By LES EAST
The first quarter turned out OK after all.
The New Orleans Saints are 3-1 after completing the first quarter of the season with a well-rounded 33-18 victory at the New York Giants on Sunday.
The early season prospects took a hit back in the spring when leading rusher Mark Ingram II was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing drugs.
Then the season got off to a poor start with a 48-41 loss to Tampa Bay in the opener. A lackluster, last-second 21-18 victory against Cleveland and a last-second overtime win at Atlanta provided some positive signs.
But the victory against the Giants, which was far from perfect but more closely resembled a typical performance from last season’s playoff run than any of the previous three games, was uplifting.
Now New Orleans is 3-1, all alone in first place in the NFC South, Ingram is back in good standing as the Saints prepare to host Washington in a Monday Night Football game Oct. 8 during which Drew Brees will almost certainly break Peyton Manning’s NFL record for career passing yards.
So a team that unexpectedly started 0-1 and could have easily been 0-2 or even 0-3, will be welcomed back to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for a celebration of a three-game win streak, Ingram’s return and Brees’ record-breaking night.
But the most important thing coming out of the first quarter of the season is the demonstration Sunday that this team is getting closer to being the team most envisioned before the season and a team reminiscent of last season’s NFC South champions.
It was the best that the offense and defense played in tandem, even though both had moments that kept the victory from being as easy as it could have been.
The defense allowed first downs on six of its first seven snaps as the Giants zipped through it for a quick touchdown.
It also had break-downs on New York’s other touchdown drive, but more than half the game elapsed between the two scoring drives.
Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams played better than they had, which was a key to the pass defense containing the Giants for most of the game. Williams forced a fumble that fellow corner Marshon Lattimore recovered, leading to a field goal.
Speaking of field goals, they’re all the New Orleans’ offense could produce in the first half. Wil Lutz went 4 for 4 – and actually was 6 for 6 – as the Saints took a 12-7 halftime lead. One kick was negated because the snap came after the first quarter ended and another was nullified by a Saints penalty.
At halftime it would have been understandable if there was a lot of hand-wringing over not maximizing any of the scoring opportunities, but the defense’s play mitigated that.
The Saints began the third quarter with the offense determined to finish a drive and Brees mixed in Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas better than he had been able to do in the first half and the result was the team’s first touchdown.
After that New Orleans was in control. The Giants would get within one score and a Ted Ginn Jr. gaffe on a kickoff return would create a momentary field-position concern, but Brees and Kamara produced the yards and points necessary to pull away.
One of the most encouraging parts of the win was the performance of the defense overall, but all eyes will be on the offense during the next eight days.
Of course the lead player will be Brees as he compiles the 201 yards necessary to pass Manning, but as supporting story lines go, Ingram’s return is pretty significant.
The Saints have generally not been as balanced as they would like, though Kamara’s second-half push balanced the numbers pretty well Sunday.
It will be interesting to see how Sean Payton utilizes Taysom Hill going forward. The jack-of-all-trades was a bigger part of Sunday’s game than any other, running for a first down out of punt formation in one of the biggest plays of the game, continuing to hand off and keep out of the read option, lining up as a receiver and even throwing a pass that was nearly a touchdown to Kamara.
Was the expanded utilization of Hill a means to and end, to give the offense the added juice it need in Ingram’s absence, or will Payton find a way to maintain or increase Hill’s role even as Ingram returns?
That will be an interesting storyline as the second quarter of the season gets started.
But the most important thing is that the first quarter ended a whole lot better than it began.