(AP) Drew Brees wasn't entirely thrilled with his 357-yard, two-touchdown performance through the air against the rival Atlanta Falcons.
New Orleans settled for field goals three times, and the star quarterback thought the Saints should have mustered a couple more touchdowns instead.
Brees was gratified, though, that his side of the ball didn't have to be quite that prolific on Sunday. New Orleans' revamped defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan applied regular pressure on Matt Ryan and kept Atlanta's talent-laden offense in check long enough to give head coach Sean Payton a 23-17 triumph in his regular season return from his bounty ban.
"I feel great for them," Brees said of his defensive teammates, many of whom were part of a historically bad 2012 unit that gave up a single-season record 7,042 yards last season. "Obviously, they caught a lot of criticism, you know? And you bring in Rob Ryan. You bring in a new scheme. It's been a crazy offseason for them just trying to catch up and master that scheme.
"It's been great to watch them come together and just kind of gain that identity of: We're going to be a tough bunch that's going to get after people and we're going to have fun doing it and we're going to come up with big plays like we did today," Brees added.
The Saints' defense produced three sacks and two turnovers, one on receiver Julio Jones' fumble, which Roman Harper recovered, setting up Marques Colston's 25-yard touchdown catch. The second came on Ryan's fourth-down pass in the end zone which rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped and Harper intercepted in the final minute, setting off wild celebrations by the Saints and the Superdome crowd.
The Falcons, meanwhile, were left to lament a missed opportunity to take the lead after Ryan's 20-yard connection to Harry Douglas gave Atlanta first down on the 7-yard line with more than a minute left. The Falcons managed only four more yards after that.
"Any time you lose it stinks, and certainly today it stinks that we didn't get the outcome that we wanted," Ryan said. "We gave ourselves a chance, and we just fell short. The biggest part of being a professional is being able to move on. There's 15 more to go and lots of ball to be played."
Here are five things we learned as New Orleans got the early jump on the NFC South race at the expense of the defending division champion Falcons:
1. PAYTON'S PLACE: The Superdome has simply become a tough place for Atlanta to play during the Payton era, including last season, when the head coach was banned from the building. Since Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Falcons have fallen in seven of eight games in the Big Easy. The only victory came in overtime in 2010. Last season, Atlanta's chance for a late go-ahead score evaporated when Jabari Greer broke up Ryan's fourth-and-goal pass for Roddy White. This year's victory, Brees noted, "was very reminiscent of last year, with the same result."
2. POROUS PROTECTION: The preseason raised questions about Atlanta's offensive line, and rightly so. The Saints were able to pressure Ryan routinely with a four-man rush, which made it easier cover Ryan receivers. In addition to sacking Ryan three times, the Saints hurried him on many more plays, resulting in everything from an intentional grounding penalty to a throw-away on third-and-goal. Atlanta has only two of five linemen starting in the same spot as last season.
"We have to protect the quarterback a lot better," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
3. IN SYNC: As far as Saints defensive captain and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton can tell, he and his defensive teammates are far more comfortable in Ryan's new 3-4 scheme than they were in Steve Spagnuolo's 4-3 front a year ago.
"I can definitely feel the difference just in the fact that we were confident," Lofton said. "We can go out there and everyone was sure of what they had to do and they did it."
The Saints gave up 367 total net yards to Atlanta on Sunday. Last season, New Orleans' defense gave up an average of 440 yards.
"Everything that was said about this defense in the offseason we rose to the occasion," Lofton said.
4. ACTION JACKSON: Steven Jackson looks like he still has plenty to contribute as he begins his 10th season. In what was also his debut with Atlanta, he accounted for 122 offensive yards. He gained 77 on the ground on 11 carries, including a 50-yard run. He added 45 yards on five receptions. He only wished he could have held on to one last pass his way at the goal line on Atlanta's final drive. It was broken up by linebacker Ramon Humber.
5. PRACTICE?: Colston, the Saints' eighth-year receiver, missed most of the preseason while recovering a left foot injury. That didn't stop him from being one of Brees' most productive receivers in the regular season opener. Colston caught five passes for 68 yards, starting with a 25-yard TD on a diving catch which also gave Colston a franchise record 533 receptions.