Saints defense delivering on vow to be team's identity without Drew Brees

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jameis Winston did an excellent job of stepping up in the New Orleans Saints’ first game without Drew Brees on Sunday. But he wasn’t the only one.

New Orleans’ defense was downright dominant in Sunday's 38-3 drubbing of the Green Bay Packers and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers – just as players such as linebacker Demario Davis had vowed to be heading into this season.

Davis said during the preseason that New Orleans’ identity had changed since he first arrived in 2017, when the defense's mentality was more like, “Let us get one or two more stops and our offense will come in and bring it home.”

“We certainly know the challenge at hand. We know the identity of our team. We know the role that we have to play,” Davis said after Sunday’s win. “I think we’ve felt as confident as you can feel going into the first game with the unit that we’ve had.”

“We want to be that defense that you have to worry about and not just rely on how potent our offense is,” longtime defensive end Cameron Jordan added.

The Saints’ defense has flown a bit under the national radar over the past four years under the direction of coordinator Dennis Allen, but they have been trending in this direction while winning four straight NFC South titles. Since Week 3 of the 2017 season, the Saints rank No. 1 in the NFL in run defense and top five in points allowed and yards allowed.

“I would say we’ve seen that side of the ball if you’re talking specifically in the last 2½ years, we’ve seen the improvement, we’ve seen the specific areas right in front of our eyes as we’ve grown,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I think this defense we saw jell last year and finish the season with confidence and begin the offseason and training camp with confidence, with a lot of returning starters and guys that played at a high level.”

Of course it was fair to wonder if they might take a step back this season after losing key pieces such as cornerback Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, linebacker Alex Anzalone and defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins.

And now they’re dealing with new injuries to cornerback Marshon Lattimore (hand) and defensive end Marcus Davenport (shoulder) that could sideline them for the short term. Linebacker Kwon Alexander (elbow), defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (calf), linebacker Pete Werner (hamstring) and safety P.J. Williams (back) also missed practice Wednesday.

So the challenge won't get any easier Sunday at Carolina against one of the NFL's most difficult offensive matchups, Christian McCaffrey.

But it was clear from talking to New Orleans’ defensive players throughout the summer that their confidence remained through the roof despite their missing pieces. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has been on Super Bowl winners in both New Orleans and Philadelphia, said “It’s been hard to think of years where I’ve been this confident in the defense this early in training camp.”

And when safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson was told Davis and Jenkins were “confident” in New Orleans’ defense, he one-upped them.

“I’m cocky about it,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I feel like we could be the No. 1 defense in the league.”

So far, so good. The Saints rank No. 1 after Week 1 in points allowed and yards allowed (229) after intercepting Rodgers twice and limiting Green Bay to 1-of-10 on third-down conversions.

“In this game, it’s hard to have as much retention as we’ve had,” said Davis, who pointed out that the Saints have still had the same coordinator and standout players such as Lattimore, safety Marcus Williams, Jordan and himself for five years now.

“It almost becomes cliché talking about the culture that we have,” Davis said. “But creating a culture, you have to have the right leadership from coaching to the players that you bring in, you have to have players that play at a high level, and then you have to have the ability to not lose guys. So when you’re able to have top safeties, top corners, top defensive linemen, top linebackers -- like top-5, top-10 at their position -- the standard goes up. And to be able to retain those type of guys over a 4-5-year span, we’re very fortunate.

“To whom much is given, much is required. So when you have it, you have to appreciate it, you have to own it and make the most of it.”

Allen deserves a ton of credit, obviously. Rodgers credited him for surprising Green Bay a bit by sitting back in coverage so much Sunday and essentially daring the Packers to run.

Davenport was one of the players who stepped up with a tackle for loss on Green Bay’s first snap and an 11-yard sack in the second quarter. He will definitely be missed after he looked terrific all summer.

Rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo, a third-round draft pick who opted out of his 2020 season at Stanford, also delivered in a big way while being thrust into the starting lineup. Adebo, who also had a strong preseason, intercepted Rodgers in the third quarter and held up well while being targeted often.

The Saints traded for veteran cornerback Bradley Roby last week, and he is expected to make his starting debut this week at Carolina. But Adebo may need to remain in the starting lineup as long as Lattimore is sidelined by a thumb injury.

Williams had the other interception later in the second half. Second-year linebacker Zack Baun, newly signed veteran end Kpassagnon and unheralded defensive tackles Christian Ringo and Malcolm Roach also stepped up in more prominent roles.

“It doesn’t matter who’s in, it’s about the mentality we take the field with,” Jordan said. “So hopefully there will never be a dropoff.”