Teams in desperate situations often do desperate things. And as the New Orleans Saints recently found out, on a football field, desperation often leads to further despair.
If that principle wasn’t already clear to this team, it became apparent with 2:34 remaining in Sunday’s 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees had just thrown an interception that led to a Dallas touchdown. The New Orleans defense watched as the offense went three-and-out on the next series.
Something had to give. The defense needed to get the ball back for the offense, but instead of being patient and displaying solid fundamentals, it appeared everyone collectively decided that a turnover was the only acceptable result. So, when the Cowboys handed off to DeMarco Murray on their next snap, everyone was thinking the same thing: cause a fumble.
Linebackers Ramon Humber and Curtis Lofton and safety Rafael Bush got their hands on Murray just shy of the first-down marker and immediately began swatting at the ball instead of making the easy tackle. Murray managed to slip free of all three men and picked up 22 yards on what initially looked like a 7-yard gain.
The defense was pressing.
“Any time you’re pressing for something, it normally doesn’t work in your favor. We know how important (turnovers) are,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “Like I said, when the opportunity comes, you make the play. When you press, things normally don’t turn out too good.”
The defense has only forced one takeaway this season — a forced fumble by Byrd in a Week 1 loss to the Atlanta Falcons — and ranks last in the league in that category. It’s something they desperately want to change and know this is one of the biggest weaknesses of the team and a contributing factor to New Orleans’ 1-3 start.
And, even though there were some desperate moments during Sunday’s contest, they know the best way to turn the tide is to remain patient, get good population to the ball, and take advantage of opportunities when they are presented.
But it’s easy to understand why the team threw away proper fundamentals at times against Dallas in an attempt to do whatever it took to get the ball back. Not only were the Saints down 17-0 in something resembling a must-win game at the time of the Murray run, the lack of turnovers is all this team has heard about for a number of weeks — both inside and outside of the building.
Byrd cracked that there’s no way for him to forget the Saints have one turnover after creating just 19 in 2013 since he’s asked about on a near daily basis. But it’s not just the media thirsting for takeaways. Unprompted, coach Sean Payton brought it up during an unrelated question about his team’s average starting field position.
“I don’t think the starting position has been as challenging as just the lack of possessions,” Payton said. “Going into last week’s game, from an efficiency standpoint, with the possessions, we were scoring. When you’re looking at the scoring efficiency, but the lack of opportunities is something that when we get to talking about a complementary game trying to have more possessions and what contributes to that, a turnover obviously does.”
Payton raises a valid point — especially when you consider how efficient the offense has been when it has the ball.
New Orleans has only had 39 offensive drives this season, placing it 24th in the NFL. However, few teams have been as productive as the Saints on a drive-to-drive basis. They rank first in the NFL with 43.85 yards per drive, according to Football Outsiders, and seventh in the league in points per drive (2.46).
If the Saints had 45 drives this season like the New York Giants, who lead the league with nine takeaways, it would equate to two additional touchdowns. With a scoring differential of minus-15 and two losses by three or fewer points, a few additional drives could have made a difference in the standings for New Orleans during the first quarter of the season.
The woes, however, should not be placed entirely on the defense. New Orleans has committed six turnovers and has not exactly been racing its way to the end zone. The Saints have stayed on the field for an average 2:55 this season. The Eagles, who rank second in the league with 50 drives, have gotten off the field in an average of 1:54.
But perhaps if the defense were getting off the field quicker, the offense would not feel the need to eat clock. The Saints defense is allowing an average of 40.63 yards and 2.74 points per drive, both marks ranking 31st in the NFL. New Orleans’ defense has stayed on the field for an average of 3:06 this season, the fourth-highest mark in the league.
Not producing turnovers and allowing the opposition to convert 48 percent of their third-down attempts will lead to such gaudy figures.
“It potentially takes away time off the clock and a chance for you to lose a possession,” Payton said. “Not getting off the field third down defensively can contribute to that. That’s part of some of the residuals of the things we’re talking about, the lack of possessions, starting field position, all those things go hand in hand.”
The Saints defense knows it has to tighten up. It knows it has to get off the field and produce turnovers. The season depends on it. But what they don’t want to do is to continue to press the way they did at times against Dallas.
The solutions have to come naturally
“You want to dictate, you don’t want the offense to dictate to you,” Byrd said. “Second thing is that I think that if you are taking advantage — you can’t force things. When the opportunity presents itself you just make sure you capitalize on it.”
As the Saints know, forcing things only leads to 7-yard runs turning into gains of 22.