WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It's only the preseason, it's only one game and it was against the Cleveland Browns.
So, there are a lot of caveats to keep in mind, but given the play of the New Orleans Saints defense in recent seasons, the starting unit's solid effort in the 20-14 defeat in the preseason opener Thursday at Cleveland is worth noting.
The Saints held the Browns without a first down in the first quarter and came up with a goal-line stand to thwart Cleveland's first scoring threat in the second quarter.
New Orleans has ranked 28th or worse in scoring defense each of the last three seasons, including last season when it was 31st (28.4 points per game). Last season, Cleveland's offense ranked 30th with an average of 16.5 points per game.
On Thursday, the Saints' starting defense wasn't at full strength as defensive end Cameron Jordan and cornerback Delvin Breaux were held out, as was No. 1 draft choice Marcus Lattimore, who appears to be among the top three cornerbacks.
P.J. Williams, the other staring cornerback, had a standout effort against the Browns. Ken Crawley and De'Vante Harris also made good plays, though Crawley twice was penalized for pass interference and Harris was called for illegal contact.
"I liked the way we contested the ball in the secondary early on," head coach Sean Payton said Friday after reviewing the game tape and putting the team through a light practice. "The first group did a good job. We have to clean up a couple of the penalties, but on the back end we did some things that were encouraging.
"When you look at P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley, or De'Vante Harris, there are a number of these young guys that have game experience. I think they're starting to play with some confidence. You see growth in practices. There are certain days when you come off the field, and that was a good day for those guys. You don't just have confidence; it's demonstrated ability at some point. When they demonstrate it, they get a little bit more."
The Saints have been using numerous combinations at linebacker in practice, but stuck with their primary groups in the game, starting Manti Te'o (middle), A.J. Klein (strong side) and Craig Robertson (weak side). In the nickel scheme, Te'o left the field and Klein manned the middle.
The defensive reserves didn't fare as well as the starters did, giving up several big plays as New Orleans lost its 10th consecutive preseason game. The backups yielded four pass plays of 20-plus yards, including a decisive 45-yard touchdown from DeShone Kizer to Jordan Payton with 1:52 remaining in the game.
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