Why Payton's Saints are struggling, plus 10 things to watch for Sunday

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We've all watched the Saints in the first five weeks, and something's wrong with the explosive offense that propelled them to an unlikely title last year. New Orleans seems so discombobulated that it's almost not odd to see them in third place in the NFC South this week (Atlanta 4-1, Tampa Bay 3-1, New Orleans 3-2). A game we thought would be a gimme a month ago now looms as a very important test with playoff consequences. The Saints play the Bucs at the Pirate Ship on Sunday.

Where to begin with the Saints' problems? They're scoring 12 fewer points per game than last year. The middle of the offensive line, peerless in 2009 with the best guard tandem in the league (Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans), is caving in more than it should. Drew Brees, playing with a brace to protect a strained left knee, isn't throwing effectively downfield. The running game, minus Reggie Bush since Week 2 and now with Pierre Thomas missing with a sprained ankle, is killing them.

The Saints were sixth in the league in rushing last year, creating lots of favorable second-down situations (second-and-four, second-and-three) that allowed play-calling Payton the luxury of doing whatever he wanted on a quasi-free down several times a game. But when you're last in the league on the ground, and averaging an awful 3.26 yards per rush, all of a sudden the pressure to do everything on offense falls squarely on Brees. And you can see the pressure is taking a toll.

Last year, in the all-important yards-per-attempt category, Brees' 8.54 yards-per-pass-play dwarfed Peyton Manning's and Tom Brady's. This year, his 7.09 yards per attempt is 15th in the league. Fourteenth: Josh Freeman, the second-year quarterback he'll duel Sunday.

So after the 30-20 loss to Arizona and first-time starter Max Hall last Sunday, Payton did some psyche rehab Wednesday as his team gathered to start preparations for Tampa Bay. "You guys might look at me cross-eyed,'' Payton said, addressing his team. "But here are the things we're actually doing better than last year.''

Defending the run is significantly better -- 0.4 yards better. The Saints are surrendering 51 yards per game fewer than a year ago. In some big-play categories, they're improved.

But in terms of opportunity, they're not better. The Saints had 38 takeaways last year. This year they have eight. They gave the ball twice to Arizona deep in the red zone last week. Some fluky things killed them -- like Hall fumbling at the Saints 2-yard-line and it bouncing fortuitously into the hands of an offensive lineman for a Cardinals touchdown -- and stats show that there's no rhyme or reason to fumble recoveries. But it's just one way now that 2010 is different than 2009.

Parcells used to say in New York the atmosphere around the team "is euphoria or disaster,'' depending on the scoreboard. Payton sounded like Parcells on that too.

"When you win the Super Bowl,'' Payton said, "the next year it's either crisis or a carnival. We're taking on a little water right now. But I like this team -- not a little, a lot. I have to do a better job as a playcaller. We've got to do a better job protecting Drew, and we've got to give him a consistent pocket. The two greatest allies for a quarterback are a good defense and a running game, and we've obviously got to run it better with who we have.

"Hey, things can change quickly in this league. Look at the Giants. Weren't they running Tom Coughlin out of town a couple of weeks ago? One of the biggest challenges that has come into the game in the last five years or so is all the outside influences on trying to do this job well -- the media, the influence of the agents and the families. But like I say, I really like this team. We'll be fine.''

Payton said all the right things, and he said it's early. But he has to wonder deep down whether defenses have found a way, without the threat of Bush in space and in motion, and without the interior presence of a strong back like Thomas, to win more than they lose now against the artful Brees. All you have to do to wonder the same thing is to watch the Saints for a few series. They haven't been the same as last year all season -- even when Thomas and Bush were together in the lineup in the first two games.

The Saints can't afford to fall behind Atlanta much further, particularly with the tough late schedule. They've got four of five on the road starting Thanksgiving (at Dallas, then at Cincinnati, vs. St. Louis, at Baltimore, at Atlanta), and that's the kind of stretch that can be merciless to a team struggling on offense.

Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator, Dallas.

I remember in training camp seeing the Cowboys and hearing how they were so high on Felix Jones, and how they could see a sharing of the duties with Marion Barber that would get them to be a more dominant part of the Dallas offense. Through four games, Jones has 45 touches. The Cowboys are putting way too much on Tony Romo to be Mr. Everything. Garrett has to integrate the run into the Dallas offense more in a playoff-type game Sunday at Minnesota. Both teams are 1-3. Even in a mediocre NFC, it's a longshot to think a 1-4 team can make the playoffs, never mind the Super Bowl. Garrett's got to make the run-pass closer to 40-60 than the current 34-66.

Ryan Torain's projected rushing line against the Indianapolis Colts, whose 4.84 yards-per-opponents-rush is 31st in the league:


Andrew Quarless, TE, Green Bay (No. 81)

With injuries to Jermichael Finley and Donald Lee, Quarless, a fifth-round rookie from Penn State, could play the vast majority of the game against Miami, and with the concern about presumptive starter Aaron Rodgers coming off a concussion last week, look for coach Mike McCarthy to call plays to get the ball out early. Quarless had four catches in relief against Washington last week. Look for his opportunities to increase Sunday against the Dolphins.

1. An elimination game in Minneapolis. No team that started 1-4 ever advanced to play in the Super Bowl. Crisis managers in Dallas and Minnesota, start your engines.

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2. Darrelle Revis. I can't believe the Jets are thinking of playing Revis, who clearly is not over his hamstring injury, at Denver on Sunday. But he'll travel with the team and Rex Ryan will determine if he plays. I am not a doctor -- though I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night -- but I find it hard to believe, with a bye coming next week, the Jets would risk exacerbating the hammy at Mile High.

3. Ben returneth. It comes in the mismatch of the year -- Cleveland's Colt McCoy making his first career start, after a very, very shaky preseason -- but it'll be interesting to see how the local crowd reacts to Ben Roethlisberger's return. Get the emotion out of the way, and the Steelers can go about fixing the league's 32nd-ranked passing game (136 yards per game), which Roethlisberger should do in short order here.

4. The Favre Case. NFL commish Roger Goodell said this morning on The Today Show that he hasn't spoken with Brett Favre about his alleged indiscretions with a Jets' sideline host in 2008. I have a feeling that won't be the last piece of news we hear on Favre this weekend.

5. The Favre elbow. He'll play, barring a stunning setback, even with the tendinitis in his throwing elbow.

6. Michael Vick. He'd love to play against the Falcons, but it appears he'll miss his second straight game because of his chest injury. I do believe, however, he'll spend some time this afternoon and Saturday telling Andy Reid how wonderful he feels.

7. Rivers to Gates. Nine games in a row Philip Rivers has hit Antonio Gates for a touchdown, the longest touchdown streak for a tight end in NFL history. At St. Louis on Sunday, I think we'd all be shocked if the streak didn't continue.

8. The enigmatic Texans. In the past three weeks, Houston got blown out by Dallas at home, won a game the Texans easily could have lost at Oakland, and got blown out by the Giants at home. Now the Chiefs come to town, having not allowed any of four foes 20 points yet this year (including San Diego and Indy.) Time for the Texans to show who they really are.

9. The Patriots minus Moss. They've had a long bye week to figure out Life After Randy. Other than the fact it's a lot more peaceful, no one knows quite what they'll see Sunday against the mighty Ravens in Foxboro. Will it be Aaron Hernandez flexed out and running downfield more? Brandon Tate running deep routes? Deion Branch to the rescue? Tune in Sunday.

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10. The Bucs try to slay the Big, Bad (and Flawed) Saints. In the last eight quarters, the Saints watched teams quarterbacked by Jimmy Clausen and Max Hall outscore them a combined 44-36. Now comes 22-year-old Josh Freeman, who is Johnny Unitas in experience compared to those two guys. And Freeman won't be scared of anything Gregg Williams throws at him. Amazing to think Tampa Bay could be a game-and-a-half up on the Saints, with a tiebreaker edge too, by 4 p.m. Sunday.