Analysis

Saints' defense unfazed by having to stop Tom Brady in crunch time

NEW ORLEANS -- A minute and 41 seconds might seem like a relative blink of the eyes, but to a quarterback as accomplished as Tom Brady, it's long enough to take a bathroom break, grab a snack and still get his team into field-goal range.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers star lives for such moments. He ranks second all-time with 41 fourth-quarter comebacks and third with 50 game-winning drives. Stepping into such moments is as comfortable to him as slipping on a pair of UGGs.

Which is why many of the Halloween-clad spectators in the Caesars Superdome tempered their celebrations Sunday when the Saints kicked a field goal to go up by two points with 101 seconds to play. The pressing question: Did we leave too much time on the clock?

The only people who didn't seem fazed were the players responsible for stopping Brady.

"We had a chance to win it. It was in our hands. We were going to do whatever we had to do to go out there and win," said P.J. Williams, whose pick-six of Brady with 1:24 to play locked up a critical 36-27 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs and NFC South rivals.

The Saints (5-2) are now tied with the Bucs (6-2) in the loss column and positioned to make a run at a fifth consecutive division title. To achieve that feat, they likely will have to lean heavily on their defense, which has been saying for several years it is ready for that challenge.

The unit shouldered the load for brief spells in each of the past two seasons, but likely will have to do it for the remainder of the 2021 campaign after starting quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a knee injury in the first half and likely will miss the rest of the season.

"It's significant," coach Sean Payton said. "He felt something. He's on crutches right now. I don't want to say [how bad it is] until I have a chance to talk to the doctors."

Winston was injured at the end of a scramble when he was pulled down from behind by linebacker Devin White, who was penalized for a horse-collar tackle. Winston got up and took a few steps, then dropped to a knee and waited for the medical team to arrive.

It was a difficult moment considering the work that Winston had done in preparation for this season. The Bucs chose not to re-sign him after the 2019 season, so he spent last season with the Saints, learning under Drew Brees and getting comfortable with the offense. Now facing his former team for the first time as a starter, he got off to a good start, leading the Saints on a touchdown drive in the first quarter.

When he went down, teammates appeared emotionally affected. Several even went into the examination tent to see him before he was placed on the back of a cart and driven to the locker room. Payton said he cried when he saw Winston in the locker room, where the QB celebrated the win with teammates while on crutches.

"That's Jameis. He's a character," said running back Alvin Kamara, who visited Winston in the tent. "All his passion and pure ... I don't even want to call it emotion; it's fire. He's in love with winning and the process and in love with his team. He wasn't even worried about his leg. He was more so worried about not being able to be out there and cheer with us and lead us. You've got a guy like that that cares more about others than about himself. It's contagious and you hate when a guy like that goes down. You wonder, why do bad things happen to a guy like that? Hopefully it's not too bad."

Trevor Siemian replaced Winston and played well, all things considered, leading the Saints on five scoring drives, including a 70-yard march in the final minutes to set up the field goal that put them ahead, 29-27, with 1:41 to play. It was his first game action since Sept. 16, 2019, when he was injured during a start with the Jets, and friends and family filled his phone with congratulatory messages after Sunday's win.

As he stepped to the lectern following the game, he was answering what he said were 200 text messages.

"Most are from my mom," he said, later adding of the game: "It was fun. You play in the preseason, but your reps are so limited. I think I kind of lost a little sense of how fun it is when you're out there in a huddle and in the middle of a drive and you score. There's a joy to this game that you can't get chasing anything else."

Siemian's time behind center is expected to be brief. Taysom Hill, who competed for the No. 1 job during camp, is set to move into the starting role once he returns from a concussion. Hill went 3-1 last season while subbing for an injured Brees and now should get an extended opportunity to show he is more than a gadget player after filling the role of QB, running back and tight end with the Saints.

That said, the quarterback discussion is likely to get a lot of run because it's the most important position on the field. However, the Saints understand that they're likely to go only as far as their defense takes them -- and it's a moment they began building for in 2015 when Dennis Allen took over as coordinator.

The unit struggled back then and played in the shadow of a Brees-led offense that consistently ranked among the league's best. But with each succeeding year, the defense was upgraded, through the draft and free agency. There was a concerted effort to bring in players whose skill sets fit what Allen was seeking to do.

The fruits of those efforts began to ripen two years ago, when the Saints went 5-0 while Brees was sidelined. The group continued to show its proficiency last year when Hill stepped in for Brees. That's why there was no sense of panic when Winston went down Sunday.

"It's not new to our defense, to our team," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "I think that, if anything, it shows you how resilient our team's been. The core leaders that have been a part of this team for a numerous amount of years, the juice that we bring each and every practice, has helped us overcome these adverse situations. It sucks not to have Jameis out there because we know the fierce, competitive spirit that he has. We know the game plan was set for him and now we have to adjust it a little bit for Trevor or whoever the coaches deem next up. But I do know we're capable of winning -- as you see tonight, as you saw last year, as you saw the year before that. It does have to be on the defense."

The unit has consistently risen to the occasion against Brady and the Bucs. Sunday was their third victory in the team's last four meetings, including the playoffs, and though it was the first time Brady threw for more than 239 yards in the matchups, he also committed three turnovers that resulted in 17 points.

Consider this: In four games against the Saints the past two seasons, Brady has as many touchdown passes (eight) as turnovers (eight). In his 24 other games since joining Tampa Bay last season, he has 71 touchdown passes and just 19 turnovers. No giveaway was as costly as the pick-six to Williams.

"It was a play I for sure was looking for coming into this game, like, 'Oh, I'm going to pick this off.' " Williams said. "I was a free player, just like a robber. Just reading the quarterback. ... He took me to the ball and I just couldn't believe he threw it. So I broke on it, got the ball, I saw the sideline and took it to the end zone."

Brady attributed his struggles against the Saints to "bad throws," adding, "It's tough to win when you turn the ball over like we did. So, I have to not throw interceptions. That's the key."

At times, he appeared to be in a good rhythm, particularly to open the second half when he led touchdown drives on three of his first four series. Overall, he finished with four touchdown passes, capitalizing at times when his receivers won one-on-one battles, like on Mike Evans' 41-yard score against Marshon Lattimore, and also when the Saints blew a coverage, like on the 50-yard shot to Cyril Grayson.

But the Saints came up with stops when necessary, and the feeling internally is that the unit is only going to get better. Sunday was the first game this season for tackle David Onyemata, New Orleans' best interior lineman, who was out the first six games while serving a league suspension; and cornerback Ken Crawley can be activated at any time after missing the first part of the year due to injury. Defensive end Marcus Davenport played just his second full game since returning from injury; ditto linebacker Kwon Alexander.

"We can be better and want to step up to that plate," Jordan said. "I think as much as they ran tonight, they still ended up with 4 or 5 yards a carry. No matter the spot that's on us, we have to eliminate some of these mistakes and get to the quarterback the way we did at the end of the game."

The unit should be able to put together a run considering Buffalo, Dallas, Tennessee and Tampa Bay are its only remaining opponents with offenses that rank in the top 10 in scoring. That said, Jordan and Co. feel it's less about the opponent and more about themselves. And if the end of Sunday's game showed anything, it's that the Saints should be just fine moving forward.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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