -- or not."

Boom, indeed.

It was bust a year ago for New Orleans' defense that was coordinated for the first time by Steve Spagnuolo, the former St. Louis head coach who was the New York Giants' defense coordinator on the team that won Tom Coughlin his first Super Bowl. Spagnuolo ran a system inspired by the late Jim Johnson, the legendary Philadelphia defensive coordinator who called creative and aggressive blitz packages.

Spagnuolo's 4-3 defensive system was complicated, and given all of the unrest with the Saints during Payton's one-year suspension for his role in the bounty scandal, the players either never grasped or never accepted it.

On Payton's third day back at work in January, he fired Spagnuolo and defensive backs coach Ken Flajole. In February, Payton hired former Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who runs a base 3-4 defense and is known to like to rush four.

As important as it was for the Saints to switch to a 3-4, it was equally important to get Ryan's big personality in the building. After Sunday's game, several players raved about Ryan's style, about how he makes the game fun and how he has instilled confidence in players who sorely lacked it a season ago.

"He instills in us confidence, just by the way he coaches each meeting, each practice," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "As a defense, you want to go out there and prove him right that we are a great defense, and I think we made a great step toward that today."

They did it without linebackers Will Smith (injured reserve), Jonathan Vilma (injured reserve although designated to return) and Victor Butler (physically unable to perform). They did it even though they lost their nose tackle, Broderick Bunkley, to an injury on the defense's second possession of the game. They did it having to play three safeties in their nickel package.

The Falcons helped the Saints out, for sure. Wide receiver Julio Jones fumbled in the open field after catching a 22-yard pass from Ryan that resulted three plays later in a game-tying New Orleans touchdown in the second quarter. The offensive line looked winded by the third quarter and stopped giving Ryan a protected pocket from within which to work. On the final drive of the game, running back Steven Jackson dropped a catch at the goal line that would have given Atlanta the go-ahead score and a one-point lead with less than a minute to play.

But New Orleans deserves credit for its defensive effort, and the effort was there. The swagger was there. The confidence was there.

"It's what we needed," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "That's all I can say about that. It's exactly what we needed, and let's do it again."

The Saints won the Super Bowl following a 2009 regular season when the defense played out of its mind. New Orleans won 11 games in 2010 and 13 games in 2011 with a defense that was solid but not spectacular. This year's defense could be that, solid but not spectacular. It gave up 367 net yards of offense but held Atlanta to 3-of-11 on third downs and two touchdowns of four trips to the red zone. It bent, but it didn't break.

After a season like the last, that is significant progress. The Saints' offense is spectacular. It is the defense that will give the team a legitimate shot to be special.