New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (12) makes at diving catch for a touchdown past Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Akeem Dent (52) during the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.(Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)
NEW ORLEANS -- While coach Sean Payton was suspended last season, the defense of the New Orleans Saints was basically absent, too. It allowed an NFL season record 7,042 yards - a little over four miles.
Payton was back on the sideline Sunday. Despite being depleted by a rash of injuries in the preseason, the Saints defense showed up as well. Under the direction of new coordinator Rob Ryan, New Orleans made a stand at its own 3-yard line in the waning seconds - capped by an end zone interception by safety Roman Harper - to beat the Atlanta Falcons 23-17.
"It (the stand) was obviously big. It was the difference between winning and losing," said Payton, banished last year as a result of the Bountygate scandal that rocked the Saints.
Payton led New Orleans to a Super Bowl title in the 2009 season. En route to a 7-9 finish in 2012, the Saints defense allowed an averageof 440.1 yards a game.
New Orleans' defense wasn't smothering against a potent Falcons offense led by quarterback Matt Ryan, who threw for 304 yards and two touchdowns. But the Saints sacked Ryan three times, allowed 367 yards and stopped the Falcons when it mattered most.
The Falcons had a first down at the New Orleans 7-yard line on their last drive. It was fourth-and-goal at the three when Ryan's pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez was tipped and intercepted in the end zone by Harper with 43 seconds left.
"There are so many stats from last year that everybody wants to harp on this year," said Cameron Jordan, the Saints' third-year defensive end. "This is a new year and this is a new defense and this is a new start.''
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 357 yards and two touchdowns, had nothing to do after the stand except take a knee twice and run out the clock.
Harper also made a big defensive play for the Saints in the second quarter. Safety Malcolm Jenkins stripped the ball from Atlanta's Julio Jones after a 22-yard reception. Harper's 19-yard return of the recovery set up a 25-yard pass from Brees to Marques Colston that tied the game at 10-10.
"It was great to see him (Harper) come up with those plays," said Brees. " ... It's another new defensive scheme, but yet he's a smart guy, he's a tough guy."
Ryan was under pressure on his last throw into the end zone for the 6- 5 Gonzalez.
"He threw it up like a jump ball," said Harper. "Kenny (rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro) made a play on the ball and I dove for the interception. Next thing I know, (Malcolm) Jenkins is on top of me beating my chest."
Ryan had marched the Falcons down the field from their own 20-yard line on their final series. "We moved the ball down the field and gave ourselves a chance to win that football game at the very end, and we just didn't make the play," said Ryan.