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.
What the Saints said
"I don't have that book." - Saints coach Sean Payton, asked to defend why he called timeouts late in the first half with the Saints pinned inside their 10-yard line with 1:43 left in the half. It gave Arizona a chance to score just before intermission, but the Saints' defense made Payton look good by holding the Cardinals off the scoreboard.
What the Cardinals said
"Offensively, we're still a team that can run to the 50-yard line and kill ourselves. It seemed like we did it all day. We'd get first downs and first downs and then, boom, we'd get to the 50-yard line and then not convert a third down when the play was there to be made." - Cardinals coach Bruce Arians.
What we learned about the Saints
1. After allowing 28.4 points and 440.1 yards per game last year, the Saints' defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has allowed just 12.7 points and 295.7 yards per game during New Orleans' 3-0 start. Much of the credit comes from the defensive line, which is getting pressure without having to resort to exotic blitz packages. Also, rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had his first NFL interception yesterday, has made the Saints much stronger up the middle and has been versatile, playing safety and slot corner. He rarely misses a tackle. Arizona converted just 5-of-13 third downs, and the Cardinals punted seven consecutive times, followed by consecutive interceptions. "It's like night and day between last year and this year," said linebacker Curtis Lofton. Last year we were 0-3 and, now to be 3-0, it's a great feeling. I really feel like this defense is starting to come together. If we keep working, we'll be good."
2. No one can understand why the Cardinals did this, but they played a lot of man to man against Brees, daring him to throw. The Cardinals stacked the box to stop the Saints' non-existent running game. The Saints adjusted with swing passes to Darren Sproles (4-30) and screens to Pierre Thomas (6-39). The Saints rushed for just 104 yards - 110 in the second half - but threw for 342. "I'm not concerned we just rushed for (104) yards," Payton said. "It's hard for me to diagram the defense for you guys. We made some changes early in the first half when we were getting five-man fronts and heavy rush. Short passes are the equivalent of plays like runs. Our quarterback has great command, and he's got a lot of options going."
What we learned about the Cardinals
1. They are truly banged up. Safety Rashad Johnson injured a finger and did not return. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was carted off the field with a right foot injury, and linebacker Sam Acho did not return to the game after injuring his ankle. "We had some critical injuries and young guys had to step in and play, and we've got to get them better," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
2. After an 11-play, 80-yard TD drive to open the game- a drive on which they picked up seven first downs - the Cardinals accounted for just 167 yards and nine first downs the rest of the game. Left tackle Levi Brown had a tough outing, getting beat several times by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and resulting in heavy pressure for Carson Palmer. "When you start that fast and you score a touchdown, you don't like it answered by a touchdown," Arians said. "We've got protect our quarterback better, obviously."