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Brees, defense help Saints improve to 3-0

The SportsXchange

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees is performing like Drew Brees. The New Orleans Saints defense is playing like something Saints' fans haven't seen in a long time.

The results have been utterly perfect.

Playing against mostly man-to-man defense, Brees passed for three touchdowns and 342 yards - his eighth consecutive game surpassing 300 yards - and the revitalized Saints' defense pitched a shutout in the final 54 minutes to power the undefeated Saints to a 31-7 rout of the Arizona Cardinals Sunday at the Mercedes Benz Superdome.

"I'm very happy to be 3-0 and 2-0 in our division and 3-0 in the NFC," Brees said, not having to search his memory too extensively to remember last year's 0-3 start. "This is significant, and we're playing a little better each week. Still, offensively I don't feel we have reached our full potential. We started well and finished strong, but the middle was not up to our standards."

The Saints spotted Arizona a 7-0 lead and then scored 31 consecutive points. Brees threw touchdown passes of 16 and 7 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham and 27 yards to Robert Meachem, and Brees ran 7 yards for another score on a scramble up the middle.

But the real story may have been the Saints maligned defense, which last year set NFL records for futility, allowing a league-record 7,042 yards over 16 games. Once the NFL's laughingstock, the Saints defense has been transformed under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

After allowing the Cardinals an 11-play, 80-yard scoring drive to open the game - capped by Alfonso Smith's 3-yard run around right end - New Orleans forced Arizona to punt seven consecutive times over the next three quarters and then intercepted Carson Palmer in back-to-back series to end the game.

Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro had his first career interception, and newly acquired corner Keenan Lewis had the other.

The Saints used mostly a four-man pass rush against Palmer, but they sacked him four times and constantly flushed him from the pocket. Palmer finished 18-of-35 for 187 yards. Defensive end Cameron Jordan had two sacks and Junior Galette had another sack with quick moves off the ball,

"Junior is doing a phenomenal job getting in the backfield," Jordan said of his pass-rushing mate. "His first couple of steps are just so quick. It's always a race. We make a game of it to see who can get there faster."

Arizona coach Bruce Arians said Palmer was under constant pressure and could not be totally blamed for the lack of production after the Cardinals' opening drive.

"The trust factor leaves when you're getting hit as a quarterback," Arians said.

The Saints did almost all of their damage through the air. Brees completed 29-of-46 passes for 342 yards, and the Saints had minus-6 yards on four first-half carries. But Brees and the revitalized Saints defense were more than enough.

Brees tied the game at 7-7 on New Orleans' first offensive series, completing 5 of 6 passes for 88 yards and finding newly acquired Meachem for a 27-yard touchdown. It was Meachem's first touchdown catch since being reacquired on waivers from San Diego, where he had spent one unproductive season.

"It's been a long time since he caught a touchdown for us," Brees said, smiling. "It was time to break the seal. I could see the smile on his face. It's good to get him back involved. There's a lot more where that came from."

Brees put the Saints up 14-7 with a back-shoulder, 16-yard throw to tight end Jimmy Graham, who was covered by safety Yeremiah Bell, with 2:53 left in the half. It came against man coverage, and Graham was simply too strong and tall for Bell.

"He's not really a tight end, he's a big wide receiver," Arians said of Graham. "We have a chance if we can get a bead on (Brees). If we can't, Graham is going to catch it because of the size matchup."

Brees capped his day with a 7-yard scramble up the middle for a TD after Arizona had taken away all five of his receivers. That put the Saints up 24-7 with 14:42 left.

"That play happened exactly like that in practice this week," Brees said. "You're not going to see that all that often."

NOTES: Cardinals defensive end Dan Williams missed the game after receiving word that his father died in a car crash in Jackson, Miss. ... Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson left the game in the first half with a finger injury, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was carted off with a right foot injury and linebacker Sam Acho injured an ankle. ... Ex-LSU star Tryann Mathieu made an impressive return to his home state, snagging his first NFL interception against Brees in the third quarter, who tried to hit Lance Moore in the end zone. But Mathieu also gave up a few receptions to Graham, who, at 6-7, is 10 inches taller than the 5-9 corner.
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