NEW ORLEANS – Matt Ryan looked at the pass rusher and started jawing.
"Who are you?!" the Atlanta Falcons quarterback barked at the New Orleans Saints linebacker early in the first quarter of Sunday's opener at the Superdome.
Junior Galette barked right back: "You're about to find out!"
Ryan did find out. The Falcons found out. Now the league's gonna find out.
Bountygate is over. Gregg Williams is gone. And the Rob Ryan-led Saints defense is not the sad-sack bend-then-break bunch that turned in one of the most embarrassing seasons in recent memory last year. New Orleans coach Sean Payton, fresh off his own year-long suspension, returned to the sideline Sunday and was all too happy to throw his defense out there first when the Falcons won the coin toss and wanted the ball.
Here, he seemed to say to his hated rivals: find out.
The Saints beat Ryan and Atlanta, 23-17, not with a barrage of offense, but with an all-or-nothing goal-line stand in the final minute. Not with a four-touchdown performance from quarterback Drew Brees, but with a four-man pass rush that had home fans screaming more loudly for no-names than for stars they've known for years. Not with pay-for-performance, but with a shaggy-haired coordinator who has named plays after a local rapper, a coach's child and an armed forces unit.
"We have a bunch of guys who know how to rush," said Parys Haralson, who had a sack Sunday. "Sometimes it's not about the technique you use. Sometimes it's just the will of the player."
It was the entire defense's will that saved the Saints on Sunday. Down six with less than two minutes to go, Ryan drove his team to a first-and-goal at the Saints' 7-yard-line. Last year's Saints would have crumbled fast. This year's group, pushing Atlanta to fourth-and-goal from the 3, lined up with 43 seconds left and all thought the same thing: It's going to be a pass, it's probably going to be for tight end Tony Gonzalez, and make damn sure to take away the quarterback's first option.
How fired up was this group? When asked to recall what he saw on the last play, Galette admitted, "I kinda blacked out."
Gonzalez rushed right into veteran Roman Harper off the line of scrimmage, momentarily taking him out of the play, but Curtis Lofton (who is nicknamed "five-oh" because "you can never get away") pressured Ryan and bought the Saints time. Ryan clutched. When his pass came, rookie Kenny Vaccaro was able to tip it, Harper was able to grab it, and something the Saints call "bro love" began.
"Next thing you know," Harper said, "Malcolm [Jenkins] is on top of me, beating on my chest."
The celebration started right there in the end zone and bubbled over into the locker room, where the Saints defense hugged and danced like they had won the division.
"It was a lot of bro love," Jabari Greer said, confessing that Jenkins actually told him, "I love you!"
Bro love is now a Ryan staple, and the Saints are loving him right back. The brother of the besieged Jets head coach is looking like the Rex of a few years ago, mixing in some needed energy and motivation, telling his players "Nobody respects our defense" and yet respecting that same defense.
"He lets us fly around," Vaccaro says. "He says it's not the scheme that makes the players, but the players that make the scheme."
Vaccaro drew a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct when he hit Ryan late in the first half after a slide, leaving the quarterback momentarily crouching over in pain. Vaccaro rushed over to the sideline and explained to Ryan that he's not used to the rule. Asked if Rob Ryan reprimanded him, Vaccaro said, "Uh, yeah" and then gave a knowing smile.
"Nobody said anything to me," he added.
The swagger, coming from guys even fans probably can't identify, was unmistakable. They didn't need bounties to stop one of the best offenses in the league. They didn't need game experience. They didn't even need five down linemen. The Saints had more tackles for loss (four) than they allowed third-down conversions (three). The Falcons scored only seven points after racing out to a 10-point lead.
"Rob has confidence in that four-man front," Galette said. "And that's given us confidence."
Asked to explain the difference from prior defensive coordinators Steve Spagnuolo and Williams, Gallete was clear:
"Spags was more laid-back," he said. "Rob is like Gregg but it's more 'Enjoy the game.' You gotta have fun."
It's a unique dichotomy, these new Saints. Payton is the ultimate tactician. He clearly burns after the league's season-long punishment, but he does it with restraint. Asked if his comeback Sunday was anything like what the team felt in its first home game after Hurricane Katrina, Payton cut the questioner off. "No, no, no," he said, looking down. "Not at all."
Ryan, meanwhile, is a whirlwind of emotion – a player in a coach's body. "He understands this is a game," Greer says. "We're men that still have the heart of young boys." So naming plays after rappers works. It takes the pressure off a squad that feels a ton of it after last season.
Matt Ryan approached Galette after the game to congratulate him, telling him he had a new respect for him. The gesture meant a lot to the fourth-year linebacker. And yet when asked if he had any comment for the Falcons quarterback for the rematch in Atlanta, Gallete cracked a slight smile."I hope he knows now."