GLENDALE, Ariz. — The New Orleans Saints gave themselves plenty of chances to walk away from the season opener with a hard-fought road win against a well-regarded Arizona Cardinals team that made the playoffs a year ago.
New Orleans simply couldn’t finish.
Frustrated over and over inside the red zone, New Orleans failed to capitalize on repeated opportunities to complete a comeback from Arizona’s early blitz and dropped a 31-19 decision to the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday.
“We have to be better when we get in that area of the field and coming away with the touchdown,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
New Orleans (0-1) had to weather an early storm from the Cardinals.
Frustrated early by Arizona’s passing game, the Saints’ much-anticipated defensive makeover struggled at the start, coughing up two touchdowns and a 14-3 lead to Arizona in the Cardinals’ first three drives. For a moment, the defense looked like it would put the offense in the untenable position of trying to win a shootout against a very capable defense.
Then the Saints defense found its rhythm.
But the offense couldn’t capitalize.
New Orleans racked up 408 yards of offense against a well-respected Cardinals defense, but the Saints struggled badly in the red zone, forcing newly minted kicker Zach Hocker to make four field goals.
“You look at the overall efficiency, we were 1-of-4,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “That’s not good enough, and on the flip side, they were 3-for-3. That’s obviously the difference in the game.”
Arizona’s defense largely took away the big play, limiting the Saints to a pair of deep throws to wide receivers: a 63-yard catch-and-run by training camp star Willie Snead and a 29-yard ball to Brandin Cooks.
What that forced New Orleans to do was string together long drives, and once the Saints started to get close to the end zone, the problems Arizona’s defense presented became even more difficult. New Orleans picked up just 54 yards on 20 carries and left the offense in several third-and-long situations.
Brees also didn’t have many options despite completing 30-of-48 passes for 355 yards. Other than an early go route that fell incomplete after Patrick Peterson blanketed Cooks, Brees rarely threw into the red zone again, preferring to take screens out of the backfield. Even the Saints’ only touchdown was a short throw that Brandon Coleman turned into a 12-yard touchdown by spinning, keeping his balance and beating the Cardinals defenders to the pylon.
“We were trying to piece together some of those drives,” Brees said. “Some of them, it wasn’t like we were inside the 5. All of these stops were happening in and around the 20. It may show up as a red-zone play, but it’s still a long field goal. We have to look at the film and kind of see where we can get some more mileage out of this or that.”
New Orleans’ last chance to win came down to a decision. Facing fourth-and-6 at his 7-yard line with 2 minutes left, Payton opted to punt, even though Brees lobbied for a chance to convert the first down.
The Saints had two timeouts. The way the defense was playing, Payton felt like New Orleans could get the ball back.
“There is an aggressive side of you that wants to go for it, but to put our defense on the field on the 7- or 8-yard line ... Having the two timeouts, you are going with your gut there,” Payton said. “I think more often than not, in that type of situation, we would punt it.”
Two plays later, the Cardinals broke the Saints defense for a 55-yard, game-clinching touchdown from Carson Palmer to David Johnson.
Exactly the kind of finishing play New Orleans couldn’t make.