To right the ship, Saints need to fix defensive issues -- fast
The team that many had pegged as NFC South favorites are now staring down the barrel at an ominous statistic -- just 12 percent of teams since 1990 have overcome an 0-2 start to make the postseason.
Oddly enough, the last team to do it was the NFC South champions from last season, Carolina. The Panthers reeled off 12 wins in their last 14 games to not only make the playoffs, but claim a first-round bye. Could a similar turnaround be in store for the Saints, or are there more holes on this team than pundits realized before the season?
One thing is for sure – the loss of Mark Ingram to a broken hand does them no favors. In the final year of his rookie contract, Ingram finally appeared to make some strides, averaging 6.0 yards per carry on 24 attempts with three touchdowns through two games.
Until Ingram returns, however, the running duties will fall to veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year back Khiry Robinson.
Thomas has always been serviceable while sharing carries in the backfield, averaging just under 500 rushing yards per season over the last three years. But his yards per carry dipped to 3.7 in 2013, he’s not explosive (he hasn’t had a 20+ yard carry since 2012) and he’s more of a complementary third-down back than a workhorse, as Ingram had been for New Orleans thus far this season.
Robinson, who signed with New Orleans last year as an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M, is regarded as having a higher ceiling in that respect. But he’s thoroughly untested, having totaled just 68 carries for 283 yards (4.16 ypc) across 12 career games.
This wouldn’t be a huge issue if Drew Brees was performing up to his usual astronomical standard. But he struggled in the Saints' last game at Cleveland, especially when he was throwing to receivers not named Jimmy Graham.
Brees averaged 9.1 yards per attempt on 13 throws to Graham against the Browns, but just 4.4 yards per attempt to everyone else. Even Graham wasn’t always his reliable self on Sunday -- the interception that Browns safety Tashaun Gipson returned 62 yards for a touchdown only reached the Browns safety because it went right through Graham’s hands.
Brees might also be missing Darren Sproles, who’s stocked up 263 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns -- including this slippery run against the Colts on Monday night -- on just 26 touches for Philadelphia.
During his three-year stay in New Orleans, Sproles averaged 1,000 total yards per season and led all running backs in receiving yards (1,981). That production might be harder to replace than the Saints front office thought it would be when they traded him away for a fifth-round pick (which became linebacker Ronald Powell) in March.
History says, however, that Brees and head coach Sean Payton will figure out a way to fix the offense’s minor blemishes. After all, despite its imperfections, the unit has scored the second-most points (58) in the league.
The real issue is the defense, which has allowed 63 points, the second-worst mark in the NFL to only Jacksonville (75).
Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has endeared himself to fans in many ways while in New Orleans, and his aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme helped the Saints defense finish fourth in both points allowed and yards allowed in his first season there in 2013. But the celebrations might soon be coming to an end if he can’t figure out a way to stop maddening last-minute comebacks.
The Falcons and Browns combined to march 132 yards in their respective game-winning drives, with the latter relying on the likes of Gary Barnidge, Taylor Gabriel and Andrew Hawkins to shred the Saints in man coverage.
Cleveland hometown hero Brian Hoyer found Barnidge, filling in for injured tight end Jordan Cameron, for a crucial 10-yard gain in tight coverage on 4th-and-6. A few plays later, Hawkins, the Browns’ leading receiver in both games this season, was inexplicably left wide open on a corner route that netted 28 yards and preceded the game-winning 29-yard field goal from Billy Cundiff.
All in all, the Saints only gave up 202 passing yards -- but 76 of them came on the final possession of the game, something that obviously cannot continue to happen. Perhaps what’s most concerning is that despite Ryan’s aggressive tendencies, New Orleans has just two sacks in two games.
If there’s a silver lining for the Saints, it’s that they’ve largely outplayed their opponents. Once they limit mental errors, they could be right back in the hunt -- heck, the Panthers were in this position last year.
But if the Saints aren’t back to .500 by Week 8, when their schedule hits a stretch of four playoff teams in four weeks, then there’s a good chance Sean Payton will be sitting at home during the playoffs for a reason other than Spygate for the first time since 2008.