Since Sean Payton became the New Orleans Saints’ coach in 2006, his team has won a lot of games — 58, counting the playoffs — with 32 coming in the past 2 1/2 seasons.
Under Payton, the Saints have had winning streaks of 13, six and four games (twice) and had three straight postseason victories en route to a win in Super Bowl XLIV. Yet, like many of the good teams, they do some of their best work in “bounceback” situations.
That’s winning the week after a setback, which the Saints have done 20 times in 29 tries under Payton — including a 13-3 mark since 2008.
Following last week’s stunning 31-21 loss to a 14-point underdog St. Louis Rams team, the Saints (5-3) will be aiming for another bounceback Sunday when they go against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-3) at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In essence, the Saints’ mission is two-fold this time. It’ll be a double-bounceback opportunity of sorts when you consider last week’s road loss and a 26-20 defeat to the Bucs on Oct. 16 in Raymond James Stadium.
In that game, the Saints, who lost Payton on their third offensive play when his left leg was pinned beneath him in a sideline pileup, turned the ball over a season-high four times.
The final one, a Drew Brees interception in the Bucs’ end zone with 3:16 to play, put an end to a rally in which they almost came all the way back from a 20-7 second-quarter deficit.
When asked this week if it’s comforting to know his team often plays well after a loss, Payton said it’s more about focus as they try to get back on track in the division. The Saints lead the NFC South by a half-game over the Bucs and Atlanta Falcons, whom they play in the Georgia Dome next Sunday.
“We deal with a challenge, and we deal with recognizing the importance of a divisional game and getting really ready to play a real good team at home,” Payton said. “I do think it’s important that you’re able to bounce back and fight through the adversity of a tough loss, and there’s a lot that goes into that. I think we’re mentally pretty tough.”
Turnovers have been a problem for the Saints in the 1? seasons since they won the Super Bowl. They gave it away 31 times a year ago, with 15 coming in their five losses, and have 13 in eight games this season. Six of them have come in their three losses — with a blocked punt, which doesn’t officially count as a turnover, thrown in as well.
The turnovers, however, stood out for Payton in the first meeting with the Bucs.
“It was a game we fought back in and had some opportunities, but the turnovers stand out really,” he said. “At times, we did some decent things and we sputtered at times as well. I think the turnovers were the one thing.”
“They executed very well,” Brees said. “They did a great job of not allowing us to get anything going in the run game, and forced some turnovers which ended up being a big factor in that game.
“We were able to get some big plays in the game, but we weren’t able to overcome the turnovers and some of the situations we put ourselves in.”
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., who assumed Payton’s play-calling duties in that first Bucs’ game, pointed out that of Brees’ three interceptions that day one was on a tipped ball and another came on fourth down when he was trying to make a fourth-down play in a tight window.
“You know turnovers are a critical factor in deciding a game,” Carmichael said. “As an established team, we need to find a way to avoid turnovers.”
Improved ball security is just one of the concerns for the Saints going into the rematch against the Bucs.
The main thing on the other side of the ball is the Saints’ run defense. They’ve given up 129.4 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt in their last five outings. While they rank 24th against the run with 124.1 yards per game, they’re last in allowing 5.5 yards a pop.
The Bucs netted 117 yards on 25 carries three weeks ago with backup Earnest Graham cranking out 109 yards, but they get starter LeGarrette Blount, a bullish 6-foot, 247-pounder back from a knee injury.
The Bucs may be more inclined to run with Blount back, especially after quarterback Josh Freeman threw four interceptions in a 24-18 loss to the Chicago Bears in their most recent game on Oct. 23, and Rams running back Steven Jackson pounded the Saints for 159 yards last week.
“They like to run, and it’s going to be a big challenge for us to make a statement stopping the run,” said Saints defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. “He (Blount) is a big guy that one guy really cannot tackle, so it’s going to take gang-tackling the way he moves. We’ve seen him come inside and then he sticks his foot in the ground and bounces it back outside.”
“He’s a physical downhill runner,” Payton said of Blount, who leads the Bucs with 328 yards, a 4.3 average and three TDs in five games. “He’s a guy that you have to get a lot of people to the ball to tackle.”
With those key things in mind, the Saints know they can’t afford to slip up in this final two-game stretch before their bye.
“This game couldn’t get any bigger for being a midseason game where we’re coming off a loss and they’re coming off a loss even though they had a bye,” said Brees. “We understand the importance of this game not only for this point in the season, coming off a loss, a divisional game, the second one against this team. Yes, it’s a big game.”