The New Orleans Saints defense spent most of the first two weeks of training camp looking like a unit ready to build on the momentum of the giant leap forward it took last year.
Cody Kessler and the Jacksonville Jaguars doused a few of those flames with a bucket of water from the St. Johns River on Thursday night.
An efficient, chains-moving approach from Jacksonville’s top two quarterbacks carved up the New Orleans defense at times, taking control until a late burst from the Saints ended up giving them a 24-20 victory — the franchise’s first win in a preseason opener since 2014.
“You’d rather it happen now than the opening game (Sept. 9) against Tampa,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “We had a lot of confidence in the way we’d been practicing, so to come out here and allow them to drive the way they did, it’s unacceptable.”
New Orleans (1-0) held out franchise quarterback Drew Brees, not to mention All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and a bevy of other contributors — including first-round defensive end Marcus Davenport — who are likely to make the roster but are battling minor injuries.
Jacksonville, likewise, held out Calais Campbell and pulled quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Leonard Fournette after just one series.
For the most part, though, the Jaguars (0-1) moved the ball easily against the Saints’ first defensive unit.
“Early in the game, offensively and defensively, we struggled,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Honestly, I don’t know when we forced the first punt, and then offensively, we didn’t generate much of anything.”
While the coaching staff has at times been frustrated by the defense’s tendency to mar a good series in training camp by giving up a big play, the Saints never allowed a lightning bolt from the Jaguars.
An 8-yard pickup was Jacksonville’s longest run, and a 24-yard toss from Kessler to Shane Wynn represented the Jaguars’ longest play from scrimmage.
Jacksonville did drive the ball up and down the field, beginning with a 15-play, 79-yard possession to open the game that ate seven minutes and ended with a Bortles scramble for a touchdown. On the play, the Saints covered all of Bortles’ receivers but failed to account for the quarterback’s legs.
Kessler kept the efficiency at a high level once he entered the game. An backup with starting experience in Cleveland, Kessler completed 14 of 17 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown to Scott Orndoff, mostly by beating the Saints on the down that cost them most dearly a year ago.
“We could have been a lot better,” nose tackle Tyeler Davison said. “Those quick little passes, the runs, there was too many yards per run, we’ve got to be better.”
New Orleans struggled on third down last season, and Bortles and Kessler combined to convert 7 of 10 third-down chances through the first three quarters.
The Saints defense has also forced turnovers during training camp; neither of Jacksonville’s top two passers turned the ball over, and New Orleans didn’t get its first takeaway until Jayrone Elliott strip-sacked former Tulane and Nebraska quarterback Tanner Lee in the fourth quarter.
That fumble recovery led to the Saints’ game-winning score, a touchdown run by former Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams.
Both passers had their moments. Savage, given the start after an efficient performance through the first two weeks of camp, completed 10 of 14 passes for 70 yards and directed two scoring drives, including one that Mark Ingram capped with a 2-yard touchdown run.
But Savage also rarely pushed the ball down the field. Errant throws in the red zone limited the Saints to a field goal on one series, and Savage failed to get anything going at the end of the first half.
Hill, the dynamic athlete who made a splash on special teams a year ago and started on most of the Saints’ kicking-game units Thursday, created plays with his legs at times and also held onto the ball a little too long at times, trying to do too much.
Eventually, though, Hill settled down and moved the ball, completing 8 of 9 throws for 72 yards and picking up 52 yards on seven carries to lead the team in rushing. Hill gave the Saints a spark at the end of the third quarter, engineering a 12-play, 81-yard drive and punching it in himself from 3 yards out, cutting Jacksonville’s lead to 20-17.
Elliott strip-sacked Lee on the ensuing drive, and with J.T. Barrett at the helm, the Saints picked up the game-winning touchdown on Williams’ 4-yard run with 2:58 remaining. While the offense picked up its play, the defense’s third string also picked it up and produced six sacks, getting 2½ from Elliott and two from Devaroe Lawrence.
As good as the win feels, though, a preseason game is often about the way the game looks early, and the Saints saw a lot of problems that need to be corrected.
“There will be a lot to teach off this tape,” Payton said.
A lot of reasons to get back to work.