METAIRIE, La. (AP) -Sean Payton seemed to savor the words as he spoke them.
``Our defense made me look good.''
The New Orleans Saints' head coach hoped he'd be able to say something like that about a unit that got so much criticism last year and most of the attention in the offseason.
The Saints' first two draft picks last spring - defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and cornerback Tracy Porter - started in the Saints' season-opening 24-20 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday.
So did linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for whom the Saints traded a fourth-round draft choice to the New York Jets. And so did Randall Gay, a former LSU standout signed away from the New England Patriots as a free agent.
The longest pass they allowed by the Bucs' Jeff Garcia was 26 yards. This was the same quarterback who had dissected New Orleans' secondary a year ago, when he hooked up with Joey Galloway for a 69-yard touchdown.
or daring, innovative play-calling, suddenly decided to bleed the clock with three conservative running plays, then asked his defense to keep Tampa Bay out of the end zone once more.
``I was like, 'Dang coach! You're not going to try to get the first down?''' Saints defensive end Charles Grant recalled. ``But that was his whole thought process in the offseason. There are going to be a lot of games when (he is) going to put it on (the defense). That's something we had to accept.''
The three running plays seemed oddly conservative for Payton, who while trying to run out the clock in a game against the Buccaneers last December called for a double reverse that produced a game-changing fumble when Reggie Bush and Devery Henderson botched the exchange.
Tampa Bay recovered and rallied to win that game, an outcome Payton later blamed himself.
This year, Payton was happy to call two handoffs up the middle to Pierre Thomas and another to Reggie Bush, then punt, knowing the Bucs would have only about 2:30 to work with and no timeouts.
uch clock up as possible and not get too cute.''
Last season, the Saints' defense ranked 26th in yards allowed per game (348.1), 30th against the pass (245.2) and 13th against the run (102.9). New Orleans also yielded eight touchdown passes longer than 30 yards.
When the 2007 season ended at 7-9, short of the playoffs, Payton said his top priority was to improve his defense.
Last Sunday, the Saints were effective because they limited big plays. They allowed 352 total yards, but the Bucs managed to convert only two of 12 third-downs. The clutch stops forced the Bucs to settle for a pair of field goals. Tampa's offense produced only one touchdown.
Needing a touchdown on its final drive, Tampa Bay was forced go for a first down on fourth-and-6. Garcia was intercepted by Saints linebacker Scott Fujita at the Saints 19.
Fujita was pleased by the Week 1 results, but did not want to declare the Saints' defense a vastly improved unit so soon. New Orleans travels to play the Washington Redskins this Sunday.
``We've got to start to string some things together,'' Fujita said. ``It was just the beginning.''
Still, Fujita said he appreciated that Payton was willing to play it safe on offense in the final minutes and give the defense a chance to prove it can come through in crunch time.
fident enough in the defense to go out there and try to close the game out, especially the way we had been playing all game. ... That's big, and for us to be able to step on the field with the confidence of the coach and seal the deal, that was important for us.''
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