NEW ORLEANS (AP) — It wasn't so long ago that Saints coach Sean Payton was designing and calling some of the most prolific passing offenses the NFL had ever seen.
That was the Saints' identity for most of the past 15 years, when Drew Brees was their quarterback.
The 2021 Saints look more like the New Orleans teams coached by Jim Mora three decades ago, when the defense was led by the franchise's first Hall of Fame player, linebacker Rickey Jackson.
In a 28-13 triumph over New England on Sunday, the Saints' defense produced three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown by safety Malcolm Jenkins.
“We’re finding out that we are the strength of our team — and we’re going to have to play big in order for our team to have success," Jenkins said. “That’s just the identity and the formula that seems to be working for us; we’re real stingy on defense, we take the ball away, we give our offense opportunities.
"We think the heart of our team is going to be our defense,” he added.
The good news for New Orleans is that the formula Jenkins described has produced victories in two of the first three weeks of the regular season, starting with a 38-3 rout of Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a game moved from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Florida, because of Hurricane Ida.
Now the New Orleans defense can look forward this week to finally playing in the Superdome, where crowd noise has been known to hinder opposing offenses' pre-snap communication.
“Oh man, I can’t wait for that. It’s going to be electric in that place, for sure," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. "I just know what this thing means to the city and the fan base. It’s going to be crazy in that building.”
Before the Saints flew home to New Orleans on Sunday night, they'd been displaced since they evacuated to the Dallas area the day before Ida made landfall as a destructive Category 4 storm on Aug. 29.
While the Superdome and team headquarters weathered the storm relatively well, the Saints elected to give the New Orleans area time to recover as a community and restore most normal services — such as electricity — before returning. They practiced at TCU and the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium from the final week of preseason through the first three weeks of the regular season.
“It’s crazy it’s been a month that we’ve been gone,” Davis said Monday. "It was just good to be back home, seeing the wife, seeing the kids, sleeping in your own bed, even coming into the facility. The facility even feels weird because we haven’t been here in a while. So, just looking to get back to some normalcy.”
The Saints' run defense has seen virtually no drop-off despite opening the season without their top three interior linemen from last season. That, and the pressure the Saints are able to create up the middle, should only improve when David Onyemata returns from a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancers policy. In the meantime, Shy Tuttle, Malcolm Roach, Christian Ringo and Albert Huggins have combined to shore up an interior that lost Sheldon Rankins in free agency and Malcom Brown in a trade that helped New Orleans to trim player payroll.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
While the Saints my not need to rely on the passing game as much as they did during the Brees era, they'll have to be more productive through the air to keep the NFL's better defenses honest. It would help new starting quarterback Jameis Winston to have veteran receivers Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith back from injuries, but in their absence, Winston may have to develop a better rapport with receivers Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris, as well as young tight end Adam Trautman.
Jenkins, who at 33 is the oldest player on the roster, has proved he can still make big plays with his pivotal pick-six. The Saints expected the veteran to be a leader who can improve communication and cut down on cross-ups in pass coverage assignments. His ability to produce big plays individually only enhances his value.
Kicker Aldrick Rosas had filled in competently for injured veteran Wil Lutz until Sunday, when he missed two field goals from distances of 52 yards and 36 yards.
Left tackle Terron Armstead has a left elbow injury after getting inadvertently hit by a teammate, running back Tony Jones Jr. If center Erik McCoy isn't ready to come back from his Week 1 calf injury, the Saints will be down two starters on the offensive line this week.
30 — Winston's ranking in total yards passing so far with 387. But he also ranks fifth in touchdowns passing with seven.
The Saints will have some distractions from football this week as they move back home and incumbent players take stock of how their homes came through Ida. Those with damage to repair may need to compartmentalize a little more this week as they prepare to host the winless but increasingly desperate New York Giants.
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