Be afraid, foes.
Be very afraid.
The Saints are back in a big, and decidedly new, way.
|courtesy of the NY Daily News|
Seemingly overnight, the Saints have unleashed a smothering, relentless defense that's surrendered just 17, 14, and 7 points in three consecutive victories.
On the heels of the epic futility of 2012, the Saints' defense under the guidance of Rob Ryan, he of an all-consuming cult status, has transformed the Saints into a potentially terrifying monster.
It's the nightmare of NFL teams league-wide: Sean Payton in tow with a fearsome defense.
With the Saints' most-recent top draft picks (Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, Kenny Vaccaro) representing the promise and resurgence of a young defense, it's not the future that's bright. It's the present.
For much of Sunday, Cam Jordan and Junior Galette bent and dismantled Carson Palmer's pocket, harassing Palmer into a harried, scattershot performance. Tyrunn Walker, Glenn Foster, and Martez Wilson added to the fury, while Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins limited the Cardinals to an irrelevant 86 yards rushing, a total more meager than the run-challenged Saints produced on the afternoon.
Through three games, the Saints' defensive line looks as deep and talented as exists in the NFL.
(I can't believe I just wrote that.)
On top of that, Kenny Vaccaro intercepted a pass in the second half, another early skin on the wall for a rookie who plays with a composure, versatility, and instinct that belies his youth. The newly-added former-Westbanker, Keenan Lewis, also produced a turnover for a defense that dominated for the majority of the day.
Never has a 17-7 second-half lead under Sean Payton felt so safe.
After surrendering a touchdown on the first drive, the Saints' defense, in resounding style, shut out an overmatched Cardinals' offense by forcing eight consecutive punts before euthanizing the Cardinals with back-to-back interceptions to cement a transformative performance; ten straight drives for the Cardinals, and jack-shit to show for 'em.
Now go ahead: Read that sentence again.
Smiles all around.
The Saints' budding transformation from one-dimensional offensive juggernaut to defensive-minded menace is again a reminder that, when it comes to predictions and analysis and expectations, nobody knows shit. Who foresaw this? No one, of course.
Regardless, it's the Saints who are evolving before our eyes with a mix of defense and youth, grounded by the foundational efficacy of the Payton/Brees offense.
On Sunday, without (perhaps) the NFL's best offensive lineman in Jahri Evans, the Saints' offensive line bowed under the pressure of the Cardinals' front seven. And yet still, that did little to tilt the balance of fortunes in the Cardinals' favor. Years prior, that would not have been the case.
For certain, the Saints' offensive line is the biggest issue for a team with Super Bowl aspirations and who, bereft of a functional O-line, stands little chance of attaining their goals. But right now, nursing Jahri Evans back to health supersedes the short-term needs of a line that is desperate for his contributions.
After three games, the Saints' top priority appears to be the mending of Evans.
In the meantime, while the offensive line irons out its wrinkles with or without Evans, Jimmy Graham will suffice in terrorizing opponents. The Cardinals threw everything they had at Graham--Patrick Peterson, Yeremiah Bell, Tyrann Mathieu, double teams, bracket coverage, you-name-it--and none of it mattered.
Graham, for the second straight week, toyed with the helpless defenders who attempted to slow his ascendancy, all feebly crumbled and bewildered in the wake of his might.
If there's an offensive player more uncoverable than Graham this year, I'd like to see it.
Your move, Calvin Johnson.
The win, though, wouldn't be without Drew Brees.
After years of watching Brees excel and often compensate for the shortcomings of his team, it's easy to take for granted Brees's excellence and dependability. It's so easy that we (or, I) too often deride Brees for his missteps, all while he is arguably better than any other player at his position today.
I guess we do this because we're selfish and myopic and impetuous and forgetful and prone to waver. But whenever those feelings start to root, Brees is there to remind us that the heights of our expectations, while absurd, aren't all that farfetched.
On a day that again saw him rushed and incapable of settling into the pocket, when his running game was nowhere to be found, Brees took it upon himself to deliver four touchdowns nonetheless. In stride with a dominating defensive performance, Brees relied on his innate athleticism, scrambling and improvising his way to another defining game.
Brees, after the innumerable accomplishments in his storied career, reacting with the raw emotion he displayed after rushing for a touchdown on Sunday, continues to reveal that not the money, not the trophies, and not the records have curbed his intent to achieve.
Drew Brees stills wants it as badly as ever, lest we forget.
When you look back at Brees from 2006 to the present, you see Brees's once boyish idealism in the face of a near-impossible adversity, not just smiling at and welcoming of the challenge, but ultimately besting it with a faith-altering mastery.
Without question, that process is ongoing today.
Sean Payton has said it before, and this applies to Brees as well. This is Brees's deal--it's not ours, not A.J. Smith's, not Nick Saban's, not that of the mouthbreathers with MVP votes, and not Roger Goodell's.
It's only Brees's and his team's, and we are witnesses to the player who will undoubtedly go down as the greatest Saint ever.
Drew Brees is a man apart, a player facile at navigating the disquietude with the steadiest of hands. There's still more to come, and for that we should be excited and grateful.
With the reassuring, guiding presence of Brees, coupled with a defense transforming itself into a unit possessed, the Saints are reinventing themselves in this second era under Sean Payton.
Meanwhile, Payton has lost just one game as a head coach since late October 2011.
Sunday's win was, in the least, perception-shifting and confidence-inspiring. There's something happening here.
When we eventually look back on 2013 for watershed moments, Sunday's game will certainly be among the candidates.
Of course, there's a long way to go. But the road is wide open with promise.
Take note, haters.
A reckoning is underway.