NFC South: New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. –The New Orleans Saints' offense is not broken.

It didn't suddenly disappear or get old or get "figured out." In fact, as quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out on Wednesday, the Saints' offense is actually improved through four games this year in almost every statistical category.

"The major difference is we were 4-0 last year, 1-3 this year," said Brees -- though he made sure to stress that he doesn't want to "get too caught up in statistics, because statistics don’t always tell the story."

"It’s obvious it’s not good enough,” Brees said.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and the Saints offense, aside from turnovers and big plays, has been statistically better this season than in 2013.
But his greater point, that the Saints' offense should stay the course and believe in the process and not try to “create problems” that don’t exist, should be well-taken.

Because those aren’t empty or misleading statistics that Brees was referencing. The Saints' offense truly has been better in just about every relevant way imaginable this year, based on numbers provided by ESPN Stats and Information.

The biggest difference, obviously, is that New Orleans' defense got off to a great start last year and is off to a lousy start this year. And the offense hasn't been good enough to make up the difference.

The Saints’ points per game are down from 27.0 to 23.8 through four games, but that's largely because the Saints aren’t getting as many possessions. They’ve had 9.75 drives per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.

The Saints’ points per drive, however, are up, from 2.25 to 2.44. And their touchdowns per drive are up from 25 percent to 30.8 percent (which ranks second in the NFL this year).

Also:

  • The Saints’ yards per game are up, from 419.5 last year to 425.8 this year. And their yards per play rank No. 2 in the NFL this year (6.4, compared to 6.1 last year).
  • Their passing yards are down from 338.3 per game to 294.5. But their rushing yards are way up, from 81.25 per game to 131.3.
  • The Saints have the best third-down efficiency in the NFL (57.1 percent) and the best completion percentage in the NFL (71.4 percent). Their red-zone efficiency is way up (from 43.8 percent to 68.8 percent).
  • They’ve thrown fewer interceptions than they did in the first four games last year (3 vs. 4) and Brees has been sacked a lot less (5 times vs. 12 times). However, the Saints have four lost fumbles this year, compared to one at this point last year.
  • One other category in which the Saints have dropped off is “big plays.” Last year they had 19 pass plays of 20 yards or longer through four games. This year, they have only nine.
  • Combine all of those factors and the Saints’ offense is ranked by ESPN Stats and Info as the second-most efficient in the NFL this season, with 46.33 expected points added. Last year through four games, the Saints’ EPA was 27.07.

Saints coach Sean Payton said the Saints' scoring efficiency has been good for the most part (especially before the slow start at Dallas in last Sunday's 38-17 loss). But he said it's the "lack of opportunities" that have stood out "when we get to talking about a complementary game.” Payton, who attributed that to issues such as the Saints’ turnover ratio (minus-6, with seven giveaways and just one takeaway) and the defense not getting off the field enough on third downs.

Payton was hardly pinning the blame solely on the defense, though. When asked if there are things on offense that he’d like to clean up, Payton said, “Absolutely.”

“Look, we’ve turned the ball over too much,” Payton said. “Our third-down numbers have been good. Our rushing totals have been good. Our big-play numbers have been down. So the two specific things would be the turnovers and the big plays.”
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The New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are coming off two of the most unexpected results of the NFL season.

The Saints were dismantled at Dallas, losing 38-17 in a Sunday night stunner. The Bucs, meanwhile, went into Pittsburgh and won their first game of the season 27-24 with second-year quarterback Mike Glennon taking over for injured veteran Josh McCown.

Both teams head into their NFC South showdown in New Orleans at 1-3 on Sunday. For the home team, it's an absolute must-win after such a lousy start. The Saints have put themselves in a position where they might have to go 8-0 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the third time in four years.

The Bucs will be decisive underdogs, but that offers them an opportunity to completely reverse their fortunes after hitting rock-bottom two weeks ago in a 56-14 loss at Atlanta.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: So what was the key to last week's turnaround? And more importantly, any reason to believe the Buccaneers can sustain it on the road at New Orleans?

Yasinskas: The Bucs were a completely different team from Week 3 to Week 4. It had a lot to do with them getting thoroughly embarrassed by Atlanta. They took that personally. They went to Pittsburgh trying to prove they weren't as bad a team as everyone thought. It helped that Gerald McCoy and Austin Seferian-Jenkins returned from injury, but Glennon also gave the offense a spark that had been missing in the first three weeks. Can the Bucs win two in a row on the road? That's a lot to ask. But if they play like they did in Pittsburgh, they could have a shot.

Mike, I saw the Saints as a potential Super Bowl team in the preseason, and here they are at 1-3. What's gone wrong?

Triplett: It requires a little bit of everything going wrong to manage a start like this. The offense has actually been pretty sharp at times, with both Drew Brees and the run game starting strong -- but it has been too stop-and-start, with lulls in every game. The bigger problem has been the defense. They've had a rotating list of problems, from missed tackles in Week 1 to secondary breakdowns in Week 2 to an inability to stop the run last week. And they rank dead last in the NFL in turnovers, with just one takeaway in the first quarter of Week 1.

It's been a head-scratcher because the Saints' defense was so good last season, and it has most of the same core players (plus the addition of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd). But they're simply not coming together. The Saints need to start forcing teams into more uncomfortable situations so pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette can start to produce more consistently. And they must do it this week against a young quarterback with the home crowd on their side.

What's the book on Glennon? Will Tampa Bay be conservative with him or let him take some shots?

Yasinskas: Glennon is not the typical young quarterback. He's matured and poised. I don't see the Bucs being too conservative with him. They opened things up for him in the Pittsburgh game, and I think they'll do the same against the Saints. The Bucs would love to go heavy with the running game, but chances are that's not going to work. They need to throw the ball, and Glennon can make all the throws. They'll let him take some shots downfield.

Speaking of downfield, the Saints have a lot of money tied up in that area. Has the secondary been as good as it's supposed to be?

Triplett: Not even close. No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis has remained pretty solid. Byrd and highly touted second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro have shown flashes of their ability -- but not nearly enough. Both safeties have missed too many tackles in the open field. The Saints made a switch at No. 2 cornerback from Patrick Robinson to Corey White. And communication was a big issue during their Week 2 loss at Cleveland.

It looked like they were on the right track in a 20-9 win against Minnesota at home in Week 3, when Rob Ryan simplified his scheme by eliminating the on-field checks and adjustments. But clearly it remains a work in progress.

I also expected better things from the Bucs this season, mainly because of their defense. Obviously, they didn't hold up well against Atlanta. Any optimism Tampa Bay can handle the Saints and all their weapons in the Superdome?

Yasinskas: Shutting the Saints down in the Superdome might be too much to ask, and this defense hasn't been great at stopping opposing offenses. But the potential is there for this defense to be good. The Bucs had five sacks last week, and McCoy and Michael Johnson showed they can rush the passer. The Bucs need to keep the pressure going to have a chance.

Brees is known for his competitive streak. How has he handled the start and how has he played?

Triplett: If it's possible for his intensity to turn up a few notches, it will. And he'll be looking to take out his frustrations on the Tampa Bay defense. But Brees is also known for his unflinching optimism. He actually spent most of his postgame news conference the other night pointing out how easily their first-half 24-0 deficit could have been 10-7 instead. (And when I went back and watched the tape, he was right -- he looked sharper than I realized, based on the result.)

Brees hasn't gotten the ball downfield consistently enough this season, but he has the best completion percentage of any full-time passer in the NFL. He remains the Saints' best hope for turning this mess around.

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METAIRIE, La. -- The highlight of Drew Brees' press conference Wednesday came when the New Orleans Saints quarterback answered one question about a theory from the "panicked mob," then another reporter followed up by saying, "Can I ask another panicked mob question?"

"Sure," Brees said with a laugh. "Let's go. The sky is falling."

Brees was good-natured while answering those particular questions about whether his arm strength is diminished and whether the Saints' training camp practices at The Greenbrier resort made them too soft. (The short answers: No and no).

Brees said he understands why fans are looking for such big-picture answers after New Orleans' surprising 1-3 start. But he said the team can't -- and doesn't -- think that way.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees said "areas where we can get better," but that the sky is not falling.
"I would say that because of how important all this is to all of us as players, as a community, as a fan base, as much as the media is a part of our game now, that everybody always wants a reason. Something or someone to blame," Brees said. "And I think sometimes you waste your time searching for that stuff as opposed to just knowing that if you continue to do things the right way, good things will happen. …

"We're not trying to create problems here. Just because everybody wants to know, ‘What the heck's going on? What's wrong? Why are you 1-3? The sky is falling. Oh my gosh.' Hey, we're gonna keep doing what we do. Yes there are areas where we can get better, absolutely. But we're also gonna continue on the path that we started this offseason."

Brees was one of many players who exuded that confidence Wednesday that the Saints will be able to work their way out of this early-season funk -- starting with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although players and coach Sean Payton have said that they can't just rely on their past success, it can still serve as inspiration.

They know they have the talent and track record to succeed if they work hard enough and execute properly.

Even newcomer Jairus Byrd pointed Wednesday to the different "vibe" in the Saints' locker room, where there is a noticeable winning culture. He said it wasn't always like that during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton, who began his career with the Atlanta Falcons, agreed.

"I've been in systems where I knew going into the game that a lot of things were flawed and we didn't have a chance of succeeding. But it's been proven that this system works," Lofton said. "We're not doing anything different than we did last year. We've just go to go out and just play."

That doesn't mean nothing has changed, though.

Payton said earlier this week that the Saints are playing like a 1-3 team right now and they can't expect different results without making changes to the process. He backed that up Wednesday with some tweaks to the practice routine -- including a spirited offense vs. defense competition instead of the traditional work against scout teams.

Certainly some game-planning tweaks will follow, as well.

But no one believes a drastic overhaul is needed as much as a dedicated effort from each individual to improve their own level of play.

"I'll be honest with you, my approach is no different. It's no different now than it was nine years ago," Brees said. "When you step into the building, it's time to work. Prepare as hard as you can as well as you can. … The mindset of, ‘Every time we get the ball we're gonna score, and every time we step on the field we expect to score 40 points,' none of that stuff changes. … I have a routine. I know it works, I'm gonna keep doing it. I'm gonna stay aggressive."

As for that question about his arm strength, Brees was a little taken aback.

"Ummm, I really don't even know how to respond to it to be honest with you. I mean, I'm not sure what would lead anybody to believe that," said Brees, who has not completed or attempted as many deep balls as usual this year -- though he did just complete a gorgeous 46-yarder to Kenny Stills at Dallas, and he leads all full-time quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 71.4 percent.

Brees, 35, acknowledged that age will have an effect at some point -- mostly, he said, with recovery time. But he said, "I don't feel like there's anything I can't do now that I could do when I was 25 years old. So I really don't know how to answer the question."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead said he was “fully cleared” to return from the concussion that sidelined him during last Sunday night’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Armstead
Armstead was listed as “limited” during team drills in Wednesday’s practice. But he is confident he’ll play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Any symptoms of anything kind of went away pretty fast, so I had a feeling I was gonna be good to go for this week,” said Armstead, who took a knee to the helmet from Saints running back Travaris Cadet during the first quarter.

On the flip side, four players were held out of Saints team drills Wednesday. Running back Mark Ingram remained out with the broken hand that has sidelined him since Week 2 -- increasing the likelihood he won’t return until after the Week 6 bye, at the earliest.

Center Jonathan Goodwin did not practice because of a neck injury after he battled an ankle injury last week. And cornerback Corey White was held out of team drills with a foot injury. The severity of those injuries is unknown.

Fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) also remained out, as he has been all season. But safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) practiced on a limited basis for the first time this season.

Also limited for the Saints on Wednesday were linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (thigh).
The New Orleans Saints' offensive game tape from last Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Dallas was slightly more encouraging than the defensive review.

I was surprised to realize just how sharp quarterback Drew Brees was out of the gates, officially completing his first seven passes. And he made some of his best downfield throws of the season as the game went on, though he became a little more hit-and-miss once the Saints were forced to throw.

But a little bit of everything else went wrong throughout the game, especially the run-blocking, which was easily the worst it’s been all season. Throw in Brees’ tipped-pass interception, fumbles by Jimmy Graham and Travaris Cadet, dropped passes by Graham and Colston and inconsistent pass protection, as well, and you’ve got the ingredients for a blowout loss.

Here are more observations after watching the tape:

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMost of Khiry Robinson's 87 rushing yards against the Cowboys came on a 62-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
Run down: Khiry Robinson had two great runs of 62 and 11 yards in the second half. And Pierre Thomas had a meaningless 8-yard run as time expired in the first half. Other than that, the Saints’ running backs combined for a total of 17 yards on their other nine carries.

Much like last year’s run struggles, it was usually a case of one block being missed on each stalled run and it was a different culprit almost every time. Replacement left tackle Bryce Harris was flagged for holding once and got blown back on another negative run. Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, center Jonathan Goodwin and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills also either missed a block or got pushed back at the line one time each.

Robinson deserves a ton of credit for both of his big runs. He showed great vision to find a path inside of an Evans block and then outside of a block by receiver Marques Colston to spring free for the 62-yarder. Right tackle Zach Strief, Goodwin and Cooks all had good blocks on that play as well.

Brees mostly good: Surprisingly, I thought this was one of Brees’ best performances of the season -- or at least similar to the other three this year, where he was mostly sharp with a few lulls thrown in. He officially completed 14 of his first 18 passes for 159 yards with one interception (his first two throws were dropped by Graham and Colston, but they were nullified by penalties).

Brees’ 46-yard pass to Stills in the third quarter was his best play of the season. He stepped up to avoid pressure coming from end Anthony Spencer against tight end Benjamin Watson and fired a gorgeous pass 42 yards in the air, hitting Stills in stride between cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Barry Church.

Brees also threw TD passes on short throws to Graham and tight end Josh Hill during a second-half rally, fired some other nice downfield strikes to Stills and Colston and turned some negatives into positives with dump-offs under pressure to Graham and Robinson.

Obviously, though, Brees was far from perfect. The interception wasn’t egregious, with linebacker Bruce Carter making a great play to leap and tip the ball in the air. But it was extremely costly when the Saints were still just trailing 10-0. And Brees threw a couple of other balls into tight spaces that could have been picked as well.

Later in the game, Brees had a couple downfield throws that either slightly overshot or undershot the target. But I strongly disagree with the notion that there’s anything wrong with his arm strength based on this performance.

Dropping the ball: Graham’s fumble came at the end of a catch-and-run, when linebacker Rolando McClain got down low to make the hit and wound up putting his helmet right on the ball. Graham was trying to protect it as he crouched to brace for contact, but it obviously wasn’t secure enough. Cadet’s fumble came as he was about to hit the ground while linebacker Justin Durant got his arm in the perfect spot.

Graham and Colston each had blatant drops early in the game and were bailed out by penalties. Later Colston had another drop. And Graham and Colston each had a ball stripped as they tried to secure it -- both were close to being fumbles as well but were ruled incomplete.

Pass protection: This was hit-and-miss. The Saints were actually great at picking up blitzes, even when they only had five blockers. Brees was 6 of 7, including a touchdown, when blitzed. And the only incompletion was a Colston drop.

The Saints were more inconsistent against Dallas’ four-man rush, though. Harris allowed pressure at least twice, Grubbs at least twice and Evans and Goodwin at least once.

Worth noting: The The Saints’ fake punt in the fourth quarter was a total failure, with punter Thomas Morstead being sacked -- and even worse considering Dallas had only 10 men on the field. … Carter made one of the most unique and impressive tackles I’ve ever seen against Robinson, grabbing hold of his toes and not letting go as he brought him down. … The Saints were penalized for 12 men on the field late in the game on a formation that had Cooks lined up deep in the backfield. I’m sure that only added to their frustration. … Another wide receiver screen pass to Cooks was snuffed out as defenses have clearly been on the lookout for them.
METAIRIE, La. -- That didn't take long.

After the best season of his career in 2013, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is once again facing scrutiny just four games into the 2014 season -- at least outside of the team facility.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesYear 2 of the Rob Ryan defense has been a rough one thus far for the Saints, mimicking what's happened at Ryan's other stops.
The Saints (1-3) are ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (396 per game), tied for 27th in points allowed (27.5 per game) and dead last in turnovers (1).

Inside the Saints' building, players and coach Sean Payton have continued to support Ryan. Cornerback Keenan Lewis offered the strongest possible endorsement Monday when he wasn't even asked about Ryan, saying, "We're gonna get it fixed. We've got the coaches, Coach Ryan's got all the faith, the best coordinator in the NFL. He's doing a great job. We just gotta listen, and we just gotta man up and get the job done."

Payton cut off a question when asked about Ryan not getting the same results as last season, saying, "Yeah, but that's 'we.' It's not any one individual. It's the Saints' defense. Sean Payton is not getting the same results as he did last year, and every player on this team is not getting the same results ... on defense."

However, a growing number of skeptics have pointed to Ryan's spotty track record in previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said this week that if Ryan -- son of Buddy, twin brother to Rex -- had a different last name, "I don't think he'd be a defensive coordinator in this league."

Media members in both Cleveland and Dallas (where the Saints have lost games this year) suggested that Ryan's struggles are reminiscent of relapses his defenses had in those cities.

ESPN Stats & Information produced a chart this week, pointing out that last year's Saints defense was Ryan's first since 2006 to rank better than 20th in the NFL in defensive efficiency (a formula that measures the value of each play, based on the situation and result).

It's worth noting, however, that whether Ryan is the cause or the effect, he hasn't been with many good teams during his career. Last year's Saints team was the first to finish with a winning record in Ryan's 11-year career as a defensive coordinator.

Personally, I disagree with Williamson's assessment. There is more to Ryan than his family ties. Ryan has one of the most infectious personalities of any coach I've ever been around.

I've talked with many of Ryan's current and former players and scouting analysts who admire his work ethic as a creative schemer and "film rat." Players in both New Orleans and previous stops have almost universally praised him as a guy they love to play for. There is no question that Ryan's ability to both motivate and innovate got the most out of the Saints' young talent during their unexpected rise to prominence last year.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who fired Ryan after the 2012 season, said recently, "I think Rob's going to make a great head coach. I haven't seen anybody that is better in front of a team and better motivating than Rob Ryan."

But no one can dispute the fact that Ryan's defense needs to start producing better results on the field.

Injuries haven't been an issue this year, and talent shouldn't be either. Ryan is working with mostly the same players as last season, plus the addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The Saints did let go of several veteran leaders (Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper). But while their leadership clearly seems to be missed, many of them played limited roles last year because of injuries.

Ryan himself hasn’t shirked the blame. He isn’t scheduled to meet the media until Friday this week to discuss the defense's latest setback, a 38-17 loss at Dallas. But Ryan made no excuses after the Saints' first two losses, saying it was "on me."

Ryan also simplified his scheme before Week 3, eliminating the heavy amount of checks and adjustments he likes to use in his defenses (an approach that has also drawn its share of criticism in previous stops).

"When I was hired, I came into something special here. And I'm not going to screw it up," Ryan said last week. "I'm going to work hard and make sure we get it right."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

September, 30, 2014
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What’s wrong with the New Orleans Saints defense? Depends on which game you watch.

This time their run defense was the most glaring issue in a revolving set of problems that have plagued them throughout this season. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Saints got gashed by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ run game in last Sunday night’s 38-17 loss. They got paralyzed by the mere threat of Murray.

The Saints’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly got caught in no man’s land. Their pass rush wasn’t overly aggressive because they kept guys hanging back to guard against the run -- which ultimately didn’t work anyway. At the same time, the Saints’ coverage suffered in the middle of the field because they were burned by play-action passes.

The good news is that the Saints won’t face many running backs with Murray’s combination of power and speed this season. The bad news is that they keep finding different ways to lose games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray rushed 24 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Here are more observations after watching the tape:

Murray overwhelming: Murray definitely gets his share of credit for churning out 149 yards and two touchdowns. Once he got a head of steam, he powered through some guys (even stout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton on one occasion). Other times, Murray’s speed burned guys who took bad angles.

The low point might have been Murray’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, where he came up the middle, powered through Lofton while Lofton was coming off of a partial block, then kept running as linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Rafael Bush also failed to bring him down.

Murray’s speed burned the Saints on both of his touchdowns. On his 28-yarder in the third quarter, Murray started running left but made a sharp cut inside while Humber went wide. Then he sped past Lofton, who was trying to spin away from a block. And he made safety Jairus Byrd miss in the open field toward the end of the run. … Byrd also took too shallow of an angle on Murray’s 15-yard TD run in the first half.

The Cowboys’ run blocking was outstanding, with Murray getting out wide into open space a lot rather than plowing up the middle. Backup running back Joseph Randle also broke off a 14-yard gain late in the third quarter, aided by a missed tackle by safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Missed tackles: This was a repeat violation for the Saints, who were also plagued by missed tackles in Week 1. They had at least six blatant misses (one each by Vaccaro, Byrd, Lofton, Humber, Junior Galette and Corey White). And they had several others that would have been more challenging stops but still would be counted as misses.

Pass-rush problems: I can’t remember seeing many games where Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan were so ineffective. They barely even got any hurries on quarterback Tony Romo. To be fair, Romo didn’t stand in the pocket all day picking the Saints apart deep. But he was rarely harassed, and one of the few times he did get flushed, he ran 21 yards to convert a third down.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith had a lot to do with that. He beat both Galette and Jordan 1-on-1 a few times. One time, Galette even bounced off Smith and fell to the ground while trying a spin move. Nothing seemed to work for the Saints. One time, they flooded the Cowboys’ right side with a zone blitz that included two rushing linebackers, but Murray picked up Humber. Another time they tried stunts on both sides of the line, but everyone got stood up.

The Saints didn’t blitz much early in the game. And they started to have some success when they finally did start sending some heavy pressures (including a third-down sack by Vaccaro during a big moment late in the game when the Saints were rallying). But then again, all three of Romo’s touchdown passes came against blitzes.

A 23-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams in the second quarter and an 18-yarder to Dez Bryant in the fourth were almost identical plays against all-out blitzes. Romo made quick, back-shoulder throws to the receivers, who turned and caught them short of the goal line before powering in (Williams against Brian Dixon and Bryant against Keenan Lewis). Dixon was playing physical coverage, while Lewis gave a small cushion, but neither worked.

No man’s land: There were several examples of the Saints either getting burned by a play-action pass or leaving the middle of the field open with eight men in the box spying Murray. Romo’s first 6-yard TD pass to Williams was an example of the latter. Others included passes of 16, 16, 15 and 11).

Some good stuff: Lewis did a solid job against Bryant. He had one nice pass-break up and had good deep coverage twice when Romo fired that way under pressure. Sometimes the Saints doubled Bryant, but not too often, as he finished with three catches for 44 yards. … The Saints tightened up against the run in a few key moments late in the game. Bush, Byrd and linebacker Parys Haralson each got good penetration on run stuffs. … Not sure if this counts as good or bad, but the Saints recognized at the last moment that receiver Devin Street was uncovered on a third-and-9 play in the second quarter, and Byrd got there just in time to break up the pass. … Byrd struggled in run support but put some big licks on receivers in the open field.

The Film Don’t Lie: Saints

September, 30, 2014
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A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

Nobody needs the backing of the Dome crowd more than the New Orleans Saints' pass-rushers when they return home in Week 5 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints' pass rush went from disappointing to disappearing in Sunday's 38-17 loss at Dallas. Ends Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan were held at bay all night, with New Orleans' only sack coming from safety Kenny Vaccaro.

The glaring problem against the Cowboys was that the Saints were so heavily focused on stopping the NFL's leading rusher, DeMarco Murray. They often had linebackers and Vaccaro hovering back behind the line for containment.

But the strategy backfired when Murray destroyed them for 149 rushing yards anyway. The Saints forced only one third-and-long situation during the first three quarters.

"There's no four-man pass rush if you can't stop the run," Galette lamented. "They're going to run play-actions on you, and you have to respect the play-actions. ... There's not one time [Tony Romo] just sat back there and was just comfortable. The times he did sit back there, he took off [running]. They game planned and had a lot of respect for our defensive line, and we didn't stop the run."

It seems defenses have been game planning in a similar fashion for most of this year, with quarterbacks releasing the ball quickly. As a result, the Saints are tied for 23rd in the NFL with just five sacks. And they're one of only two teams with zero interceptions.

The key to New Orleans' success last year was Jordan, Galette, Akiem Hicks and others getting consistent pressure with a four-man rush. And they need to be the leaders of this season's defensive revival to take some pressure off the secondary and possibly even start forcing some of those elusive takeaways.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."
METAIRIE, La. – There were no updates available Monday on New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead’s status for this week's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he left this past Sunday night’s game early with a concussion.

Coach Sean Payton said Armstead will go through the NFL’s mandatory concussion-evaluation protocol during the week, and “we’ll wait and see where Terron’s at.”

Armstead
Payton did confirm that third-year pro Bryce Harris would remain Armstead’s replacement if needed, after he said Harris was one of the few bright spots during the Saints’ 38-17 loss at the Dallas Cowboys.

“I thought Bryce did a pretty good job of stepping in there. Looking at the tape, he played pretty well,” Payton said of the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder, who made his NFL starting debut at left tackle after starting one game at right tackle in both 2012 and 2013.

It was especially impressive that Harris held up in a situation where the Saints were forced to throw the ball on almost every snap as the game wore on.

If Armstead can’t play, however, the Saints will have to identify an even less-proven backup option for Harris. They have two backup guard/centers on the roster in Tim Lelito and Senio Kelemete, but neither was cross-trained at tackle this summer. Rookie Tavon Rooks could be activated from the practice squad. Or the Saints could look elsewhere for help.
Thomas MorsteadTim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys stopped Thomas Morstead for a 2-yard loss on the Saints' ill-fated fake punt.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To be fair, there is no such thing as a high-percentage play when you are down 31-17 and facing a fourth-and-9 with 7:45 remaining in a game.

But a fake punt clearly wasn't the answer. And New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after the game that "hindsight probably was 20-20" after punter Thomas Morstead was sacked for a 2-yard loss. The Dallas Cowboys scored soon afterward to ice their 38-17 victory.

Payton said he is not sure he would have gone for it in that situation, though. He likely would have opted to punt instead with two timeouts still remaining.

"It’s something we’d had up for a while. Even versus their 'safe' look, it was something we thought would have a chance," Payton said of the play, which began with a fake handoff to running back Travaris Cadet -- but the Cowboys didn’t bite.

"There was some misdirection involved. They played it pretty well," Payton said. "Hindsight probably was 20-20. I had kind of gone back and forth with it. It was on the hash mark we wanted, and they covered it pretty well."

Morstead said the Saints had been practicing the play for a while, but the Cowboys simply didn’t bite.

"No one was open, so I didn't throw it," Morstead told reporters. "I think they had three guys covering the two that were options for me to throw to, and I just didn't feel like it was there. I decided instead of going 0-for-1 with an interception, I'd try to extend the play, and it just didn't work."

It was hardly the only special teams gaffe of the night for the Saints.

Kicker Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal wide right in the second quarter to help set the tone in an "everything that could go wrong ..." game.

It was Graham’s first field-goal miss of the season, but he also missed an extra point last week in a 20-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings. Graham later made a 30-yard field goal Sunday and is 4-of-5 on the season.

UPDATED: Payton reiterated Monday that the blame for the failed play was "on me for being impatient" when asked if he would have liked to see Morstead at least throw the ball up for grabs.

"No. Listen, that's on me. That's not Thomas or that's not Cadet," Payton said. "It's a play designed for misdirection. Credit Dallas, they were in a punt-safe. I kind of felt like they would be, and really that's on me for being impatient. I thought we were at a point in the game once we got to two scores, if I had to do it over again, I'd have punted. Thomas did what he was supposed to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In one sense, the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday night’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t really all that different from their first three this season.

It still wound up being a pretty equal mix of some impressive drives and some paralyzing lulls. But the biggest difference was that this time, the Saints weren’t facing a team like the Cleveland Browns or Minnesota Vikings, who lulled along with them. This time, the Saints were playing an offense that was capable of leaving them in the dust.

You know – the kind of killer-instinct offense that we’re normally used to seeing from the Saints themselves.

Quarterback Drew Brees correctly pointed out that the Saints actually got off to a decent start, with their first two drives crossing midfield before his tipped-pass interception late in the second quarter sent Sunday’s game off the rails.

“It’s a game of momentum, and when you’re on the road, it’s even more so,” explained Brees, who pointed out what a fine line it was between 10-7 and 17-0.

But in a sense, Brees had it backwards.

The storyline of the Saints’ first two losses at Atlanta and at Cleveland, both of which came down to the final seconds, was that they were just one or two plays away from a different outcome.

As we saw Sunday night, the Saints’ offensive high-wire act this season also left them one or two plays from this kind of implosion.

They’ve been way too stop-and-start all season, even though the overall numbers and efficiency have ranked among the NFL’s best.

And sure enough, things got a little exciting and interesting in the second half Sunday night, too, once the Saints had to hurry up and start firing away. They flashed that quick-strike ability that still hasn’t gone away with two touchdowns that brought the score within 14 points. And Brees’ final numbers bordered on fantastic (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns and one interception).

But clearly something is missing.

The most glaring absence so far has been the deep ball – which wasn’t a big problem until Sunday night, when Dallas also shut down the run game and corralled tight end Jimmy Graham in the first half.

I don’t see any concerns about Brees’ arm strength, which some people have asked about. When he did fire deep, he still had some authority and accuracy. But clearly, Brees is either not seeing what he needs to see down the field, or he’s not getting comfortable enough in the pocket to take those shots.

Once the Saints started forcing the ball downfield Sunday, it led to as many bad results as good ones: Brees’ interception into a too-tight window, fumbles by Graham and running back Travaris Cadet and at least two dropped passes each by Graham and receiver Marques Colston while the defense was repeatedly hitting them hard in the open field.

A 62-yard run by running back Khiry Robinson in the fourth quarter wound up making this game look even closer than it really was. Other than that run, the Saints gained 36 yards on 11 carries by running backs.

The Saints actually had the most efficient offense in the NFL through three weeks, according to a formula developed by ESPN Stats & Information. They earned that grade through a number of long drives that chipped away with the run game, underneath passes and third-down conversions.

Those numbers, however, masked just how thin the Saints’ margin for error was.

“So for us offensively, what do we need to do?” Brees said. “Well, we need to be ultra-efficient, score more points and take care of the football.”

It can be done – especially with seven home games remaining on the schedule. But as Brees said best of all Sunday night, “We’ve got to play better.”

Saints don't hide from harsh reality

September, 29, 2014
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said it best: You can't jump in a hole and hide from 1-3.

The Saints’ two last-second losses were frustrating. And they took their problems seriously. But they still had that sense of, "Oh man, if just one or two things had gone differently we could have been 3-0."

Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys? That was downright disturbing.

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AP Photo/Tim SharpTerrance Williams caught two of Tony Romo's three TD passes against the Saints as Dallas amassed 445 total yards in its 38-17 rout.
It was disturbing because the defense imploded so badly that folks who cover the Cowboys were comparing it to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's demise in Dallas two years ago.

It was disturbing because the offense was just as bad, getting shut out in the first half for just the third time since Sean Payton took over as head coach in 2006.

And it was disturbing most of all because this was the Saints’ chance to show who they really were on the national “Sunday Night Football” stage.

Maybe that is exactly what they did.

"We can talk all we want about talent or expectation or any of that stuff. Right now we’re not a good football team. We didn’t do anything right," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You’re glad it’s the fourth game of the year and it’s not just decided (at the end of the season that) you were a bad team. But right now, we’re a bad team."

So how do they deal with that revelation?

"There’s one way to work yourself out of these holes, and it’s cliché to anybody that hasn’t experienced it, but you’ve got to work your butt off," Strief said. "I know guys feel like they’ve worked hard, and I know sometimes it looks like you’re working hard. But we have to find more. Somewhere, in really every department, we’ve got to work harder than we have and maybe harder than we ever have before."

Secondly, it has to start with some very real X’s and O’s corrections.

On defense, the Saints have a laundry list of fixes to make, but right at the top has to be figuring out how to generate more pressure with their four-man pass rush. That was maybe their biggest key to success last season, and it has virtually disappeared this season. That could lead to those badly needed turnovers and alleviate pressure on the secondary.

On offense, the Saints need to figure out how to hit on some deep passing plays. It was OK for three weeks when their offense was still very efficient. But those big plays were sorely missed against a Dallas defense that was also corralling Jimmy Graham and shutting down the run game at the same time in the first half.

On special teams, the Saints need to decide whether kicker Shayne Graham is still their guy, and they could use a little juice in the return game.

"It’s challenging, it’s disappointing, it’s frustrating. But that’s on all of us right now," Payton said. "It’s on me, it’s on our staff, it’s on the team. Obviously it’s not where you want to be, and we’ve got to make sure we look closely at the reasons why we’re not winning."

Last but not least, those fixes have to pay off immediately with a Week 5 win at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (also 1-3) before the Saints head into their Week 6 bye.

They don’t get much more "must-win" than this. The Saints haven’t lost a home game with Payton on the sideline since 2010 (not counting his 2012 suspension). And they certainly can’t stop now.

"We had a bad day today. That’s clear. Everybody sees it, everybody sees the score. You know, we’re disappointed and slightly embarrassed," Lofton said. "But at the same time, this is the first quarter of the season. We’ve still got a lot of season left. We’ve gotta go get this game against Tampa, get away from the bye and get on a roll.

"What we have on this team, the character of these guys, we’ve got to put more into the process. And we’ll get this thing corrected."
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- So which was the anomaly? The New Orleans Saints' stunning defensive turnaround in 2013? Or their stunning regression this season?

Sunday night's debacle in Dallas shouldn't be pinned on the Saints' defense alone. The number of guilty parties after their 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was roughly equal to the number of seats on the team plane. And nobody was shying away from that fact after the game.

But the Saints' offense has a track record that offers hope and optimism going forward. Heck, they even tried to turn this one into a real game with two quick second-half touchdown drives.

It's the defense that remains the biggest question mark after yet another meltdown Sunday night. It let Tony Romo throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns, while DeMarco Murray ran for 149 yards and two scores.

"Definitely, I think now, after these couple games, it is a big deal now," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, one of many who had started to chafe at the constant line of questions about what was wrong with the Saints' defense after the first two losses. "First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK, now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

Those questions were especially hard to ignore this week in Dallas, where so many people who follow the Cowboys were asking both before and after the game if the bloom was off the Rob Ryan rose?

Ryan was hired as the Saints' defensive coordinator last year after being fired by the Cowboys following a disappointing second season as their defensive coordinator in 2012.

It seemed as though Ryan got the last laugh on the Cowboys when New Orleans routed them 49-17 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last season. But now Ryan has admittedly found himself in a spot once again where he needs to "prove it."

The New Orleans defense was supposed to be more loaded than it has been in any time in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era. They finished fourth in yards allowed and points allowed last year, and then added Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd for good measure.

Instead, they're currently ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed, 27th in points allowed and 31st in turnovers forced (one, which came way back in the first quarter of Week 1).

"It's nothing about the scheme," Saints middle linebacker and captain Curtis Lofton said. "What it comes down to is you gotta whup the man across the line from you. And if you don't do that, then you're not gonna be successful. If you gotta man him up, then you man him up. If I gotta tackle the running back, I gotta tackle the running back. It's plain and simple. There's no magic schemes. You gotta whup somebody in front of you."

So what is it, exactly, that's not working for the Saints' defense?

The only correct answer is, "Everything."

They haven't been able to force turnovers. The pass rush has been practically non-existent -- this may be the biggest head-scratcher of all since both Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette emerged as 12-sack guys last season. Blitzing hasn't worked, and not blitzing hasn't worked.

They missed tackles in bunches in both Week 1 at Atlanta and Week 4 at Dallas. They had breakdowns in their coverage assignments during the first two weeks before Ryan simplified his checks and adjustments last week. And that seemed to work in a 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings. But it sure didn't work at Dallas. Nothing did.

"I felt like we were heading in [the right] direction, we took a small step. But we took three steps back today, and that can't happen," said Lofton, who insisted confidence hadn't wavered -- but that reality hasn't disappeared, either.

"You can't run from 1-3," Lofton said. "So when you watch film, we don't point fingers around here, we use thumbs. The first thing I'm gonna do is see how I can get better and help this team win. If each guy does that and is accountable to each other, then we'll get where we need to get to."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

No sugar-coating: There were no real fiery speeches in the Saints' locker room. But there was a whole lot of harsh reality. The Saints (1-3) were cautiously optimistic after their first two losses came down to the final seconds. But they were a lot more matter-of-fact after this blowout saw Dallas jump to a 31-3 lead:

Strief
"We have to be realistic right now with ourselves. Right now we're not a very good football team," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "You're glad it's the fourth game of the year, and it's not just decided -- it's the 15th [game], and you were a bad team. But right now we're a bad team."

Added safety Kenny Vaccaro: "It is a big deal now. First, it's like, 'OK, we're starting slow.' But once you're 1-3 it's like, 'OK. Now we gotta ...' The first 25 percent of the season's over. So I don't know."

"There's not going to be much good to see on this film," coach Sean Payton said. "We're 1-3 right now, and that's about how we're playing."

Why the fake punt? The Saints did just about everything wrong Sunday night, but the most inexplicable decision seemed to be their fake punt in the fourth quarter when they had closed the gap to 14 points. If you're gonna try for a miracle, why not at least have Drew Brees throwing it instead of punter Thomas Morstead on fourth-and-9?

Payton said, hindsight being 20-20, it was the wrong decision. But it was a play the Saints had considered for a while, and they had the ball on the hash mark they wanted. But the Cowboys covered it well.

Effort and energy? Payton has never been shy about calling out his team when he feels like the effort and energy aren't there. But he stopped short of doing that this time.

"I don't know, necessarily," Payton said. "We'll grade that when we put the tape on. I thought they came in with the right mindset. Obviously, though, it didn't match what Dallas' was."

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