For the second straight season, the New Orleans Saints find themselves trying to chase down the rest of the NFL after a disappointing start, a familiar if unenviable position for a franchise trying to find its way again.
But the problems that cost the Saints their first two games are decidedly unfamiliar to a franchise that built itself into a contender on the strength of its offense.
The vaunted New Orleans offense, handed opportunities to take control over and over again by a young defense that came up big when the Saints needed it most, failed to capitalize on most of those chances in Sunday’s 26-19 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a franchise that came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston making his first road start and having suffered seven straight losses to the Saints.
“We put our defense in a tough spot and kind of just halted our momentum right when we started to get something going,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “That was very disappointing, especially at the end of the game, when we felt like we were going to make a run.”
New Orleans (0-2) spent the offseason revamping its defense, sacrificing playmakers on offense to improve a defense that finished 31st in the NFL a year ago and regularly forced the offense to play almost mistake-free football to win.
The defense largely lived up to the investment Sunday.
Despite playing a second consecutive game without injured starters Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe, New Orleans limited Tampa Bay to just one field goal on its first four drives. Even Kyle Brindza’s 55-yard field goal was a win for the defense; Tampa Bay opened that drive with a short field, the product of a 21-yard sack and fumble that forced Thomas Morstead to punt out of his team’s end zone.
The Saints offense failed to capitalize. Handed a chance to break out to the kind of fast start that has eluded New Orleans during a six-game home losing streak, the offense instead punted four straight times, forcing the defense to protect a short field each time.
“Man, we played that entire first half on our side of the field, with the exception of that one drive when we went down and got a touchdown,” Brees said. “Shame on us as an offense for not doing something about it.”
The Saints finally found a rhythm with a seven-play, 58-yard drive that Mark Ingram capped with an 11-yard touchdown run. New Orleans had a chance to take a lead into halftime.
Then the defense faltered. Winston, aided by a roughing-the-passer penalty, answered with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson with 12 seconds left in the half, and a pass interference penalty by Brandon Browner on the first drive of the second half set up a 1-yard TD run from Winston to give the Bucs a 17-7 lead.
“When our defense needed to be off the field and our offense needed to do something, (we couldn’t),” coach Sean Payton said. “Early on we struggled, and all of a sudden they’re back out on the field.”
But the defense righted itself and started coming up with big stops again, limiting the Buccaneers to field goals after a Brees interception and a Willie Snead fumble gave Tampa Bay short fields. Offered a chance, the Saints cut the lead to 23-13 early in the fourth quarter on an Austin Johnson touchdown run.
“We came together when we needed it,” cornerback Delvin Breaux said.
New Orleans still needed the defense to come up with big plays to have a chance. A year ago, that would have been a tough proposition.
This time, the defense answered over and over again. Three plays after Johnson’s touchdown, rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha sacked Winston and stripped the ball, handing the offense a short field. A missed field goal squelched that opportunity, and then defensive tackle Kevin Williams forced a Doug Martin fumble that Cam Jordan recovered, giving the offense the same situation it had just squandered.
“A lot of guys stepped up,” Jordan said. “They played big when we needed it. We have to get to the point where we don’t have to play big.”
Brees finally capitalized, hitting Willie Snead for a 16-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 23-19. After all of those turnovers, New Orleans needed another stop. This time, a second-down sack by Jordan and a third-down stop by Kasim Edebali gave the Saints a chance to take the lead.
After coming away sackless in the season opener, the New Orleans pass rush shut down Tampa Bay by keeping Winston on the move in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like a lot of things came to fruition in the fourth quarter,” Kikaha said. “There were things that we set up early in the game so we could come through in the fourth.”
But the offense faltered again. Running back Mark Ingram fumbled two plays later, and although the defense held again to give the offense a chance to tie, Brees couldn’t come up with a game-tying drive.
Now the Saints find themselves two games behind Carolina and Atlanta in the NFC South just two weeks into the season.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a big level of concern,” Brees said. “Mainly just disappointment.”
Disappointment because a win was there for the taking.