New Orleans, La. - The Saints home opener against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday was brimming with emotion and consequence for many reasons, starting with head coach Sean Payton's return for his first regular season game after his bounty suspension.
After shaking hands with players during stretching and observing warm-ups, Payton had one more pre-game duty: He walked out onto the field to lead the crowd in the now-customary "Who Dat" chant just before kickoff, accompanied by former Saint Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS.
Together, the pair led the chant, sending the crowd into a roaring frenzy to start the game. Payton admits that moment even choked him up.
"There was kind of a lump in my throat with Steve," Payton said."He is a guy that has been so close to this program. He epitomizes, when we started in 2006, a player that worked extremely closely with us and was very dedicated. To be out there and enjoy that with him was special. I saw him afterwards, and he shot me that text and the computer voice came on and said, 'You almost dislocated my shoulder.' That's just him. He hasn't lost a bit at all."
Payton has been more intensely focused than ever since his return: on this team, his own conduct, his Cross Fit exercise regimen.
That intensity added up to a statement win for Payton's first game back - a 23-17 unspoken message written on the field and on the scoreboard.
"It felt good to be back. It did," Payton said. "There are those butterflies that are healthy, all the things that you're trying to control and make sure your team has the best chance to win. At the beginning with Steve Gleason was a little different and unique, and then very quickly after that, all of us, I think, got into the game mode. That felt very normal once we kicked off. It felt kind of like it always had."
Now the Black and Gold faithful are celebrating not just the win, but how the Saints got the job done.
Perhaps Payton knew it was coming, when he broke tradition and tapped the defensive starters to be announced pre-game, instead of customarily paying tribute to Drew Brees and the offense during the first home game.
The new defense created by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan stepped up when it counted, showing promising improvement against a high octane offense led by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Atlanta started hot, going up 10-0. Then Saints defense kicked in - only allowing the Falcons to score once more in the final 3 quarters.
The Saints' "D" forced two turnovers, sacked Ryan 3 times and pulled off a goal-line stand featuring contributions from Malcolm Jenkins, Kenny Vaccaro and Roman Harper.
"Being able to stand up and refuse the offense any momentum and not allow the offense to score in your place and to defend your home turf, man, that's indescribable, because you're spent," veteran cornerback Jabari Greer said. "You've played 58 minutes of football. Physically, you're spent. Mentally, you have everything going on. Spiritually, you're begging to be refueled. When you make that play, that fourth-down stop, the euphoria and the justification from training camp to preseason from wind sprints and just the grind, it makes everything worth it."
Perhaps the most promising aspect: the pressure the Saints forced Ryan to battle, brought by just the Black and Gold's defensive front.
"Yes, that was the plan going in," Payton said. "I think that anytime you can have and create pressure with a four man pass rush, it certainly benefits you, because you are covered in the back end. It was part of the plan going in."
The blitzing tendencies of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams were nowhere to be seen.
"Fortunately we didn't have to do a lot of blitzing," sidelined linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "That's a credit to our front 4. When we have our guys playing that hard up front, we don't have to blitz and start sending the 5th man or the 6th man. That lets us do a lot of things on the back end as far as coverage."
Offensively, the Saints displayed a noticeable commitment to the run game that was not present last season.
Payton promised he would restore balance this year and seems to be living up to that commitment. The Saints ran the ball 29 times and passed 35 times.
The Voice of the Saints, Jim Henderson, is applauding the patience the Saints displayed.
"There's an old saying that you pass to score, but you run to win," Henderson said. "I thought the Saints had a really patient game plan. Although the running attack only netted 2.7 yards per carry, they didn't abandon it as they had in the past. I think that really contributed to the victory. Certainly time of possession was skewed in the Saints favor because they were that patient on the ground."
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