The New Orleans Saints looked like a team that took a giant leap forward in Thursday night’s 31-21 victory against the previously unbeaten Atlanta Falcons.
But coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the Saints hold no illusions about the work that still needs to be done.
A big win over a high-flying rival is only the first step. Now, with a road trip to Indianapolis looming this week, New Orleans needs to focus on developing the areas that improved Thursday into consistent strengths and take a hard look at a few areas that could have left the door open against the Falcons.
“One of the challenges as a coach in tough losses is there are some positive things that you have to look at closely, and sometimes in a big win, you have to pay close attention to the mistakes made,” Payton said. “When these guys get back in here, we’re going to be coaching them hard. There were a lot of positive things in the game, and there were a handful of things that we’re going to take that we have to be better at.”
First and foremost, there’s the ground game.
New Orleans gave up 150 rushing yards on just 21 Atlanta carries — a 7.1-yard average — and managed to pick up only 81 yards on 32 carries of its own, including a paltry 18 yards on 12 carries in the first half.
A fast start and a momentum-changing blocked punt gave the Saints the kind of lead that minimized those deficiencies Thursday night. New Orleans may not have the same luxury in future games, and the Saints’ issues on the ground have become a trend. New Orleans ranks near the bottom of the league in rushing and defending the run.
“Our run defense and our run offense, we have to improve on,” Payton said. “I think, in the second half, both sides of the ball were better.”
New Orleans gave up 51 yards on seven carries in the second half, roughly the same pace Atlanta racked up yards in the first half. But on offense, the Saints were able to grind out 63 yards on 20 carries, including several that featured tough, hard-won yards but kept drives going.
With the offensive line hoping to get Terron Armstead and Tim Lelito back against Indianapolis, the Saints want to realize the potential of a running game that was touted as a potential strength in the preseason.
“You look at it, and there are plays where a guy doesn’t make a block that he needs to make, and then you look at plays that you see a hole that we didn’t get to,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “There are plays where we didn’t get something identified correctly where we are turning someone free. It is really execution, and it’s across the board.”
Brees, who played brilliantly against the Falcons, left Thursday’s game with a honey-do list of things he wants to clean up before the Indianapolis game. The Saints are averaging just 22.3 points, which would be the fewest of the decade Brees has spent in New Orleans.
“I still think we can do some things better,” Brees said. “I think we can be a bit more efficient in the passing game. I think that we can rush the ball better. I think that we can continue to be better on first and second down, so that we are not in so many third-down situations. There are areas where I know that we can become better, and I know that we can become more efficient.”
Defensively, despite a penchant for red-zone stops, five sacks from the pass rush and dominant play from players like Delvin Breaux, Cam Jordan and Dannell Ellerbe, the Saints are still giving up too many yards between the 20-yard lines.
But the Saints gave themselves a building block. Now, they need to make sure it continues.
“At 2-4, no one is happy with where you sit right now,” Payton said. “There is only one way to approach that and that, each week, is to look closely at the next game but pay attention to the things that you have to improve on. ... (We’ll) keep working at it.”