Work in Sports
NEW ORLEANS (Ticker) -- The Superdome seems to bring out of the best in Desmond Howard.
Returning to the site of his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXI, the former Heisman Trophy winner scored on a 95-yard punt return late in the third quarter, sparking the Detroit Lions to a season-opening 14-10 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Howard's touchdown was the longest punt return in Lions' history and spoiled the debut of New Orleans rookie coach Jim Haslett, whose defense allowed only a pair of field goals by Jason Hanson. No Saints coach has won his first game.
"When our offense is struggling like that, it's good to give a boost to the whole team," Howard said. "To go up in a ballgame like this and in a hostile envirionment, it doesn't get any better than this. It really doesn't."
"I think 1-0 on the road is a very significant win," Lions coach Bobby Ross added. "We didn't wilt. We played tough, we played physical. We had reasons to die, but we did not. I think this is a very good sign, a very encouraging sign."
Haslett was enraged the officials called an illegal block against defensive block Chris Oldham on Howard's punt return. He said his defense let up, thinking the penalty was against the Lions.
"The officials did not give us any home cooking in today's ballgame," said Haslett, a former defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers said "We have a bad a reputation with the referees in this league."
After Detroit botched a seemingly sure 28-yard field goal on a high snap, the Saints marched to the Lions 23 in the final two minutes. But the drive stalled when linebacker Stephen Boyd batted away Jeff Blake's pass on 4th-and-2 with 44 seconds remaining.
"I saw the ball," said Ricky Williams, the intended receiver.
"The linebacker just knocked the ball away."
Neither offense reached the end zone as the Saints got their only touchdown on Sammy Knight's 37-yard interception return in the first period.
Blake, who was sacked five times, completed 17-of-32 for 165 yards in his first start for the Saints. Williams gained 84 yards on 25 carries but was unable to break off any long runs.
"I don't think it was the timing," Blake said of his New Orleans' debut. "I think it was the turnovers (two fumbles and an interception). It had nothing to do with the timing. It had to do with controlling the ball on offense and keeping the defense off the field."
"It was obvious that we were a better team on offense than they were on defense," Williams said. "We just kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We had a lot of plays negated by penalties and quarterbacks sacks, which we got to fix."
"Even if you don't score, even if you take the ball and run 10 plays, you're still playing field position," Blake added. "We couldn't even play field position."
With both offenses struggling, Howard provided the big play that turned around the game. He fielded the punt at his 5 and cut to outside. With safety Ron Rice providing a key block on punter Toby Gowin near midfield, Howard was able to race untouched down the left sideline to give the Lions a 12-7 lead with 2:06 left in the third period.
James Stewart, who was signed by the Lions to a five-year, $25 million contract, scored on the conversion run. He rushed for 79 yards on 25 carries.
Chad Morton returned the ensuing kickoff to the Saints 45, setting up Doug Brien's 48-yard field 63 seconds into the final quarter.
With the defenses continuing to dominate, the Saints got the ball back at their 45 with 8:28 remaining in the game when defensive back Chris Oldham recovered Sedrick Irvin's fumble.
But New Orleans missed a chance to pull within 14-13 when defensive end Robert Porcher dove into the line to block Brien's 52-yard field goal.
"I'm very proud of our football team to hang in there as they did," Ross said. "We struggled all day offensively. Defensively, we played a fine football game and our special teams gave us two big plays, a punt return and a field goal block. The biggest thing we've go to do is get our offense back into some gear."
The Saints started their final possession at the 20 after the Lions failed to convert their easy field goal attempt and Blake immediately hit Horn for a 20-yard gain out to the 40.
Blake sustained the drive by completing a four-yard pass to Keith Poole for a first down at the 29. But the Lions' defense stiffened, allowing only six yards on the next three plays.
"We expect to win every time we come out and I would like to apologize to the defense," Blake said. "We put them on a back burner all day and they did a hell of a job keeping us in the football game. We still had a chance to win the ballgame at the end."