ARLINGTON, Texas — There’s no shortage of issues plaguing any team that gets pounded the way the Saints did against the Cowboys during a 38-17 rout at AT&T Stadium on Sunday night.
But there’s one obstacle each on offense (an injury at left tackle), special teams (a shoddy field-goal kicking game) and defense (a baffling dearth of turnovers) the 1-3 Saints must overcome if they want to win in six days when they host a 1-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that upset the 2-2 Steelers in Pittsburgh on Sunday, or if they ever want to win as the visitors again as they come off losing the eighth of the last nine road trips they’ve taken.
“We got beaten in all phases of the game,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “(Those) are all the core things we talk about during the week.”
One presented itself Sunday on the Saints’ first offensive drive, when starting left tackle Terron Armstead sustained a concussion blocking on a 1-yard run to his side by running back Travaris Cadet. Armstead was slow to get up at the end of the play on third-and-3 — which preceded a Saints punt from Dallas’ 45 — and never returned to the field after going to the locker room to be examined.
The Saints replaced their 2013 third-round draft selection out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff with unproven third-year reserve offensive lineman Bryce Harris, who broke his ankle in his first career start as an undrafted rookie out of Fresno State in 2012 and then only started one game in 2013. In no way does Armstead’s injury ensure he will miss more than the action he did against Dallas.
But given the caution surrounding concussions in the NFL these days, he must be considered questionable at the moment for the Saints’ attempt to rebound against Tampa Bay.
The good news is that game will be in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints have won their last 18 games (one in the playoffs) with coach Sean Payton on the sideline. But, no matter the circumstances or venue, it’s far from ideal to possibly have someone like Harris — who had a holding penalty and a false start — protecting the blind side of quarterback Drew Brees, who had a statistically gaudy but ineffective Sunday in throwing for 340 yards, an interception and two second-half touchdowns on 32-of-44 passing.
“I felt comfortable going in because that’s my job,” Harris said. “I’ve got to get rid of the mental mistakes.”
A second glaring issue reared its ugly head on the Saints’ second offensive drive. New Orleans drove to Dallas’ 23 before needing to try a 41-yard field goal that could’ve cut the Cowboys’ lead at the time to 7-3. But Saints kicker Shayne Graham booted the ball wide right. Until then, the kicker had been 5-for-5 in five regular-season games with the Saints dating to the end of the 2013 campaign. He was 4-for-4 in a wildcard playoff win at Philadelphia in January.
But, unfortunately for him, he’s also misfired on two field goals in a divisional-round loss at Seattle, and he had an extra point deflected for a miss in the 20-9 win against Minnesota in New Orleans on Sept. 21. Conservative critics might say it’s premature to call Graham a liability at the job, and he did later make a 30-yard field goal. However, more aggressive critics might have a case arguing precisely that, for it is hard to trust any kicker who’s leaving points on the field, no matter how little of a difference they would’ve made on a night as doomed as Sunday.
Now, lastly, the dearth of turnovers is perhaps the most puzzling of all that plagues the Saints.
All offseason, the Saints emphasized the creation of turnovers. That’s what motivated them to sign three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, whose 22 career interceptions were the most among players at his position from 2009-13; and it’s why defenders aggressively scooped up every ball that hit the ground at training camp, no matter if it got there as the result of an incompletion.
Things started brilliantly at Atlanta in Week 1, when Byrd forced a first-quarter fumble the Saints recovered. But since then, there have been 15 quarters of football and zero turnovers created. Furthermore, the Saints have created a paltry five turnovers in their last 13 regular-season games dating to last season.
There could not have been clearer evidence than there was Sunday about how damaging that lack of takeaways has been to the Saints’ hopes of doing much of anything with their season. When the Saints’ five first-half drives resulted in two punts, a missed field goal, an interception and the end of the second quarter, the lack of New Orleans’ takeaways aided Dallas’ storming to a 24-0 lead.
That was too slow of a start and too steep of a deficit for the Saints to dig their way out of without any turnovers leading to quick scores. That’s a large reason why the Saints never truly got back in the fight despite Graham’s field goal and touchdown grabs from tight ends Josh Hill and Jimmy Graham in the second half.
“There was a period there where (the momentum) shifted a little bit, but not consistently enough,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.