Saints riding coach Dennis Allen's defense to early season success

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Despite scoring just three touchdowns in two games, the New Orleans Saints are 2-0 for the first time since opening the 2013 season with five straight victories.

Dominant defense was the key to a 16-15 victory over Tennessee in Week 1 and a 20-17 triumph over Carolina on Monday night.

Whether that’s a recipe for sustained success remains to be seen, but it’s an encouraging start for coach Dennis Allen and Co.

Any notion of stifling opposing offenses for an entire season the way the Saints have in the past two weeks would be “pretty lofty expectations,” said Allen, who designs and calls his club's defense.

“But that’s the standard,” he added.

Indeed, since the middle of last season, the Saints have held opponents to 20 points or fewer in 10 straight regular-season games and 11 of 12.

Continuity had helped a defense that ranked fifth in the NFL last season also start strong in 2023.

“Same scheme, a lot of the same players,” Allen said. “There's some different coaches on staff. There's some different players that are out there playing. But yet some of the key cornerstone pieces are still there and kind of allow us to do what we do.”

Led by veterans Cameron Jordan at defensive end, Demario Davis at linebacker and Marshon Lattimore at defensive back, the Saints' defense has had seven sacks and forced opposing QBs into four turnovers — intercepting Tennessee's Ryan Tannehill three times and stripping Carolina's Bryce Young of the ball on a sack.

Fewer than 57% of opponent passes have been completed for just 160 yards per game. And New Orleans has allowed just one touchdown so far.

On the flip side, New Orleans' offense has yet to score more than 20 points in either of its first two games. The absence of suspended star running back Alvin Kamara could have something to do with that.

But there also have been flashes of quarterback Derek Carr's potential to connect with receivers Chris Olave, Michael Thomas and Rashid Shaheed.

Allen was particularly pleased by Thomas' play on Monday in just his second game back since missing most of last season with a foot injury. He caught seven passes for 55 yards.

“He was outstanding in the game. Just his competitiveness, the way that he ran his routes, the way that he caught the ball,” Allen said. “I thought he was a major factor in the game.”

WHAT’S WORKING

One thing the Saints do have on offense is the ability to throw deep. Olave and Shaheed each have caught two passes of 40-plus yards.

“You’re one play away from a game-changing type play on any given play," Allen said. "That’s a comforting feeling to have as a coach.”

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offensive line. Inconsistent pass protection appears to making it difficult for Carr to stand confidently in the pocket and step into throws. He's been sacked eight times and intercepted twice in two games. Meanwhile, New Orleans has averaged about 101.5 yards rushing, which ranks in the bottom half of the NFL at 18th.

STOCK UP

Running back Tony Jones Jr., who was called up from the practice squad recently to provide depth while Kamara is suspended and rookie Kendre Miller is sidelined by a hamstring injury. Jones came through in short-yardage situations at Carolina after Jamaal Williams left with a hamstring injury. He scored two touchdowns and also converted a pair of runs on third down into first downs.

“He played pretty well,” Allen said. “He did a good job in terms of protection and I thought he ran the ball pretty well.”

STOCK DOWN

Carr, the Saints' top-priority signing in free agency, was good enough for the Saints to win for a second straight week, but he struggled for long stretches of the game. Two of his longer completions required spectacular catches by Olave and Thomas.

He was sacked four times, once on third-and-2, and threw his second interception this season. He has one touchdown pass through his first two games as a Saint and New Orleans' red zone efficiency is 3 for 8 in those games.

“I don’t think we have played at the level all of us have expected to play at yet,” Carr said of the offense. “We’ll go back and look at it and be hard on ourselves.”

INJURIES

Allen says “it's going to take a little time” to get Jamaal Williams back from his hamstring injury. But he says Miller is expected to return from his pulled hamstring this week.

KEY NUMBER

7 — The number of quarters — plus 13:44 — that the Saints played without allowing a touchdown to start the season before Carolina became the first to score against them with 1:16 remaining in Monday night's game.

NEXT STEPS

The Saints travel to Green Bay on Sunday for their final game before Kamara returns from his three-game suspension.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL