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At the team meeting to open training camp in late July, New Orleans coach Sean Payton stood in front of his Super Bowl winners and began a PowerPoint presentation. He listed 10 reasons why repeating as NFL champion is so difficult. Among them: 1) Statistically the deck is stacked against you; only three of the previous 20 champs have repeated. 2) The town you're in—New Orleans—will make it tough. "You'll never pay for another drink the rest of your life," Payton said. 3) The 'disease of me.' "Your mom, your dad, your wife, your uncle, your aunt—they'll all fill your head with the idea [that the team] couldn't have done it without you," Payton said.
By the end of the Saints' bruising, ugly 14--9 opening-night win over Minnesota in a relatively subdued Superdome last Thursday, New Orleans had its lowest-scoring win in Payton's five seasons, and the coach was in no mood to talk about style points. "I apologize for nothing," Payton said as he walked off the field that night. "That's a really good team we played, and we're going to have to win a lot of different ways this year. It's a new year."
It's doubtful that in New Orleans's 16 victories last season, including the playoffs, anyone other than Drew Brees would have been considered the most important factor. But what bodes well for the Saints as they embark on their title defense is that Brees assumed a supporting role against an explosive, if wounded, Vikings team. It was the mostly anonymous interior men of the Saints' D who won the opener. The tackle rotation—Remi Ayodele, Sedrick Ellis and Anthony Hargrove—and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma combined to sack Brett Favre once, knock him down twice more, intercept a pass, amass 12 tackles and block an extra point. That core led a defense that held the Vikings scoreless in the second half while allowing Minnesota just 19 fruitless plays.
We know that Brees and his underrated back, Pierre Thomas, will find ways to dent defenses throughout the season. You can't hold the Saints' QB down for long; he's the most prolific passer of the last four years, even more productive than Peyton Manning. But the Saints are proving something to themselves with this defense. In its last two games New Orleans has held Manning and Favre to 26 points in eight quarters. Nice to know you can win on a pedestrian night for the offense. "We play defense here," the well-traveled Hargrove said. "Pretty soon people might start noticing."
People should begin to notice those interior no-names. Nosetackles aren't supposed to compile statistics. They're supposed to tie up blockers and push the pocket and clog lanes. The quirky Ayodele may soon be known for more than the tattoos of seven starlets (from Dorothy Dandridge to the late R&B star Aaliyah) he has tattooed on his left arm. "He's the most improved guy on our defense," Vilma, a seventh-year veteran who joined the Saints in 2008, said after the game. "I say it to him all the time: 'I appreciate you.' Watch how he moves people out and makes our job easier." Ayodele's defensive stats from Week 1: zero tackles, zero assists, one blocked extra point. "If my teammates notice how I'm playing, that's all that matters to me," he said.
That brings us back to Payton's third point in July—that big egos can sink a Super Bowl champ. "I've never been on a team that's been so unselfish," said Ellis, the Saints' first-round pick in '08. "You've got to have team guys to win, I'm convinced. We play a different game. Kobe [Bryant] can drop 60 and win a game by himself, but in this game all we heard all week is every time we tackle Adrian Peterson, we've got to get three or four helmets on him. That's not the kind of thing that's going to get anyone individual credit, but it's going to show up in the end."
With the schedule disruptions that accompany two Thursday and two Monday games, the Saints' road back to the Super Bowl is going to be hard enough. So it's a major plus that they don't seem to have to worry about locker room sniping. New Orleans's three biggest offensive stars after Brees—Jeremy Shockey, Reggie Bush and Marques Colston—touched the ball a combined 15 times in 62 snaps against the Vikings. Their reaction? Shrugs. "That's probably the ugliest offensive game I've ever been involved in," Bush said. "But we all like knowing we can win an ugly game. The good thing about this locker room is everyone understands that every role on the team is equally important. If I run the fake reverse and keep the defense honest and we make a play, that's an important job. Sean's done a good job hammering that home."
The season is long. Nerves get frayed. Feelings get hurt. Great players want the ball. Something bad always happens to throw a team off track. But if the Saints can keep their egos in check, and if the defense can rattle opponents the way it did Favre and the Vikings, look out.