It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. When the New Orleans Saints lost their starting quarterback Drew Brees to a torn thumb ligament two weeks ago, the prognosis for the remaining 2019 NFL regular season schedule was one of “doom and gloom.”
However, someone forgot to tell that to the Saints themselves. Now after two back-to-back victories over favored opponents and previously undefeated NFC rivals, New Orleans has gone 2-for-2 without the future Hall of Famer and the team’s emotional leader in the starting line-up.
Just one week after they did the unthinkable and escaped with an upset win in the rain over the Seahawks at Seattle after scoring touchdown returns on both special teams and defense, the Black and Gold turned in a 2nd defensive masterpiece en route to a hard-fought 12-10 victory over the previously undefeated Dallas Cowboys.
— NFL (@NFL) September 30, 2019
With the win, the Saints improved their win-loss record on the season to 3-1 overall, and are now 2-0 without Brees. Additionally, they remained one game ahead of their NFC South Division rivals Carolina (2-2) and Tampa Bay (2-2); and moved two games ahead of Atlanta (1-3). The win also came during a nationally-televised contest inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on NBC Sunday Night Football, which improved the Saints’ overall record to (18-3) overall in night games/prime-time contests in the past ten years.
As it is, long before the potentially season-ruining injury to Brees occurred in that loss to the Rams in Los Angeles two weeks ago, the prospect of having to play four consecutive games against playoff teams from a year ago to start the season seemed like a daunting task for any Who Dat heroics to overcome.
But it was the manner in which the Saints won last night that was most impressive. With their proverbial “backs against the wall,” the Black and Gold – for a 2nd week in a row – showed that they are more than capable of giving their maximum effort as a team when adversity comes their way.
What a win for this New Orleans Saints team!!! This is a franchise defining win! Top to bottom everyone had a hand in this, excellent statement on roster building from the front office and coaching from Sean Payton and his staff.
Absolutely wild that they sit here at 3-1
— T-Bob Hebert (@TBob53) September 30, 2019
“I was proud of how they played,” Saints head coach Sean Payton said afterward to local reporters at his post-game press conference.
Here’s more (raw) footage of Sean Payton’s presser after 12-10 win over Cowboys.
– Play call that resulted in late sack
– Saints being 3-1 despite no Drew Brees, playing four playoff teams
– Can he remember the last time the Saints win without scoring a TD: ‘No’ pic.twitter.com/Shw4uZsVfA
— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) September 30, 2019
There’s an old phrase that’s well-known throughout the now 100-year history of the NFL that unequivocally states, “defense wins championships.” If the Saints manage to win their division (or possibly even Super Bowl LIV), once this season finally reaches its end they’ll look back to this stretch of back-to-back top-notch performances as the main catalyst.
Given the team’s notable reputation for top-rated offense with Brees at the helm, it might come as a huge surprise to some that the Saints’ defense — which undoubtedly has endured its fair share of criticism — has been the team’s saving grace with the absence of Brees expected to linger for at least another four games.
Last night, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen‘s unit rose to the occasion for a 2nd straight game, forcing a total of three turnovers (including free safety Marcus Williams’ interception of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott’s last-second Hail Mary pass attempt on the game’s final play) to lead New Orleans to its third win in its first four games of the season.
Saints Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen walking into work at the New Orleans .@Saints headquarters Monday morning after a 12-10 #SaintsvsCowboys win in which the #Saints score no offensive TDs! #WhoDatNation pic.twitter.com/ecH59UXyYl
— Fred From Plano (@FredFromPlano) September 30, 2019
That performance was enough to boost the efforts of the Saints’ offense behind back-up #2 QB Teddy Bridgewater, who last night struggled at times against a similarly-tough Cowboys defensive unit, and only passed for 193 yards with one interception. However, much to his credit, Bridgewater avoided making any major or costly mistakes. He was aided by the primary superstars of the Saints’ offense: All-Pro RB Alvin Kamara gained 89 total yards from scrimmage (69 yards rushing, 20 receiving), while All-Pro WR Michael Thomas caught a total of 9 catches for 95 yards. Not to be outdone, the Saints special teams’ main contribution came from kicker Wil Lutz, who went 4-for-4 on field goal attempts.
Last night’s victory was the 4th time in the franchise’s entire 52-year history that New Orleans won a game without scoring a touchdown – a feat that last occurred over 20 years ago during the 1998 Season when Mike Ditka was still the team’s head coach. It was also the first time that Payton won a game in which his team hasn’t scored a touchdown.
It was the first time the Saints have won a game without scoring a touchdown since Week 8, 1998 (a 9-3 win over the Buccaneers).
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) September 30, 2019
In fact, the only touchdown in last night’s contest came when Dallas All-Pro RB Ezekiel Elliott scored on a 1-yard TD run in the 3rd quarter. The Saints’ run defense clearly was the center of their outstanding performance last night, as they shockingly limited Elliott to 35 yards on 18 carries – the 3rd lowest total ever in his entire football career.
But if anyone thought that the Saints’ run defense was impressive, then they surely must have thought that their pass defense was nothing short of PHENOMENAL.
Prescott had come into last night’s contest as one of the NFL’s hot new young star QB’s (along with Kansas City Chiefs 2nd year gunslinger and reigning League MVP Patrick Mahomes), but he was held in check by the relentless pass rush of the Saints D-Line and the outstanding pass coverage provided by their much-maligned but obviously-improved secondary of the past few weeks. Prescott passed for 223 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. To that point, the Dallas offense as a unit managed just 257 yards and actually had more turnovers (3) than they had scoring drives (2).
It was the specific performances of two Saints’ players in the secondary, however, that stood above the rest: starting #1 CB Marshon Lattimore and strong safety Vonn Bell.
Lattimore held Cowboys superstar WR Amari Cooper to a meager 48 yards on five catches and had him “covered like a blanket”, and kept the elite-caliber pass-catcher and play-maker at bay for most of the night.
The #Saints Marshon Lattimore locked down Amari Cooper all night.
A Tremendous defensive performance by Lattimore & the #Saints all night!
–#Saints win 12 – 10 over the Cowboys pic.twitter.com/0vJpa52HbB
— Josh Lemoine (@LsuFBallTruth) September 30, 2019
“I just locked in,” Lattimore said to reporters in the locker room. “The past few weeks, I haven’t been playing my best football. My coaches said to play one play at a game, and that’s how you stay consistent. I kept that in my mind and it worked out for me.”
Bell was singled out by Payton for his fumble-recovery and touchdown return for a TD in that win at Seattle last week, and he nearly repeated that effort with a similarly-impressive performance last night, finishing with a team-high 10 tackles, two fumble recoveries, and another forced fumble, and thus had a direct hand in all of the defense’s takeaways.
Even one of the defensive rookies got involved. Rookie safety/DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson applied the pressure on Prescott’s final Hail Mary attempt, coming in hard at the Cowboys QB on a called blitz which led to Williams’ game-ending interception and earned him a congratulatory hug post-game afterward from Brees himself.
“We knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle, ” said Saints middle linebacker Demario Davis afterward, a few lockers over from Lattimore.
With the wins over Seattle and now Dallas last night, the Black and Gold have unexpectedly won games against two top-rated teams that none of the so-called “experts” gave them a realistic chance of winning without Brees in the starting line-up. Now after having knocked the mighty (in the eyes of some) Cowboys off of their “high horse” and out of the ranks of the undefeated last night, the Saints suddenly find themselves in a much more favorable position than anyone really thought they’d be.
The toughest part of their regular season schedule is over, and even if they only manage to only win one more game, they’ll have a split (4-4) win-loss record heading into their Bye Week (in Week #9) when Brees is expected to return.
It’s expected that if his thumb ligament heals as it’s currently hoped, Brees could then come back and lead the team to a playoff berth, with a somewhat easier 2nd half of their schedule still left to play. As of now, Brees is expected to be back in action when the Saints host their hated arch-rivals the Atlanta Falcons at home in the Superdome in Week #10 (November 10th).
— Sharief Ishaq (@ShariefWDSU) September 29, 2019
Up next: the Saints will host the (2-2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Kick-off is at 12:00 p.m. noon Central time and will be broadcast by FOX (and locally in NOLA by WVUE FOX Channel 8).
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius