ARLINGTON, Texas — Smiles are not guaranteed at Jerry World.
Sometimes teams come to the Texas theme park that masquerades as a football field and find out that their bonds are not quite as unbreakable as they assumed. That’s what happened to the New Orleans Saints during Sunday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.
They entered AT&T Stadium with hope that their season might get back on track. They exited as 38-17 losers, the dimming light flickering in the distance for a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations.
“We took one step (forward) with the Vikings win last week,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We took three steps back tonight, and that’s very disappointing.”
It was the same story that had played out in parts at various times throughout the season. There were miscommunications, defensive breakdowns, missed tackles, dropped passes, penalties and missed field goals. The only difference is that, instead of showing up in spurts or one at a time, they were all there Sunday night, plaguing the Saints from start to finish.
By halftime, the Saints were essentially finished — down 24-0 and well on their way to a 1-3 start.
“Obviously we struggled in all areas tonight,” coach Sean Payton said. “We struggled offensively, defensively, kicking game, coaching. There’s not going to be much good to see on this film. We’re 1-3 right now, and that’s about how we’re playing.”
The Saints trotted out the same game plan they used against Dallas receiver Dez Bryant last year: Cornerback Keenan Lewis shadowed him across the formation, often meeting him at the line of scrimmage with physical coverage. It worked.
The Pro Bowl receiver was covered by Lewis on all but three passing plays in the first half and entered halftime with two catches for 26 yards. Bryant once beat Lewis badly on an out route for 17 yards. His other reception came when he took advantage of a large cushion provided by Lewis. All things considered, the damage was minimal.
The problem was that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo (22-of-29, 262 yards, three touchdowns) was able to exploit the rest of the Saints defense. New Orleans stood tall, trying to resist at first. But once things started coming apart, the defense slowly frayed until it was left standing desperate and exposed.
Romo connected on all six of his passes to lead the Cowboys to a 7-0 lead with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams on the opening drive. After trading unsuccessful drives, the Saints had an opportunity to get on the board, but Shayne Graham sent a 41-yard field goal attempt wide right.
The Cowboys responded with a 51-yard field goal on their next drive and then picked off Drew Brees (32-of-44, 340 yards, two touchdowns) after he tried to force a pass to Robert Meachem through a tight window. With the game slipping away, the defense began to press as they attempted to force a turnover.
The harder they tried, the more things got away from them. Lofton failed to wrap up running Lance Dunbar, allowing him to pick up 24 yards on a screen that should have been a short gain. DeMarco Murray (24 carries, 149 yards, two touchdowns) ran in a 15-yard touchdown on the next play, which featured a missed tackle by safety Jairus Byrd, to give Dallas a 17-0 lead.
“We didn’t do a good job of stopping that run,” Byrd said. “You can’t keep a strong team like this two-dimensional. We’ve got to do the little things better. They can’t be able to run and pass at will.”
After forcing the Saints to punt, Murray opened up the next drive by taking a run up the middle for 22 yards. Dallas pushed down to the Saints’ 23-yard line. New Orleans put both of its safeties in the box on a first-down play, likely expecting a run. Romo targeted Williams, who was isolated on undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Dixon, for an easy 23-yard touchdown.
“We had energy. It’s ‘Sunday Night Football,’ ” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We got beat in all phases of the game ... all the core things we talk about during the week.”
Things weren’t much better on offense. The numbers will look better on paper than they do on film. Seeing how the numbers came together, few will take solace in the fact that Brees connected on two deep balls (a 22-yarder to Marques Colston and a 46-yarder to Kenny Stills) when he easily could have been intercepted two other times in the first half.
Khiry Robinson broke loose for a 62-yard gain to help disguise the fact that the running game was mostly inept. And Travaris Cadet continued to fight the good fight late in the game, making several key plays on a scoring drive that ended with Jimmy Graham fighting his way into the end zone with 9:49 remaining to make it 31-17.
And it could have looked even better if Graham hadn’t fumbled in the red zone earlier in the half to erase another scoring opportunity.
But it was all window dressing. New Orleans disappeared for two quarters last week against Minnesota and got away with it. This time, they got burned, even though there was a moment midway through the fourth quarter when it appeared they had a chance to escape the mess.
Vaccaro sacked Romo on third down, forcing the Cowboys to punt with the score 31-17. The first three downs produced a Stills drop, an illegal substitution penalty, a pass to Graham that was nearly intercepted and a screen that only gained 6 yards.
On fourth down, the Saints brought out the punt team and decided to fake it on fourth-and-9. It didn’t work: Thomas Morstead rolled to his left, found nothing and was quickly sacked.
The light further dimmed and everything that happened after that moment — including a Bryant touchdown on the ensuing drive — were superfluous details.