NEW ORLEANS — Jim Haslett wasn’t ready to return to the place where his first head coaching job began with accolades and literally ended in disaster after Hurricane Katrina.
It took about three quarters of, in Haslett’s words, “freakin’ awesome” football to make the St. Louis defensive coordinator feel a little better about being back in New Orleans.
His aggressive defense stuffed Drew Brees and the Saints’ high-flying offense long enough to get the Rams their first win Sunday, 37-29.
“It really felt strange, being in the dome, period, after everything the dome went through and after everything the city went through,” Haslett said.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d ever come back here. I’ve kind of avoided the city, not the people, but the city,” Haslett continued, noting that his wife, Beth, couldn’t bring herself to come to the Louisiana Superdome for the game. “I was hoping we wouldn’t play the Saints, so I wouldn’t have to come back.”
It was a surprising performance from the Rams (1-8), who dominated the Saints (4-5), a team that had climbed back into the playoff picture with a four-game winning streak after an 0-4 start.
Marc Bulger finished with 302 yards and two short touchdown passes to Isaac Bruce and Drew Bennett. Running back Steven Jackson, recovering from a back injury, rushed for a short touchdown and even threw a 2-yard halfback pass to Randy McMichael for a score.
Torry Holt, meanwhile, had eight catches for 124 yards, torturing the New Orleans secondary with several clutch catches on third-and-long plays.
Of course, Bulger, Holt, Bruce and Jackson all have had big games before. It was probably a matter of time before they started clicking again.
The difference was the Rams’ blitz-happy, play-making defense, which intercepted Brees twice, thwarted a scoring threat with a third-down sack, forced an intentional grounding penalty and piled on Brees for another drive-ending loss after the quarterback bobbled a high snap.
“To me, the guy that makes the whole thing go is the quarterback,” Haslett explained. “We figured we’re not going to let the quarterback sit back there and pick us apart. We were going to take some chances, come after him and try to disrupt him.”
Haslett guessed that he called blitzes on about 16 of the first 18 plays the Saints ran.
“Defensively, I think they had a plan for us. They executed that plan very well,” Brees said. “They did a great job of getting pressure and their offense really helped the defense out by staying on the field.”
Brees finished with 272 yards and two touchdowns, but most of it came while New Orleans ran a hurry-up offense in a belated comeback attempt that finally ended when the Saints failed to recover an onside kick with a half-minute remaining.
As a rookie head coach in 2000, Haslett led the Saints to the playoffs and was named coach of the year. He never got back there, though, as the Saints hovered around .500 for the next four seasons. They went 3-13 in 2005, when Katrina forced the team to relocate to a makeshift headquarters in San Antonio and play all home games outside New Orleans.
Sean Payton took over the next season, and like Haslett, took New Orleans to the playoffs and won coach of the year as a rookie coach.
Payton was worried about this game, however. Coaches placed rat traps around the Saints’ training headquarters during the past week, a ploy to prevent their players from overlooking what they saw as a “trap game” against a winless but hungry and talented team.
It seemed to work early on, as the Saints scored on their opening possession, capped by Bush’s 7-yard touchdown run. But the Rams would score the next 34 points from midway through the first quarter to early in the fourth.
Boos rained down from the Superdome crowd, this time validating the play of Haslett’s unit.
“I’ve seen that before,” said Haslett, who used to complain publicly about New Orleans fans booing at the first sign of things going wrong.
“I read in the paper last week they booed the kicker before he kicked a field goal. I remember when they booed our quarterback (Aaron Brooks) before the game started,” Haslett continued. “That’s how they are ... but they are good fans. They know their football, they live and die with it, so you’ve got to appreciate that.”