The Saints are still looking for consistent production from Mark Ingram.
In light of the recent injuries that have hobbled some of their most prominent offensive weapons, a number of New Orleans Saints players must step up and increase their offensive production.
In their most recent outing, the Saints fell to the New York Jets on the road, 26-20. Top wide receiver Marques Colston was inactive due to a knee injury, and explosive all-purpose back Darren Sproles was knocked out of the game in the early going with a concussion.
With star tight end Jimmy Graham battling an ongoing foot injury, New Orleans' top three offensive playmakers are all injured in some fashion.
The Saints' lack of offensive contributors was glaringly evident this past Sunday, as quarterback Drew Brees struggled to find open targets.
With New Orleans' ground game stifled by the fearsome Jets defensive line, the Saints were forced to take to the air early and often, and Brees found the going tough.
Sure, New York defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and company dominated the line of scrimmage from start to finish. But on the rare occasions when Brees was afforded the time to look down field, his receivers created little to no separation. The Saints were also plagued by an insufferable amount of dropped passes throughout the contest, which further hampered their offensive production.
There were a few bright spots on Sunday, as Graham and wide receivers Lance Moore and Robert Meachem enjoyed solid outings. But the lack of production from other offensive skill players, coupled with poor offensive line play, proved too costly to overcome.
With the status of Colston and Sproles still up in the air, the following players need to improve their play and contribute more to the Saints offense in the coming weeks.
Mark Ingram runs for daylight against the Jets.
When the Saints drafted former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram out of Alabama in 2011, the comparisons to Emmitt Smith were not merely whispered. They were shouted from the rooftops.
It was widely known that Ingram didn't possess breakaway speed, but he demonstrated a unique blend of vision and power at the collegiate level that many believed would smoothly translate to the professional ranks. The fact that Ingram carved his mark in the talent-laden Southeastern Conference was also promising.
But the transition was anything but smooth.
Ingram has largely struggled throughout his time in New Orleans, displaying neither the vision, nor the downhill power that earned him a slot in the first round of the NFL draft.
There have been fleeting glimpses of the aforementioned traits, such as in the latter portion of the 2012 season, but Ingram's career is dangerously teetering on the level of draft bust. Injuries haven't helped, but multiple opportunities presented themselves for the former collegiate star to shake off the chains of mediocrity and prove his worth. These opportunities were for the most part squandered.
Frustrated Saints fans have witnessed a consistent propensity to run straight into the backs of offensive linemen and an inability to find running lanes. The result of these deficiencies is a paltry career rushing average of 3.8 yards per carry.
In recent weeks, Ingram battled and overcame another nagging injury. He returned to the lineup against the Jets last Sunday and gained 19 yards on four carries. His performance against a top-notch defensive front was respectable, and without a doubt earned him more carries in the near future.
Make no mistake, Ingram's number will be called frequently in upcoming games. He was a first-round pick, and one that the Saints traded up to select. He won't sit the bench if he's healthy.
With New Orleans' chief offensive weapons nursing injuries, the time is now for Mark Ingram to step up and become the strong, reliable ball-carrier the Saints front office envisioned him to be.
Benjamin Watson rumbles downfield against the Patriots.
Simply put, Benjamin Watson is a solid, all-around football player. He runs good routes, he blocks well, and he possesses serviceable receiving skills. Watson is also a sizable target for Brees.
That being said, the Saints need more from Watson in the coming weeks. New Orleans now enters the teeth of its schedule, and several of the physical defenses the Saints will soon face closely resemble the one seen in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday.
To be fair to Watson, he only received one target in the loss to the Jets, as his services as a blocker were desperately needed. But he is a proven, experienced receiver, and he could provide a significant contribution to the downfield passing game. With the Saints in serious need of playmakers at the moment, it's time for them to utilize Watson’s talents in that department.
Kenny Stills enjoyed a breakout game against Buffalo.
Big things are definitely in store for the rookie wide receiver out of Oklahoma. A heady player who fits nicely into Sean Payton's complex system, Stills was on a roll before the Jets game.
He turned in a strong performance on the road against the Patriots with 64 receiving yards and a touchdown, and followed that up with an explosive 129-yard, two-touchdown outing at home versus the Bills.
But with his team in need of an offensive spark at New York, Stills quietly faded back with only 35 yards receiving on just three catches.
His status as a rookie excuses his average showing, but Stills should become a more prominent fixture in the Saints offense in the month of November. Considering his ball skills and top-end speed, Saints fans can probably expect more performances akin to his games against Buffalo and New England.
Nick Toon hauls in a pass against Oakland in the preseason.
Toon was thrown into the fire on Sunday. The son of former Jets great Al Toon, he received the start in Colston's absence, and couldn't have turned in a worse performance.
He tripped over his own feet after getting good separation on a sideline route, and followed that up with a bumbling goof of a reception attempt that resulted in an interception. He finished the game with zero catches on four targets.
Does Toon have talent? Absolutely. Scouting reports suggested he possessed great hands coming out of Wisconsin in 2012, and he has more than adequate height at 6'4".
On the season, Toon has only three receptions totaling 60 yards, but those numbers are likely to increase in a short time frame.
If Colston's injury continues to hamper him in the coming weeks, New Orleans will need Nick Toon. He's the only wideout on the roster, other than Colston, who fits the bill of sizable possession receiver. The Saints need Toon to shake off his poor showing, gather his bearings and perform. And they would prefer if it happened sooner rather than later.
Josh Hill caught two passes against the Bills.
With his 6'5" frame, Josh Hill provides another big target. The undrafted rookie out of Idaho State only has two receptions on the season for 17 yards, but his athleticism is undeniable, and he appears to be the type of player who could have a noteworthy role in Payton's offense.
He can split out wide, where he presents a difficult matchup for a corner, and his quickness can be challenging for many of the league's linebackers.
After displaying promising potential in previous games, most notably the win over Buffalo, Hill was another no-show this past Sunday. In the coming month, his emergence in the passing game would serve as a welcome addition to an offense in need of more consistent contributors.
Drew Brees was kept off balance all day against the Jets.
Of the players named to this list, one is not like the others. When a capable offense turns in as poor a showing as New Orleans did last Sunday, however, accountability extends to everyone. That includes future Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
The need isn't necessarily for more production from Brees, but for improved efficiency when his favorite targets are absent. Of course, this is easier said than done.
With Colston and Sproles sidelined, and his offensive line collapsing on nearly every play, Brees certainly had a tough row to hoe against the Jets. But that doesn't excuse him from the poor play-clock management he displayed. Nor does it make his perplexingly high number of weak-armed throws any more acceptable.
He did have 382 yards passing, but the fact that he dropped back to throw 53 times makes this yardage total seem rather pedestrian, especially for Brees.
As the rest of the NFL is fully aware, Brees is capable of great things on a football field. Therefore, much is expected of him, even when he doesn't have the luxury of his most trusted weapons in the fold.
Saints fans can rest assured, however, that no one will take his most recent performance harder than Drew Brees himself. He's a fierce competitor who will undoubtedly rise to the challenge, and he'll challenge his teammates to up their play as well.
At 6-2, the New Orleans Saints sit atop the standings in the NFC South, and they're still in contention for the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC. But they have a difficult lineup of games to manage in the second half of the season, and they could be without some of their key offensive weapons for a good portion of the upcoming stretch.
In addition, the upstart Carolina Panthers are suddenly nipping at the Saints' heels within the division. And of course, there's the reeling Atlanta Falcons, who aren't likely to extend the Saints much southern hospitality during the upcoming rematch at the GeorgiaDome.
With such a challenging slate on the horizon, the New Orleans offense will require some of the previously named players to step up to the plate and deliver. The Saints' season may very well depend on it.