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NEW ORLEANS -- The stage was all set for another memorable collapse. Then, the unimaginable happened. The Saints' defense didn't fall apart.
The unit that was largely responsible for last year's 7-9 record was the driving force behind Sunday's 24-20 victory against Tampa Bay at the Superdome. When it mattered most, the defense was at its best.
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|Running back Reggie Bush's strong play was one of the many highlights for the Saints.|
With Tampa Bay driving and time running out, New Orleans' defense made a huge statement.
"We're a lot faster and a lot smarter," defensive end Will Smith said. "That's a different feel than last year."
With Tampa Bay facing a fourth-and-6 at the New Orleans 24-yard line, the Saints effectively ended the game when linebacker Scott Fujita intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass with 38 seconds remaining.
"I think we answered a lot of the questions -- at least for today -- that were out there about our team," running back Reggie Bush said.
Bush and the offense did their part, but that was expected. Everyone knew the Saints had lots of firepower on offense, but the defense was the big question. Last year, Tampa Bay receiver Joey Galloway lit up the Saints and so did almost every other offense.
The secondary was one of the worst in the league, the pass rush underachieved and running backs ran right past linebackers. That's why the Saints went out and almost totally overhauled their defense in the
They addressed almost every area, trading for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, signing defensive end Bobby McCray and cornerback Randall Gay as free agents and drafting defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and cornerback Tracy Porter. They also hired Ed Orgeron, who long has been considered one of the best defensive line coaches in college football.
The new faces gave the Saints an entirely different look. They put consistent pressure on Garcia and didn't let Galloway make any big plays (his longest catch went for 13 yards). The New Orleans defense gave up one touchdown (early in the fourth quarter) and Tampa Bay's other touchdown came on an interception return.
It all worked exactly the way coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis envisioned when they began rebuilding the defense.
"It's not just one little tweak," Smith said. "There were a whole lot of things that made us a better defense."
Start with the line, where Ellis made an immediate impact, creating a noticeable push from the middle that helped McCray and Grant make sacks.
"They've got Sedrick Ellis and he is the real deal," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said.
Vilma was the marquee arrival and he didn't disappoint. He was brought along slowly through training camp as he recovered from a knee injury, but it didn't take him long to make his presence felt. Vilma finished with a team-high nine tackles and was credited with two quarterback hurries.
"He's a very fast guy and he controlled the tempo of the game and controlled everybody in that huddle," Smith said.
As much as the Saints needed Vilma and Ellis, they needed help in the secondary even more. That was the weakest of all weak spots last year. But it suddenly looks like a strength.
Even with top cornerback Mike McKenzie out with a knee injury, the secondary was pretty close to flawless. Gay was on Galloway most of the day and Galloway finished with six catches for 56 yards.
"We kind challenged them this week," Payton said. "We heard a lot of talk about this 'White Tiger' (Galloway's nickname). We kind of challenged our guys on the back end and I thought they responded pretty well."
But the biggest surprise might have been the play of Porter, a second-round pick from Indiana.
Porter got the start and spent most of the day on Antonio Bryant.
"My teammates were like, 'You're a rookie and they're going to come in and test you. Just hold your ground,'" Porter said.
Porter didn't give much ground. He broke up several passes and held Bryant to three catches for 43 yards.
The Saints held the Bucs to 221 passing yards and gave up an average of 4.8 yards per pass play. The defense was especially good on third down, allowing Tampa Bay to convert only two of 12 of those situations into first downs.
"The defense has been taking the majority of the bad talk around the league and in the media,'' Porter said. "We made an emphasis to get better as a group.''
It's only one game, but, so far, it's working.