HOUSTON — For the second time this season, the New Orleans Saints find themselves mired in a three-game losing streak, frustrated by missed opportunities and staring up at the rest of the NFC South as chances to get back in the mix keep slipping from their grasp.
And this time, the offense has hit a low rarely seen in the Sean Payton and Drew Brees era.
Facing off against a red-hot Houston defense led by J.J. Watt, the NFL’s best defensive player, New Orleans found itself overmatched in a 24-6 loss. The Saints failed to score a touchdown for the first time in the decade Payton has led the team.
“Every game, we know, is going to be hard-fought, and there are little things here and there that are going to determine the outcome,” Brees said. “We didn’t do any of those things today to even really give us a chance.”
New Orleans (4-7) hasn’t had many days like Sunday in the time Brees and Payton have been together.
Unable to put the ball in the end zone, the Saints snapped a streak of 155 games with a touchdown, the second-longest in NFL history and a run that dated to before Payton was hired. Brees, who was sacked twice by Watt and spent most of the day under fire, saw a streak of 45 straight games with a touchdown pass end, snapping a stretch that ranked fifth in NFL history.
Overwhelmed by Houston’s defensive front and a secondary that often took away Brees’ options, the Saints put up 260 yards, the first time since a December 2013 loss to Seattle that New Orleans failed to break the 300-yard barrier.
“It’s a good defense,” Payton said. “We knew that going in, and yet we’ve got (missed assignments) on routes, guys busting some basic, basic things. (Offensive linemen) are on the ground in a couple of zone (blocking) schemes. There are some things I know when we watch on tape that we’re going to be upset about.”
Part of the problem was that New Orleans ran into a buzz saw.
Houston has given up fewer than 300 yards in each of its past four games, and the Texans are allowing only 9.75 points per game during the stretch.
But coming off a bye week to rest, recharge and implement changes from Payton designed to get the Saints back on track, New Orleans was expecting more.
“We didn’t have any issues; there’s no problems. I think guys did it the right way,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “None of it matters if you don’t execute.”
The biggest change Payton made during the bye week provided mixed results.
A beleaguered New Orleans defense, working under the leadership of new coordinator Dennis Allen instead of Rob Ryan, allowed 24 points and 362 yards, the first time the Saints limited an opposing offense to fewer than 400 yards and 30 points in November.
But the defense also allowed Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer to complete 21 of 27 throws for 205 yards and two touchdowns, stake the Texans to a 14-0 lead and allow the defense and a running game that totaled 167 yards to cut down Brees’ chances.
“I thought we settled in and played better as that game wore on,” Payton said. “The first thing is really our struggles on offense.”
New Orleans simply never got anything going on offense. In their first 16 plays, the Saints gained just 29 yards, and New Orleans never was able to break out of that funk. Brees was 25-of-44 for 228 yards, but he also threw an interception in the red zone and New Orleans was forced to settle for two field goals to get any points on the board.
Now the Saints find themselves at the end of a three-game losing streak for the second time this season.
“It’s tough. We talked about having a second season and staying in the hunt, but at the same time, you’ve got to respond,” strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “I hate to repeat myself, but we’ve got to bounce back, and that’s the way it is. We’re going to get better defensively. Offensively, they’ll get it cleaned up.”
But New Orleans remains focused on finding a way to get back on track. Unlike the 2014 season, the Saints remain adamant that the team has the right mix in the locker room and the right focus. They simply aren’t turning it into wins.
The Saints have to find a way to recapture the October formula that led to three straight wins over teams still in the playoff hunt.
“I’m confident that we’ve shown ourselves we can play at a very high level,” Brees said. “I think we’ve faltered here and there over the last few weeks, but we still have a lot to play for.”