Saints defense continues getting slapped, but it’ll find the upper hand

At times, the Saints defense reminds me of that old Spike and Chester cartoon. Spike is the big, intimidating bulldog in the red sweater. Chester is small and annoying, but Spike is everything he wants to be. He admires Spike.

“Hey Spike, you wanna play ball? Huh, you wanna play ball?,” Chester says in the cartoon clip as he bounces around Spike’s feet. “Huh Spike, you wanna? Huh, huh, huh Spike? You wanna? Huh?”

Spike gives Chester a big slap, but he comes back for more.

“Nah, you wouldn’t like that would you Spike?,” Chester says. “Hey Spike, how about we chase cars, huh, does that sound like fun?”

Spike slaps Chester again.

The great thing about Chester is that no matter what, he always comes back for more. He never quits. He’s constantly annoying Spike, much like the Saints’ defense annoys Who Dat Nation.

Saints’ opponents treat the Saints defense like Spike treats Chester. Poor Chester is determined though.

Rob Ryan’s unit is giving up 370 yards per game, that’s good for 20th in the league. Not terrible, considering what this defense has been through. Safety, a position of strength going into the season, is now a potential major liability.

* Safety Jairus Byrd played in three games before being lost for the season with a knee injury.

* Safety Rafael Bush went down last week with a broken leg for the rest of the season.

* Rookie safety Vinnie Sunseri is on injured reserve with a broken arm.

* Top cornerback Keenan Lewis played on one leg against the Bengals after sustaining a knee injury the week before.

* There isn’t a legitimate NFL starter in the rest of the cornerback bunch. The Champ Bailey experiment was a bust. He is now retired.

* The loss of veterans like Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith all at once has left a bigger leadership void than the team likely anticipated.

The Saints paid big free agent money for Byrd and let former first round pick Malcolm Jenkins walk. There weren’t many people debating the move then, but seeing Jenkins rejuvenated in Philadelphia makes one wonder.

What if the Saints had re-signed Jenkins for far less than it took to sign Byrd and went after a legitimate corner on the other side of Lewis? The Saints knew they had major question marks at cornerback and didn’t seriously address the issue.

As many anticipated, teams are torching the likes of Corey White, Brian Dixon, Patrick Robinson and Stanley Jean-Baptiste on a regular basis. Opposing defensive coordinators must salivate when game-planning the Saints.

Teams are converting 46 percent of their third downs against the Saints. 46 percent! Only the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons are worse.

The defense has pressured the quarterback better lately, but still has only 22 sacks on the season. Buffalo’s defense, the league leader, has 39. On top of that, the Saints’ six interceptions and four fumble recoveries are far below the league average.

The Saints have lost four games which they led in the final two minutes. Four blown leads. That’s an extreme lack of ability to close out games and it’s disturbing.

But here’s the thing — the Saints, at 4-6, are tied for first place in the dreadful NFC South. First place. Despite all the problems, all the drama, they still control their own destiny. There are six games left to write a success story about the 2014 season.

Last season, when the Saints’ defense finished 4th in the NFL, it gave up about 70 yards less per game than this season. You know what that equates to? A few big third-and-long stops. A long run here and there that is stuffed instead. This defense, despite its problems, isn’t that far away from making a positive difference in games.

The defense, like Chester, just needs to keep coming back and ignore the guy who loves slapping it. Chester eventually gets Spike to come around by telling him he knows where to find a cat. All of a sudden, Chester had the upper hand.

Saints fans should embrace Aaron Brooks

Forget how it ended. We all remember the backwards pass, the sideline smiles at inappropriate times and the inconsistency. But today is a day for Saints fans to cheer loudly for Aaron Brooks when his induction into the Saints Hall of Fame is recognized on the field.

A lot of people griped about Brooks’ selection, but I don’t have a problem with it. He is a significant part of the team’s history and was loved by Who Dat Nation, even if the love was fleeting.

Aaron Brooks threw for 123 touchdowns and 20,261 yards in his Saints career. In 2000, he led the Saints to their first-ever playoff win over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

He got the Saints a playoff win. Did everyone forget how long they waited for that to happen? 

Since then, the Saints have won six playoff games, including a Super Bowl.

Aaron Brooks was at the beginning of it all. He deserves everything he gets today.

 

Carpe Diem… and get off Drew Brees’ back

Any column that begins with, “I was listening to a post game show last Sunday…” isn’t going to go well, but that’s where I’m headed.

First, I love Saints fans. The passion of the Who Dat Nation is tough to beat.

Two people in two weeks — a Packers fan and a 49ers fan — have written the Times-Picayune to express their gratitude for a wonderful game day experience inside the Superdome.

That’s part of what makes New Orleans great.

We welcome visitors. We make friends with fans of other teams and are buying them beers by halftime. Win or lose, we’re hugging them by the end of the game. No doubt, Saints fans are a unique bunch.

However, within that persona of great fandom there are the people you seriously wonder about. They sit in front of you or behind you during a game. They know more than the coaches on the field. They second guess everything. They are the true Monday Morning Quarterback in real time during the game.

And that brings me to my point — get off Drew Brees’ back.

A caller to that postgame show last Sunday had seen enough. He said it was time to bench Drew Brees. He’s declining, the caller said.

The host asked who he’d like to see at quarterback. The caller said, “the backup quarterback.” He didn’t know Luke McCown’s name, but thought he should have his chance to get in the game and show what he could do. He was serious.

First problem — you don’t know the backup’s name!

I’m sure Sean Payton is anxious to bench a future Hall of Fame quarterback and hand the keys to his offense to Luke McCown, a guy who has thrown for 2,035 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 seasons. Nothing against McCown. By all accounts he’s a very capable backup quarterback and a good teammate.

But he’s not Drew Brees. He’s not an NFL starting quarterback.

If the Saints released Brees tomorrow, three quarters of the league would fight to sign him. Even 49ers fans, on that same postgame show, said they’d swap Colin Kaepernick for Brees.

I do not believe Brees is in any sort of major decline or in some free fall before our eyes. I do believe there are a lot of new parts on this year’s Saints team that are slowly coming together.

Has Brees pressed at times and made poor decisions? Absolutely. Has he contributed to a few losses this season? Absolutely.

He has the weight of the team on his shoulders. But where would the Saints be without Brees? They wouldn’t be 4-5. He is the glue that holds the franchise together. He IS the franchise.

Brees has thrown for 2,816 yards, good for fourth in the NFL. Only Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck are ahead of him. The Saints’ offense is third in the league overall and sixth in scoring offense at 27.9 points per game.

Brees is on pace for his fourth consecutive 5,000 yard season and is at the third-highest completion percentage of his career (68.4 percent).

The quarterback gets too much credit when things are going great and too much of the blame when things are going poorly. Turnovers come in bunches. Sometimes they come at awful times. Brees admits he has to play better, but he’s not the only one.

I’m 39 and Brees is obviously the best quarterback the Saints have employed in my lifetime. There will be rough times ahead in the post-Brees era.

Remember now. Enjoy now. Treasure now. Win or lose, a Hall-of-Famer is quarterbacking the franchise with which the Who Dat Nation lives and dies.

There is no one better to lead the Saints’ offense. There is no one better to lead the Saints. Drew Brees gives the Saints their best chance to win.

Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t thinking clearly.

Oh yeah, and the Saints will beat the Bengals because Drew Brees will bounce back. That’s what leaders and future Hall of Famers do.

Saints win, 30-24.

Saints’ defense steps up in Carolina, now back to ‘Dome, Sweet Dome’

SaintsHelmetThe monkey is off their collective backs. The Saints won a regular season game on the road, halting a seven-game skid.

Everyone can r-e-l-a-x. Relax.

The Carolina Panthers, the leaders in the NFC South heading into Thursday’s primetime matchup, were hardly a speed bump en route to the Saints improving to an even 4-4 on the season.

The offensive was impressive after a slow start, but it was the defense that stepped up again and again, making critical plays that were sorely missing in the Saints’ 1-3 start. Carolina was only able to muster 231 total yards and 10 points. Saints cornerback Corey White recorded his second interception in two weeks. Linebacker Junior Galette sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and forced a fumble that led to the Saints first touchdown. Newton, who posted a 39.4 quarterback rating, completed 10 of 28 passes and was sacked four times. He was a disaster.

Offensively, the Saints bounced back from a couple of first quarter turnovers. That’s tough to do anywhere, much less when you’re playing your second game in four days on the road against a division rival. Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham (7 catches, 83 yards) rediscovered their rhythm and Mark Ingram busted through the Carolina defensive for 100 yards on 30 carries. That’s 272 yards on 54 carries since Sunday night.

“Mark’s been real consistent; the O line has done a heck of a job,” quarterback Drew Brees said in his postgame news conference. “We’ve done it in spite of not having any true backs here the last couple of weeks. Pierre and obviously those guys are a big part of what we do, but Mark has carried the load and has come in and done a great job when his number has been called.”

At 4-4, the strategy for the second half of the season is simple.

“We’ve got to keep getting better,” head coach Sean Payton said after the game. “We’ve got to keep improving and we’ll do it.”

They’ll be able to do it mostly in the friendly confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with five of the Saints’ final eight games at home.

And there’s this team evolution to build on — the Saints are now 1-0 on the road since leaving New Orleans on Wednesday. That’s something. And they’re 2-0 since Sean Payton ditched his sideline glasses. Is that the makings of a Super Bowl contender or what?

Next up — a home game against the San Francisco 49ers two Sundays from now. I think the Who Dat Nation will be ready.

Saints will roll over Panthers

IMG_1088.JPGI’ll get this out the way early in the column — the Saints will wallop the Panthers.

Yes, Thursday’s game is on the road where the Saints are 0-4 this season. But Sunday night’s dominating victory over the Packers shows the Saints might have found something that had been missing through the first six games.

Quarterback Drew Brees rediscovered the deep ball with the help of speedy rookie wideout Brandin Cooks. He now has 40 catches for 372 yards and two touchdowns. That’s obviously a very positive development.

Running back Mark Ingram, known at times on Twitter by the hashtag #AngryIngram, is running with ferocious authority. He is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and rolling over defenders like a bowling ball wrecking pins.

And don’t forget about the return of fullback Erik Lorig. The Saints signed the stout run blocker for a reason in the offseason.

He made a difference Sunday, blowing people off the line of scrimmage and helping spring Ingram on numerous runs. His return helps the offense in ways that don’t always show up on the stat sheet.

Defensively, the Saints have played their best two games in the past two games. Minus a late collapse against Detroit that cost the team a win, Rob Ryan’s bunch is playing with swagger again and, yes, creating turnovers.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has historically given the Saints problems and that will likely be the case again, but the Saints D will have opportunities to make plays against him.

Ingram should be able to take advantage of the Panthers porous run defense, which gives up 135 yards per game. Brees, who probably knows the tendencies of former Saints safety Roman Harper better than anyone in the league, will likely test him with the deep ball early and often. The Panthers offense and defense are 24th and 21st in the league respectively.

The Saints defense, like it did against the Packers, must limit big plays and tighten up in the red zone.

With five of the Saints final eight games at home in the Dome, hitting the 4-4 mark on Thursday is critical. This game is for first place in the underwhelming NFC South and I think the Saints will get it done.

Book it — Saints 34, Panthers 24.

Packers will slip by Saints (Reverse Psychology!)

IMG_1088.JPGI’m tired of picking the Saints to win. I’ve done it for six weeks and have only been rewarded for my less-than-skillful analysis twice. That’s clearly not a good percentage. Like the Saints, I’m struggling.

Here are excerpts from my earlier columns this season:

Week one – Atlanta:  “If the running game does what it should and the defense can maintain last year’s top 5 ranking, we will all be talking about Drew Brees a little less. And I’m sure he’ll be ok with that.” 

So… yeah. 

Week two – Cleveland: “The Browns put up 389 total yards of offense against the Steelers in week one, but Brian Hoyer and Andrew Hawkins aren’t exactly Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. This should be a good get-well opportunity for the Saints defense. Should be.” 

Now I’m 0-2 and despondent. 

Week four – Dallas: “If the defense can force a turnover or two and the running game continues to be productive, I think the Saints win going away. If not, it could be a long night in Big D.” 

That didn’t work out well.  

Week six – “To be successful against Detroit, it starts and ends with the Saints offensive line. Everything else aside, if the Saints protect Drew Brees and run the ball well, I think they win. Problem is, Brees has been hurried and hit quite a bit this season.” 

You see where this is going. 

I don’t know which way is up with this version of the Saints. They’re a talented and well-paid bunch on both sides of the ball, but inconsistent. There’s winning effort, but a lack of wins. They start games, but don’t finish. Fans are just as frustrated and perplexed as the players and coaches. 

So let’s change things up. 

The Saints will lose to the Packers.

Drew Brees will throw an ill-timed pick-six, the defensive secondary will give up too many big plays, the running game will be up and down and a member of the media will make Sean Payton angry after the game with a legitimate but annoying-to-him question.

The Packers are the hottest team in the NFL, winners of four straight. It’s tough to find another quarterback playing better than Aaron Rodgers (18 touchdowns, one interception). The defense will be challenged yet again. 

Don’t ask me how the Saints are a two point favorite. Sure, they’re playing in the Superdome in primetime and they rarely lose under those circumstances, but the Saints are a team that has consistently disappointed since the season-opening kickoff. Even in victory they’ve looked pedestrian. 

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense will be too much to contain, even though the unit is ranked just 25th in the NFL. Even if the Saints play it close and competitive, this short season tells me they won’t be able to close it out when it counts. 

Like the Saints, my approach had to change. Maybe this strategy will work. If it doesn’t I’m throwing in the towel.

Packers win, 31-29.

Saints offensive line will be key to victory over Lions

IMG_1088.JPGThey’re back from the bye week and the Saints will emerge as a new team, right? They’ll be the team everyone expected them to be coming out of training camp — a Super Bowl contender, right?

As the late, great Buddy D. would say, don’t be a squirrel.

The bye week gave the Saints a chance to get some players healthy, do some self-scouting and focus on the challenges ahead after stumbling out to a 2-3 start. The Saints are undefeated coming off their last five bye weeks.

“A renewed energy, focus, enthusiasm and kind of re-establish your goals for the latter part of the season,” quarterback Drew Brees said this week. “This is where you make your mark and where you have to make a run if you want to accomplish the things that you want to accomplish.”

But for this team to right the ship, a lot needs to be done — perhaps more than a bye week can fix.

The restoration job begins Sunday in Detroit. The Saints have won the past four games against the Lions (4-2) by blowout margins.

2008: 42-17 (Ford Field)
2009: 45-27 (Superdome)
2011: 31-17 (Superdome)
2012: 45-28 (Superdome)

What does that mean for Sunday? Nothing really, but it’s a start when you’re 2-3 and looking for positives.

The Saints offense needs to show it can still score points consistently. Easier said than done.

The Lions will trot out the NFL’s top-ranked defense Sunday, which is allowing only 270.7 yards and 13.7 points per game. They’ve also recorded a league-high 20 sacks, including eight on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater last week. But the Lions haven’t faced an offense like the Saints. The average rank of all offenses they’ve faced this season is 25th. The Saints are second in the league in total offense, averaging 442.8 yards per game.

To be successful against Detroit, it starts and ends with the Saints offensive line. Everything else aside, if the Saints protect Drew Brees and run the ball well, I think they win. Problem is, Brees has been hurried and hit quite a bit this season. He has only been sacked four times, the second-fewest of any quarterback in the league to have started every game this season. That’s encouraging, but Brees hasn’t had a lot of time to sit and pick defenses apart. That’s where he excels. When he’s hurried or presses, we see some of those cringe-inducing, underhanded and backwards ball flips that often end in points for the other team. If the Saints protect Brees he’ll have a chance to expose the Lions defense. Is that asking too much? Maybe.

The return of Mark Ingram should be big for the offense, especially if he continues to run like Angry Mark Ingram. Before his injury, Ingram had run for 143 yards and averaged six yards per carry in two games. No other Saints back has run like that this season. Khiry Robinson has been solid filling in, averaging five yards per carry. The two of them together, along with Pierre Thomas, give the Saints the edge in the running game. As a team, the Saints are averaging two yards more per carry than the Lions (5.2 to 3.2), who have run the ball 32 more times.

I expect Lions running backs Reggie Bush and/or Joique Bell to be a factor at some point. Maybe even fullback Jed Collins and safety Isa Abdul Quddus. That’s how ex-Saints roll. But I don’t think it’ll be enough in a game the Saints have to win.

The Saints defense, ranked 23rd, has shown flashes of improvement but still lacks turnovers and big plays. The way the Lions sling the ball around, there should be opportunities. Matthew Stafford takes a lot of sacks, too. Stafford has been taken down 21 times this season and is well on his way to obliterating his career-high of 36 sacks in 2011.

If the Saints defense makes a couple of big plays and the offensive line controls the flow of the game, the good guys leave Detroit with a 3-3 record.

I’m hopeful… but not overly optimistic.

Saints win, 27-24.

Week five wrap: After hard-fought win, Saints season still has a pulse

IMG_1088.JPGThe time had come to pronounce the Saints’ 2014 season dead.

With the Orleans Parish coroner on hand at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, The Season was about to pass on. It had been given Last Rites. Time of death looked to be 2:03 pm CST on Sunday, October 5.

That’s when Drew Brees threw his second interception of the game, this one a 6-pointer. Those points, and the point after, accounted for 24 unanswered as the Bucs jumped out to a 24-13 lead.

Then something mysterious happened.

Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks started picking up yardage. Pierre Thomas broke tackles and proved he is still the most underrated running back in the league. Linebacker Junior Galette recorded a sack for a safety. Brees made key completions. Running back Khiry Robinson broke free for a game-winning touchdown in overtime.

Moments after being left for dead, to the surprise of the coroner on scene, The Season regained a pulse. It was weak, but it was there. Who Dats were seen running in the streets yelling about a resurrection and another Black and Gold Super Bowl. Naysayers and those who gave up on the team were shamed by those who professed they never lost hope.

The Saints’ final drive, the only one of overtime, was gutty, physical and potentially season-saving. Maybe season-defining.

However, it’s no secret this team still has a lot of problems.

Yes, the Saints had 511 total yards. But Drew Brees threw three interceptions, two of which led to 14 Tampa Bay points. The Saints don’t want Brees to throw 57 times, even if it leads to 371 yards. That means he took some chances along the way, and likely tried to do too much at some point. That has cost the Saints games before. It didn’t on Sunday, but it easily could have.

Yes, the Saints defense recorded its first interception of the season, courtesy of cornerback Patrick Robinson. And Galette had that sack/safety. But the D gave up 311 yards and at times made Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon look like a Pro-Bowler. Communication still seemed to be an issue at times.

This game was way too close considering the way the Saints dominated statistically. With costly turnovers, the Saints let the Bucs hang around. Usually that’s bad news.

The fact that the Saints gutted it out and didn’t fold is encouraging.

Maybe the Saints defense isn’t terrible.

Maybe the offense isn’t suddenly pedestrian.

Maybe the Saints aren’t a bad football team.

The bye week comes at a good time. Players can get healthy and the team can get right mentally. A win leading into the bye certainly helps. The Saints are 2-3 and the NFC South is wide open. Here’s hoping the team everyone was expecting coming out of training camp — the one with Super Bowl potential — shows up in two weeks against the Lions.

For now, a win is a win. The Bucs made the Saints battle hard for it. Probably harder than they expected.

I, for one, am glad the coroner didn’t put The Season in the morgue. It still has some life left. Maybe the best is yet to come. 

Join me in Kenner on Saturday for New Orleans Baby & Child Fest

2014 Poster & full page- Yellow OnlyMy ultra-talented wife created and produces this incredible event each year at the Pontchartrain Center.

Saturday marks the 5th annual New Orleans Baby & Child Fest, a pregnancy, parenting and family expo… Big Easy style. It is the largest event of its kind in the southeast, covering 46,000 square feet. I’ll be there to emcee (she gets a good deal).

The Expo features 100+ exhibitors and sponsors; meet and greets with Frozen characters, superheroes, Snow White, Alice and Mad Hatter and more; Thinkerella workshops and Bricks 4 Kidz classes; inflatable sports challenge; New Orleans Pelicans dancers and more.

Grand prize giveaways include two nights at the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans and a Baby Jogger City Mini stroller. Vendors will also do giveaways throughout the day.

Come on out… we hope to see you there.

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 4 (10am-4pm)

WHERE: The Pontchartrain Center in Kenner

Discounted tickets and additional information available at BabyandChildFest.com.

Week four wrap: Lack of big plays, consistency haunt Saints in Dallas

IMG_1088.JPG

The Saints are not a good football team. Not now, maybe not the rest of the season. 

The group of highly-paid stars on defense is underperforming in a big way.

Safety Jairus Byrd, the former Pro-Bowler, has made one big play. That was a forced fumble in week one. Since then, crickets. The other safety, second-year player Kenny Vaccaro, has been largely invisible. 

The Saints let Malcolm Jenkins, a former first round draft pick, walk away during the offseason. General manager Mickey Loomis found a lot of money to spend and decided to “upgrade” the safety position in an effort to emulate the Seahawks suffocating defense. The difference is the Seahawks had a much better defense to begin with. Plugging Byrd into the Saints defensive backfield wasn’t going to be an instant game-changer. Incidentally, Jenkins’ three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) lead the Philadelphia Eagles this season. He’s also tied for the NFL lead. 

This is about more than The Greenbrier. People all over the place are yapping about the country club training camp and the team being soft. A lot of teams train in mild weather — the Seahawks, 49ers, Chargers and more. This team has issues reaching far beyond where training camp was held.

This is about no big plays on defense, a turnover drought, no pass rush, suspect pass protection from the offensive line and a lack of explosiveness on offense. Whether training camp was held in West Virginia or the Sahara Desert, those numerous issues would still be crippling problems. 

The Saints have played four games and forced one turnover. One. It came on the first drive of the first game. Since then, radio silence. No one has made a big play. For whatever reason, the defense that was the fourth-ranked in the league last season can’t get off the field this season. But it’s not all the defense’s fault. The offense has been wildly inconsistent, too. Interceptions, dropped passes, fumbles and a lack of urgency have plagued the team through the first four weeks. Where are all those weapons? The Saints were supposed to have so many playmakers on offense the other team wouldn’t be able to cover them all. About that…

A team can’t dig a 24-0 hole and expect to climb out of it. The Saints offense has to sustain drives and keep the defense off the field. The Cowboys had the 20th-ranked defense in the league going into Sunday’s game. They hadn’t impressed anyone. The Saints made them look like world beaters. 

Saints players spent all week talking about stopping the NFL’s leading rusher, DeMarco Murray. At first they did… and Tony Romo lit them up. The Cowboys’ passing game opened up their running game and Murray finished the game with 149 yards. The Cowboys’ momentum started building on the first drive and the Saints never could stop it. Things began to snowball and before you knew it, the Cowboys had 24 first downs, were 8 of 14 on third downs, had 445 total yards and dominated time of possession — 34:45 to 25:15.

The Saints are now 7-14 in their last 21 road games. Road games the rest of the season include visits to Detroit, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Tampa Bay. That’s not easy. 

Tampa is up next, then the bye week. After that it’s a brutal four-week stretch in the NFC. 

At 1-3, the Saints are running out of time to salvage this season. 

Saints will tame Cowboys in Dallas

saints_on_6The Saints own them.

Sean Payton owns them.

The Saints have dominated the series in recent years.

THE SAINTS WILL WIN.

Sound familiar? That’s what all the people who think they know something about football (myself included) said leading up to the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons. What no one really considered is that the Falcons were tired of listening to all the noise. They’re men, too. They have pride, too. The Saints had a massive target on their backs. We know how that movie ended. The Falcons rolled up 568 total yards and beat the Saints in overtime.

Sunday night’s storyline starring the Dallas Cowboys is setting up much the same way.

The Saints have won eight of nine games against the Cowboys and three straight. The Saints are 3-1 against Dallas under head coach Sean Payton, including last season’s 49-17 dismantling. The Saints piled up an NFL-record 40 first downs in that one, on their way to 625 total yards. The lone loss to the Cowboys under Payton came in the 2009 Super Bowl season when they handed the Saints their first defeat after 13 straight wins.

But here’s the thing — none of that matters now. The Saints, at this point, are clearly a different team. The defense is leaky and the offense has been shaky. Sure the Saints are a stout 21-9 in regular season primetime games since 2006. Sure they are tough to beat when a national audience is watching. But they surely have trouble winning on the road, too. The 0-2 road start this year hasn’t convinced anyone that the Saints have fixed those problems. Going into Dallas and winning won’t be easy.

The Saints are 1-2. The Cowboys are 2-1. New Orleans is fighting for its season at the four week mark. The Cowboys are trying to prove their defense is no longer a disaster and Tony Romo is fully recovered from back surgery.

Will the Saints defense step up and force mistakes by Romo, who is turnover-prone? Can cornerback Keenan Lewis and others limit explosive wide receiver Dez Bryant?

If the defense can force a turnover or two and the running game continues to be productive, I think the Saints win going away. If not, it could be a long night in Big D.

Saints 34, Cowboys 23.

Week three wrap: Defense comes through when it counts

IMG_1088.JPGAfter spending much of my week on jury duty in Jefferson Parish, it was nice to get out of the courtroom and into the Superdome for the Saints’ home opener. Is the shrimp po-boy new at the concession stands this year? It was solid. But I digress…

The much-maligned Saints defense didn’t force a turnover, but it did register two sacks in the 20-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Baby steps.

The defense, led by Curtis Lofton’s eight tackles (two for losses) and a sack each by Junior Galette and Cam Jordan, held the Vikings offense to 247 total yards. That’s 321 fewer than the Falcons had in week one and 77 under the total compiled by the Browns last week. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a nice improvement over three weeks — 568 to 324 to 247 total yards surrendered.

The defense still couldn’t get off the field on 3rd and long, gave up far too many big plays and let receivers get open over the middle seemingly at will. That’s a problem the Saints have dealt with for three weeks now. Greg Jennings broke free for a 30 yard reception. Matt Asiata had a grab for 41 yards. Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vikings biggest offensive threat on Sunday, had 4 catches for 61 yards with a long of 28.

But when it counted, the D stiffened. The Vikings could only muster three field goals in their eight offensive possessions. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the rookie out of Louisville subbing for starter Matt Cassel, showed glimpses of brilliance but couldn’t do much against Rob Ryan’s crew. Bridgewater is likely the Vikings’ future — and he may be their present after Sunday — but he still has a lot of learning to do.

Without star running back Adrian Peterson, the Vikings running game struggled against the Saints’ front four. Asiata led the way with 35 yards on 12 carries. As a team, Minnesota had only 59 yards on the ground.

What the Saints did on Sunday, both offensively and defensively, was encouraging. Still, this is a team with several issues that will prove costly if they’re not addressed. The offense needs to be more consistent. The offensive line play has to improve, most notably in pass protection. The defense needs to find a way make big plays and cause turnovers.

The Cowboys are next… and the Saints don’t lose in primetime. 3-2 at the bye week looks pretty feasible. After that it’s a tough four-week stretch in the NFC — on the road against Detroit, at home against Green Bay, at Carolina, then back in the Dome to play San Francisco.

Notes:

- The Saints and Vikings each had eight offensive possessions. The Saints dominated time of possession — 33:33 to 26:27.

- The Saints have won 18 straight home games with Sean Payton on the sideline.

- Khiry Robinson, subbing for the injured Mark Ingram, ran for 69 yards on 18 carries.

- Quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 5 touchdowns against 2 interceptions.

- Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks has 18 catches for 168 yards through three games.

Week two wrap: Saints give one away in Cleveland

The scoreboard says the Cleveland Browns beat the New Orleans Saints. But in reality, the Saints gave this one away. They have nothing to blame but their own mistakes.

IMG_1088.JPGThe freshest mistake(s) in the mind of Saints fans is the defense’s failure on the Browns’ final drive. Cleveland started at its own four yard line with 2:46 left. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer drove to the Saints 11 yard line to set up the game-winning field goal.

Championship defenses — heck, good defenses — don’t let a team drive almost the length of the field with the game on the line. The Saints defense had the Browns in 3rd and 1, 3rd and 3, 3rd and 12 and 4th and 6 situations on the final drive and Cleveland converted each time.

That series was just the final nail in the coffin. The Saints dug their graves long before that.

In the second quarter, with the Saints down 10-3, Drew Brees kept his reputation of playing poorly against the Browns intact. He threw another interception for a touchdown against the Browns (he did it twice the last time the teams played in 2010). Before that, a penalty gave Browns kicker Billy Cundiff another shot at a field goal that he missed moments before.

Nine points (botched PAT after the pick-six) given away in a one point loss.

The Saints defense gave up 324 total yards a week after coughing up 445 yards. Rob Ryan’s unit obviously needs to get a lot better very quickly. The big plays and turnovers, especially in critical situations, are missing.

In 2009, the Super Bowl season, the Saints were 2-0 after two games. They outscored opponents 93-49. This year, the Saints have scored 58 points and given up 63. In 2013, the Saints created seven turnovers through two games. This season? One.

This not a Super Bowl team right now. At this point, the Saints don’t even look like a playoff team. Since 2002, 100 teams have started the season 0-2. Nine have made the playoffs. I wrote earlier that the Browns game was critical.

It’s hard to say the second game of the season is a must-win, but it is. This is a team with Super Bowl expectations. A team that is expected to have a top 10 defense. A team that has all kinds of toys to play with on offense.

That’s the kind of team that goes into Cleveland and dominates the Browns. That’s the kind of team that goes on the road and wins a game it’s supposed to win.

The Minnesota Vikings (1-1) visit the Superdome next Sunday. If the Saints don’t win that one in front of a raucous home crowd, it may be time to hit the panic button.

Sunday is a must-win game for the Saints

IMG_1088.JPGThe Saints will beat the Browns on Sunday. I know this because they have to.

Since 2002, 100 teams have started 0-2 and only nine have made the playoffs. The 0-2 hole is one the Saints can’t afford to fall into.

It’s hard to say the second game of the season is a must-win, but it is. This is a team with Super Bowl expectations. A team that is expected to have a top 10 defense. A team that has all kinds of toys to play with on offense.

That’s the kind of team that goes into Cleveland and dominates the Browns. That’s the kind of team that goes on the road and wins a game it’s supposed to win.

The Browns put up 389 total yards of offense against the Steelers in week one, but Brian Hoyer and Andrew Hawkins aren’t exactly Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. This should be a good get-well opportunity for the Saints defense. Should be.

The Browns are 31st in total total defense, just one slot ahead of the Saints who are dead last. Drew Brees should be able to pick on cornerbacks Buster Skrine and rookie Justin Gilbert on the left side, but Joe Haden, the other starting corner, is a playmaker. So is safety Donte’ Whitner. Haden, in his 5th season, has battled a foot injury, but is listed as probable for Sunday. Still, the Browns’ defense is susceptible to giving up big plays.

BUT… this is an outdoor game on the road against a team that Drew Brees has had mixed results against. Sunday would be a good time to change that. In four career games against the Browns, Brees is 3-1, but with a lower passer rating against the Browns than any other team. In the last meeting between the teams, Brees threw four interceptions. Two were returned for touchdowns.

Saints roll into Cleveland and win, 38-24.

Game notes:

- Browns starting running back Ben Tate is injured, so carries will be split between rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.

- Drew Brees needs 67 yards to pass John Elway for #4 on the NFL’s career passing list.

- The Saints are 1-3 against the Browns since 1999.

Week one wrap: Saints defense blew it against Falcons

IMG_1088.JPGThe Falcons never really had a chance. At least that’s how it looked this storyline would play out after almost two quarters. But we know better. This is Saints/Falcons. All the games are close. This early lead surely wouldn’t last…

The Saints were up 13-0 and 20-7, but a defense with more holes in it than a Lakeview street was too much to overcome. Beginning with 20 seconds left in the first half, the Saints were outscored 30-14.

Rob Ryan’s vaunted unit, fourth in total defense in the NFL last season, gave up 568 yards of total offense to their “little brothers.” Matt Ryan threw for 445 yards and did whatever he wanted.

Whatever. He. Wanted. 

Julio Jones had 7 catches for 116 yards. Devin Hester had 5 for 99; Roddy White had 5 for 72; Harry Douglas had 6 for 69; Antoine Smith had 1 for 54. 

I’m a big Rob Ryan fan, but the defense’s performance Sunday was indefensible. Embarrassing. 

Patrick Robinson isn’t the answer at cornerback, even if the Saints start him every week from here until eternity. He has never shown enough on the field for anyone to consider him the answer. Corey White probably isn’t either. Champ Bailey? I don’t know. The Saints cut him for a reason and no one has signed him yet. At this point it seems the Saints have to live with Robinson and White. That’s not comforting after Sunday’s debacle. 

The defensive front four hardly put any meaningful pressure on Ryan. Tyrunn Walker got in for a sack on Ryan late, but that was pretty much it. Linebacker Junior Galette had four tackles. Defensive end Cam Jordan had one.

Oh, and no one could tackle.

Outside of safety Jairus Byrd, no one on the defense was very good. Byrd made two huge plays — forcing a Julio Jones fumble early and making a key third down stop late. That’s all there was to brag about.

The Saints’ offense put up 34 points and had 472 yards of its own, 333 of them coming off the arm of Drew Brees. Rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks was amazing (7 catches, 77 yards, one touchdown) . The offense wasn’t perfect, but Sunday’s output should be enough to win on the road against a division rival.

Ugly, ugly, ugly. 

The defense, from which much is expected, didn’t show up for a huge season-opener in a year many are picking the Saints to go to the Super Bowl. Right now, that’s laughable. 

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