NEW ORLEANS -- Ricky Williams carried the ball just 10 times, and the New Orleans offense scored one touchdown.
So much for the Saints' vision of playing power football this year.
Luckily for the Saints, George Seifert's new Carolina Panthers team looked nothing like his old one at San Francisco.
The Saints beat the Panthers 19-10 Sunday in a dull season opener that emphasized the problems each team still has this year. Special teams and defense were the difference as Tyrone Drakeford returned a Carolina fumble 20 yards for a New Orleans touchdown on the opening kickoff, and the Saints shut out the Panthers in the second half.
"Defense is the trademark of this team," Saints nosetackle La'Roi Glover said. "It always has been. We need a solid offense, but our defense has to be on for us to win games.
"Do we have a lot of work to do?. You bet. But at least we have something to work on."
New Orleans, 28th in the league last year in total offense and last in rushing, gave up eight draft picks for Williams, counting on the Heisman Trophy winner to run the football the way he did at Texas, where he was the NCAA record-holder for yards rushing. But his NFL debut was unimpressive -- 10 carries for 40 yards and another injury to the left ankle that hampered him in preseason.
"I'm happy with Ricky," Saints coach Mike Ditka said. "He's not 100 percent going into that game. I'm not happy with it. I think the thing that bothered me the most, we didn't block well in the beginning. If we had blocked a little better, he would have come out of some of those holes."
Williams, who had only nine preseason rushes before spraining his left ankle, made his two best plays to close the first quarter, running for 8 and 7 yards for the Saints' initial first down. He got up limping on his left leg, however, and hopped to the sidelines.
Williams returned for two more carries in the second quarter before being taken to the locker room for X-rays. He was found to have a slight sprain in a slightly different location than the one that sidelined him since Aug. 13. He did not return to the game.
"It felt pretty good," Williams said. "It wasn't that painful. I wanted to go back in, but they said no."
Seifert probably would have capitalized on the Saints' weak running game when he was coaching the 49ers. This year, he's trying to shape up the Panthers, however, a team that strongly resembles New Orleans in ineptness.
"I felt that we would be more consistent from an offensive standpoint," Seifert said. "There's an awful lot to be done. It's something we'll work on this week."
Carolina had only 12 first downs and converted just 17 percent of its third downs, New Orleans 13 first downs and converted 29 percent of its third downs. The Saints had 255 total yards, the Panthers 246.
"Emotionally, I just feel like sitting down and crying," Carolina defensive end Sean Gilbert said. "It was so discouraging."
Saints cornerback Fred Weary hammered Michael Bates on the opening kickoff, and Drakeford scooped up the fumble and returned it for a score, making it 7-0 12 seconds into the game.
After Doug Brien's 46-yard field goal put New Orleans up 10-0, Steve Beuerlein passed to Wesley Walls for a 5-yard touchdown, and John Kasay kicked a 52-yard field goal to tie it 10-10 in the second quarter.
Brien made a 21-yard field goal in the third quarter to put the Saints ahead to stay, and Billy Joe Hobert hit Keith Poole for a 67-yard touchdown with 4:14 left in the third quarter, giving New Orleans a 19-10 lead.
The Panthers had a 9-play, 42-yard drive in the fourth quarter, but a 53-yard field-goal attempt by Kasay missed.
Beuerlein completed 16 of 32 passes for 207 yards for Carolina. He was also sacked seven times. Carolina's leading rusher was Tshimanga Biakabutuka with 45 yards on eight carries.
"The sacks obviously jump out at you," Beuerlein said. "But there was a lot more to it than that. There's no way that anybody should point a finger at anybody. The whole offense played poorly."
Hobert, playing his first complete game since Dec. 14, 1997, completed 11 of 22 passes for 132 yards. He was sacked four times.
"The good thing is the team still won even though I didn't play well," Hobert said. "Now when I get better, we should be really good."
Notes: The Saints (8-24) and the Panthers (1-3) went into the game tied for the worst opening-day winning percentage at .250. ... Saints kicker Doug Brien's missed PAT in the third quarter was his first extra point miss since joining the Saints Oct. 31, 1995. ... Ditka (120-82) and Seifert (98-32) rank third and fourth respectively for most wins by active coaches. ... Ditka wasted no time putting the new instant replay rule into effect. On the Saints' third possession Billy Joe Hobert was apparently sacked by Panthers LB Mike Barrow. Officials ruled that Hobert fumbled, William Roaf recovered for a loss of 7 yards on the play. Ditka challenged, and the play was ruled an incomplete pass.