At the precise moment Redskin tackle George Starke was being called for holding with Washington on the New Orleans two-yard line and two minutes left in the game yesterday, Saint coach Dick Nolan had his back to the field.
"I was talking to the offense," Nolan said taking a long satisfied drag on a cigarette after the Saint's 14-10 victory. "I was figuring they would score and we were going to need at least three to get it into overtime. I didn't even see the play."
While Nolan was thinking about falling behind, the Saint's defensive players had different thoughts. "We thought we could hold them," defensive end Elois Grooms said. "We had done it before, we could do it again. We were confident we would make the big play."
After the call on Starke pushed the ball back to the 12 the Saints defensive line took over. They recorded their sixth and seventh sacks of the day, the last a tackle of Joe Theismann on fourth down from the 14 to preserve the victory.
"We gave all the defensive linemen game balls," Nolan said. "I thought they played super. We've been coming on with our line play the last two weeks. Today it all planned out. I thought Grooms had as good a day as I've seen a defensive end have in years."
The entire New Orleans front line -- ends Grooms and Don Reese and tackles Derland Moore, Barry Bennett and Mike Fultz -- had a superb afternoon, sacking Theismann seven times and keeping pressure on him all day.
"We played some games (used stunts) that worked real well," Fultz said. "Our confidence has been improving each week. We could have had a lot of sacks againt Tampa Bay two weeks ago but (Doug) Williams (the Buccaneer quarterback) threw the ball away. We were good against Detroit. Today, we were super."
Theismann had been sacked only 10 times previously and the Saints in turn had had only 15 sacks defensively. Yesterday, Reese and Grooms spent most of the day looking like Theismann's dancing partners, even when the beleaguered quarterback did manage to release the ball before getting buried.
"Having Don Reese doing such a good job on the other side the last few weeks has really helped me a lot," said Grooms, a fifth-year player from Tennessee Tech. "When I'm not double-teamed I'm pretty sure I can at least get a good rush, whether I actually get a sack or not."
Reese, who missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, replaced Maryland graduate Joe Campbell in the lineup five games ago. The Saint's rush has improved ever since. With Campbell not playing well, defenses were double-teaming Grooms and the Saints were getting no outside pass rush.
"Elois and I figure now we should get three or four sacks between us on a good day," Reese said. "Today (three sacks for Grooms, one for Reese) was just right."
Appropriately, on Washington's final offensive play, Grooms sacked Theismann and sent the Redskin fans to the exits with 59 seconds left to play.
"That was just a straight rush, no games," Grooms said. "I started inside but when I saw Joe sprint out I headed out. I could tell he wasn't going to try and run it in from there because the odds were against him making it from that far. I just went for him."
And he got him, giving the Saints one of the biggest wins in their 13-year history. Nolan, who has rebuilt the team the last two seasons, was particularly pleased by his players' pressure defensive plays.
"They're finally learning how to handle themselves when things get tough," he said. "I thought the defense showed a lot of character when Washington was so close so many times. You really don't expect your defense to hold them that often. I'm awful glad they did, though."
The Saints' defense which gave up more than 27 points a game in its first six contests, now has held its opponents to 31 points in its last three games. Nolan has shuffled his lineup and also had four injured players return.
"A couple of times, when they made calls against us inside the 10, I nearly blew my temper and went off," Grooms said. "I was frustrated.But we hung in there. We didn't panic. We just kept coming hard making the plays. We're finally learning that winning is a lot of fun."
"I wouldn't say I was surprised the defense held them." Nolan said of the last series. "But, he added with a smile, "it's probably fair to say that at that point the defense was more sure of itself than I was. I guess they knew what they were doing."