'Pissed off' New Orleans Saints defense extends postseason hopes again

NEW ORLEANS -- It was just one touchdown.

A 21-yard run early in the second quarter by Carolina Panthers running back Chuba Hubbard, who broke too easily through the middle of the New Orleans Saints' defense before making backup safety Jeff Heath whiff in the open field.

But that one touchdown was absolutely unacceptable for a Saints defense that has become the team’s lifeline in December.

“That touchdown pissed us off, put it like that,” said safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who wound up sealing the Saints' 18-10 victory with an interception in the final minute.

The Saints responded by not allowing the Panthers another point and just 46 more yards over the final 43 minutes of Sunday’s win.

They sacked quarterback Sam Darnold seven times, forced two turnovers and kept the team's playoff hopes alive at 8-8 heading into the last week of the season. To earn the NFC's No. 7 seed, the Saints need to win at the Atlanta Falcons and have the Los Angeles Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers.

When asked what the defense’s message was after a rare sluggish start, Gardner-Johnson said, “Tackle better and run to the ball. Play with passion. Sometimes it’s about X's and O's, and sometimes it’s about passion.”

The Saints have now won three games in the past four weeks -- 30-9 at the New York Jets in Week 14 and 9-0 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15 when they became the first team to shut out Tom Brady in 15 years. (Their only loss in that stretch came last Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which 20 eligible players were sidelined by COVID-19.)

Hubbard’s touchdown is the only one the Saints allowed in those three victories combined.

“It’s a big reason right now why we’re at eight wins is defensively,” coach Sean Payton said in perhaps his biggest understatement of the year. “I think it was outstanding the way they played.”

New Orleans’ defense had already started to quietly emerge as the team’s strength in recent years. But after future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees retired this offseason, defensive leaders talked openly about wanting that responsibility on their shoulders.

Then it became an absolute must after QB Jameis Winston went down with a torn ACL in Week 8 and receiver Michael Thomas never recovered from his ankle injury and the offensive line was besieged by a rash of ailments (they were without their top four linemen Sunday).

Since Week 12, the Saints rank 30th in yards gained (265.8 per game) and 29th in points scored (13.83 per game), leaving the defense as their only hope.

“We knew going into this year we wanted to be a force,” said longtime Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had 3.5 sacks Sunday and now has a staggering 7.5 sacks over the past three weeks. "We’ve been saying that for the last three or four years, and I think it’s showing. That’s what you’re seeing is a culmination of hard work."

Jordan, who was named to his seventh Pro Bowl earlier this month, has been on an absolute tear since he missed the first game of his 11-year career because of COVID-19 protocols in Week 14 at New York. But Payton rejected the idea that it might be one of Jordan’s best stretches ever.

In fact, ESPN Stats & Information pointed out that Jordan is the first NFL player to have multiple sacks in three straight games since … Jordan in 2018.

“Listen, he’s played well for a long time here. So it would be hard to give it one of those ‘evers,’” Payton said. “But he’s certainly playing awfully well, and it’s been important.”

As quarterback Taysom Hill said, the Saints’ dominant defensive play is also “nothing new.” Remember, they started this season in Week 1 with a 38-3 stunner over the NFC’s top-seeded Green Bay Packers and MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers. For the season, New Orleans ranks fourth in points allowed (19.69 per game) and eighth best in yards allowed (322.1).

Meanwhile, in a jarring reversal from so many years past in the Payton-Brees era, the Saints now rank 29th in yards gained (300.5) and 20th in points scored (20.88).

However, Hill pointed out that when the defense plays so well that the offense doesn’t have to press. And sure enough, the Saints have committed zero turnovers in each of their past three wins.

“For the greater percentage of the time that I’ve been here, there were some games that the offense was scoring so many points, and we just had to figure out a way how to get a stop,” said linebacker Demario Davis. “I don’t know if it is about carrying an extra load (now). It’s just a mindset of the team. Our culture is that you do whatever you have to do to win games.

“If that means that we have to go out and pretty much pitch a shutout, then we embrace that opportunity.”