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Despite Another Road Meltdown, Saints Have Reason to Look Up Moving Forward

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 19, 2014

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You are what your record says you are. 

The New Orleans Saints are 2-4, yet they still have more than a glimmer of hope for the rest of this season due to the current level of mediocrity in the NFC South division. 

Mediocrity might actually be an overstatement. 

The Saints lost 24-23 to the Detroit Lions Sunday, and it was the most impressive performance by any team in the division, as the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers lost by a combined 43 points. In fact, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have had the most productive Sunday because they were on a bye.

Despite the loss, the Saints have multiple areas which they can look forward to as the season progresses.

In the end, New Orleans fell to Detroit due to two defensive breakdowns late in the game.

With the Saints winning 23-10 with four minutes remaining, cornerback Corey White took a poor angle which allowed a short reception to Lions wide receiver Golden Tate turn into a 73-yard-touchdown scamper.

After a Drew Brees interception during the ensuing drive, the Lions were gifted with prime field position at the Saints' 14-yard line. Seven plays later, a communication breakdown between rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste and the Saints' safeties allowed wide receiver Corey Fuller to work his way to the back of the end zone for a wide-open touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford

But the overall letdown of a loss and miscues at the end of the contest can't mask legitimate improvement by the Saints defense. 

Prior to the start of Sunday's game, the Saints ranked 23rd in total defense. They surrendered 379.6 yards per game, including 273.2 yards through the air and 112 yards against the run. 

The Lions managed only 59 rushing yards and 285 passing yards for 344 total yards—a 34-yard improvement over New Orleans' season average. 

Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan certainly used the team's bye week productively by rectifying some of the team's miscues, particularly against the run. It was obvious through three quarters of play the Saints were getting better run fits along their defensive line, and the linebackers were far more aggressive, played downhill and made more tackles near the line of scrimmage. 

Also, Stafford was never able to get fully comfortable in the pocket. Detroit's quarterback was sacked three times and pressured throughout the afternoon. 

New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said, via NewOrleansSaints.com, he was pleased with the defense's effort despite not finishing strong. 

“I thought the energy and the effort and a number of things (were great)," Payton said after the game. "We got the turnovers, you know? All of those things.”

The loss speaks for itself, but the Saints defense played as well as it has all season against a talented Detroit Lions offense sans megastar wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro told the media after the game, per the team's official's site, that the defense is in a good place after a poor start to the season. 

We aren’t in a losing mentality. We haven’t been playing good all year. It’s just like, go out there and just ball out. We really didn’t have anything to lose. We’re ranked last in almost everything. We’re just trying to progress on that.

The team understands it could and should be better this season, though, per NOLA.com's Larry Holder. 

Larry Holder @LarryHolder

Keenan Lewis: I’m sick of it. I’m tired of all of this losing. Doesn’t matter if you lose by one ... We’ve got to find a way to finish games

Road trips have been particularly traumatic for the Saints. The team is now 0-4 outside the friendly confines of the Superdome and 0-7 in its last seven road games, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Saints have lost 7 straight road games for 1st time since 1998-1999, when they lost 14 in a row

It's a concern but one that shouldn't be overstated for two reasons. 

First, three of those four losses this season were one-possession games and decided during the waning moments of those contests. Only the Saints' trip to Dallas resulted in a defeat by more than three points. 

Second, New Orleans' road woes will lessen during the second half of the season. Six of the team's final 10 games will be played at the Superdome, including meetings with the Panthers and Falcons. 

While the Saints need to find to win one or two games on the road, it becomes less of an issue as the season continues. 

The games against divisional rivalries will be extremely important due to the current standings. 

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Carolina leads the division with a 3-3-1 record. However, the Panthers were just obliterated 38-17 by the Green Bay Packers. The Panthers defense continues to underwhelm, while injuries are piling up on offense. 

A litmus test for the Saints will come next Sunday when New Orleans hosts the Packers. 

Much like the Panthers, the Falcons played very poorly Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Atlanta was once the NFL's best offense, but multiple injuries along the offensive line—backup center Peter Konz was also lost to injury Sunday—completely stalled a once-promising start to the season. At 2-5, the Falcons may not be able to recover. 

Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. The 1-5 Bucs lost in overtime to the Saints two weeks ago and were dismantled by the Baltimore Ravens a week later. Twice this season the Buccaneers have trailed their opponent 35-0 at halftime. A major turnover is needed in Tampa if the Buccaneers are going to be competitive this season. 

That leaves the Saints possibly standing alone atop the division at the end of the season despite all their problems. However, an improving defense, some home cooking and the fact the NFC South is a mess make a 2-4 start to the season almost appear promising. 

“Listen, I get it. I think the focus of us though has to be more internally," Payton said during his post-game press conference. "You start paying attention externally and you find yourself here again next weekend. We got another good team we’re going to play here next weekend. We have to get ready.”

As disappointing as the entire division has been this season, the Saints look to be in the best of a bad situation. 

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