With the Saints' loss Sunday to the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans drops to 0-2 on the season, the first time that’s happened since 2007. And even though nothing about an 0-2 start looks good, these two losses have been particularly perplexing.
The Panthers were 6-10 last season and had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to thank for keeping them out of the NFC South cellar. Carolina’s future looks brighter, but there weren’t many who expected it to push New Orleans to 0-2.
Losing two games in a row to teams that were bottom-dwellers last season hurts. Having so many complicated issues to deal with makes it even worse.
Are dual-threat quarterbacks to blame for the Saints' early-season woes? Were the distractions of Bountygate and the lengthy holdout from Drew Brees to blame?
Let’s take a look at six issues that are troubling the Saints right now and any potential fixes that may be applied:
1. Drew Brees isn’t Playing Well
Drew Brees has two consecutive 300 yards or better passing performances in his first two games. But after the high-yardage figures, everything else about Brees has been sub-par.
In Week 1, Brees completed just 24 of 52 passes. He improved in Week 2, but only slightly, completing 31 of 49 throws. His 46.2 percent completion rate against Washington was one of his worst ever, and the 63.3 percent against Carolina, while a step forward, was still a far cry from the way Brees should be connecting with his receivers.
Brees has a career completion percentage of 65.7 percent, but is hovering at 54.5 percent this season.
He’s also almost a yard per attempt lower in 2012 than he’s been over his career.
Brees is averaging 6.58 yards per passing attempt this season. That’s 0.65 yards below his career average, and last season, Brees only dipped below seven yards per attempt once.
Defenses seem to be sitting back in deeper zones and forcing Brees to throw it underneath. With 101 passing attempts this season, Brees should be able to amass yardage even on short throws, but this is keeping him from exploiting mismatches down the field.
It may also be causing him to force the ball where he shouldn’t. That’s exactly what happened to him in the first quarter when he was intercepted by Charles Godfrey.
In a designed bootleg, Brees rolls out to his right and is chased by Charles Johnson while the tight end David Thomas crosses the field towards the sideline.
Brees is trying to shake Johnson free and stay alive long enough to hit Thomas. But he doesn’t see—or thinks he can sneak the ball in—Godfrey tailing Thomas.
Godfrey jumps the route when Brees throws the ball and races to the end zone. Brees could have, and should have, thrown the ball into the crowd. He was well outside the tackle box. Even if he would have completed the pass it would have been for a very small gain, if any.
Brees—and this isn’t said about him frequently—must make better decisions with the football.
2. Brees is Constantly Under Pressure
Brees has only been sacked three times this season, but looks like he’s running for his life frequently.
Not only has he been sacked three times, but he’s hit and hurried aplenty. He’s been forced to throw the ball away six times and receivers have dropped four passes.
The offensive line has to find ways to keep Brees upright, and more importantly, give him more time.
3. Dreadful Defense Against the Run
I mentioned this Sunday night in a reaction piece, but it warrants mentioning again. In five preseason games and two regular season games, the Saints defense has only kept one team under 100 yards rushing.
The Redskins ran for 153 yards in Week 1 and Carolina rolled off 219 Sunday.
Cam Jordan, in a Times-Picayune video, mentioned that the defensive line, in learning Steve Spagnuolo’s new defensive scheme, is creating gaps for opposing runners to exploit. That may be true, but it’s not the only issue with the New Orleans run defense.
Curtis Lofton and Brodrick Bunkley are on this roster to help against the run, and neither have stepped up. Lofton’s made nine tackles and 10 assists, while Bunkley’s at two tackles and five assists.
Both players can do more, and need to, as the line learns to keep gaps closed and the linebacker corps learns to help fill those gaps without compromising coverage.
4. Too Many Big Plays
According to the Times-Picayune, Carolina hit on six plays of 25 yards or more against New Orleans on Sunday.
From a 25-yard catch from Brandon LaFell to a 66-yard catch from Steve Smith, the Saints defense got abused deep too much on Sunday.
The Saints only had three explosive plays of 25 yards or more on offense.
5. New Orleans Does Miss Sean Payton
Head coach Sean Payton has been relegated to watching Saints games from his couch this season after being suspended for the year because of his role in the alleged bounty program in New Orleans.
Not only has the team made the same mistakes in both games of the season—failure to keep opposing pass rush from Brees, inability to adjust to and stop the run game—but there’s not a lot of adjustments being made by the coaching staff.
An example happened in the third quarter with Brees dropping back and luring the defensive line in for a screen pass. He has four defenders coming at him and Pierre Thomas sneaking out to the flat.
Then, something strange happens. Ron Edwards (96) and Thomas Keiser (98) stop their pursuit when they realize a screen is taking place. The two—particularly Edwards—stop and even retreat a step, then wait for Brees to make a decision.
This isn’t something that just happened on a whim. Two pass-rushers who have been trained to hunt quarterbacks for their entire lives don’t stop and hover in the pocket waiting for the quarterback to make a move without a lot of coaching.
Brees was forced to waste the pass by throwing it into the grass at Thomas’ feet.
Defenses seem to be ahead of the Saints offense early on in 2012, and that’s something Payton would never let happen.
6. Dropped Passes
According to Pro Football Focus ($$), Lance Moore is tied for the third worst drop rate in the league with two drops on 10 catchable passes. Marques Colston ranks 10th with a drop on eight catchable passes.
Moore dropped a sure touchdown at the goal line in the first quarter against Carolina.
Tight end Jimmy Graham did the same thing on the next play. He turned to cross the goal line before catching the ball. The Saints settled for a field goal.
Graham has two drops already this season, second only to Jermichael Finley.
The Saints have had their woes, and at 0-2, now have a very long road ahead of them if New Orleans plans on making a playoff run.
Better decisions from Brees and fewer drops from his receivers when he gets it into their hands would be a good start.
As would some extra work on shoring up Spagnuolo’s new defense. I realize that his schemes are difficult and it takes a while for teams to completely grasp the new concepts. But in the NFL, learning and installing new schemes has to happen quickly and seamlessly. This should be less of an issue than it is right now.
Coaching will be key to getting out of this jam the Saints are currently in, and there’s talent here to do just that. But the current staff can’t wait on suspended coach Joe Vitt, who returns after his six-game suspension. Pete Carmichael and Spagnuolo need to spark a response immediately.
There’s also a player who should step up and offer to put this team on his back. Brees just caused friction during the offseason by holding out in a contract dispute, but now has $100 million reasons to carry the load.
Isn’t that why New Orleans paid him?