From the Sidelines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 16, 1998

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / September 16, 1998

The New Orleans Saints are finding out what a difference it makes when a team holds onto the ball.

The Saints are using a lack of turnovers to turnaround an 0-2 start last season to 2-0 this year. A team that committed a team-record 55 miscuesin 1997 has coughed it up only once in two games, helping the Saints to their best start since 1993.

What makes those two wins even more important is that they have come against NFC West opponents, St. Louis and Carolina. Not bad for a teamthat had won just once in its division in the last two seasons. That isindeed the Saints sitting atop the NFC West along with Atlanta and San Francisco, a position that they have not been accustomed to in their history.

For that, Saints fans can thank a running game that suddenly came alive in a 19-14 victory Sunday against Carolina, quarterback Danny Wuerffel for keeping his poise amidst tremendous pressure and a defense that bent at times but seldom broke.

Ray Zellars ran for 83 yards and Lamar Smith, sitting out the first half due to a suspension, came out in the third and fourth quarters to rush for 78 yards. Even Wuerffel got into the act, scrambling for 40 yards, himselfeclipsing the 35 yards the entire team got last week against the Rams.

The worst rushing team in the league gained a combine 207 yards on the ground.

The emergence of the running game meant Wuerffel did not face the pressure of winning the game himself in his first start after taking over for the injured Billy Joe Hobert. Wuerffel completed 13 of his 18 passesfor 145 yards, including a slant pass to Sean Dawkins for a 64-yard touchdown on the Saints’ third play.

It was the first points that Wuerffel had led the Saints to after being shut out in two starts last season. This coming from an intense rush by thePanthers, who sacked Wuerffel six times. But unlike last season when thePanthers sacked him seven times, hurried him 12 other times and intercepted two passes, Wuerffel kept his poise and did not force anything, letting the defense win the game for the Saints.

The defense did that, coming up with big play after big play for the second straight week. Fred Lane rushed for 100 yards and Muhsin Muhammadcaught nine passes for 192 yards but the defense held when it had to, limiting the Panthers to 14 points.

The first big play came early in the third quarter with the Panthers threatening to extend their 14-10 halftime lead. One play after KerryCollins had connected with Muhammad with a 59-yard strike to the Saints’ 10-yard line, Chad Cota stepped in front of Lane in the end zone to pick off a halfback pass by William Floyd.

After the Saints went ahead on a run by Zellars, the Panthers drove down to the Saints’ 12-yard line with less than five minutes remaining. Againthe Saints defense stepped up, forcing the Panthers to turn the ball over on downs.

The defense would do it again in the waning moments of the game, pressuring Collins to throw incomplete in the final minute deep in his own territory on fourth down.

Thanks to the running game, Wuerffel and the defense, the Saints now enter their bye week on a high note. After the week off, they travel toIndianapolis to face their former coach, Jim Mora.

A win there will show how far the Saints have turned around in the two seasons since Mora left.

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