It took three weeks, but the New Orleans Saints defense finally showed improvement from last season. The running game finally had success with Mark Ingram II, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara all contributing. And finally Drew Brees looked like Drew Brees.
It all added up to a thoroughly impressive 34-13 victory at Carolina on Sunday, which looked much different than lopsided losses to Minnesota and New England.
The biggest difference was the defense, which entered the game ranked last in the NFL in points allowed and yards allowed.
"It's a confidence thing," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "We were able to do some good things early on. That got everyone else fired up."
Head coach Sean Payton and wide receiver Michael Thomas both said the team played with "a sense of urgency," not wanting to be 0-3 as it headed to London for this week's game against Miami.
"We were hungry," said Thomas, who caught seven passes for 87 yards and a touchdown. "We attacked them. We didn't let them attack us. We made huge plays on defense and a lot of huge plays on offense. We played complementary football. That's Saints football. Those are the moments that we've been waiting for."
New Orleans showed more poise than it did in the first two games in which early deficits ballooned, leaving the Saints with a double-digit deficit throughout both second halves.
"It wasn't a perfect game, but when it wasn't going well, we held our composure," linebacker Manti Te'o said. "It was a good building block for us."
The Saints made three interceptions after not taking the ball away once in either of the first two games. P.J. Williams, Marcus Williams and Kenny Vaccaro each made an interception of Cam Newton.
"We were able to get pressure, force Cam into some bad decisions and create turnovers," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "We were able to give our offense multiple chances to go down the field and score."
The Saints followed the three takeaways with two touchdowns and a missed field goal.
New Orleans had 100 yards rushing for the first time this season, finishing with 149 yards and a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. It rushed for just 60 yards in the opener against Minnesota and 81 a week later against New England. The team blocked better and benefited from playing with a lead rather than a large deficit for most of the game.
WR Ted Ginn Jr. scored his first touchdown with his new team by grabbing a 40-yard pass from Drew Brees against his old team.
CB Ken Crawley started in place of No. 1 draft choice Marshon Lattimore (concussion) and gave the secondary a lift, playing all but two defensive snaps and being effective.
WR Willie Snead IV was reinstated and joined the team for its trip to London. He started the season by serving a three-game suspension for personal conduct for his offseason arrest for DWI.
REPORT CARD VS. PANTHERS
PASSING OFFENSE: A
Drew Brees had his best game of the season, operating with an effective run game and a comfortable pocket. He completed 22-of-29 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns, connecting with nine different receivers.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B
The Saints ran the ball well early and were able to stick with it while playing with a lead. They gained 149 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry, utilizing their blocking tight ends and an extra lineman more than they had in the first two games.
PASS DEFENSE: A-minus
The front produced steady pressure and the secondary took advantage with three interceptions. Cam Newton completed 17-of-26 passes for 167 yards and a rating of 43.8. He was sacked four times.
RUSH DEFENSE: C
The Panthers averaged 6.0 yards, thanks in part to a 31-yard gain by Curtis Samuel and a 17-yarder by Jonathan Stewart, but they had just 22 carries after playing catch-up for most of the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-minus
Wil Lutz made 2-of-3 field goal attempts, missing from 56 yards. Thomas Morstead was outstanding as usual, averaging 50 yards on three punts, two of which were downed inside the 20. The return and coverage units were adequate.
The Saints played well in all three phases, showing exceptional improvement on defense. The changes to the blocking scheme on offense and a deeper rotation on the defensive line both paid dividends.
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