The New Orleans Saints nearly found a way to redeem their ugliest start of the season Monday night.
But the same old problems that have derailed this season so many times before proved to be too much to overcome, drowning an impressive display of effort in a sea of all-too-familiar mistakes.
Backed into a corner by an overmatched defense, the Saints offense failed to wake up in time to complete a furious comeback in a 35-27 loss to the Detroit Lions, the fifth defeat in New Orleans’ past six games and a disappointing effort in a prime-time game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, a time slot the Saints used to dominate.
“They got off to a fast start. That’s kind of their profile,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “We weren’t able to match it.”
Under new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, the Saints (5-9) were coming off their most complete performance of the season in last Sunday’s win at Tampa Bay, an encouraging sign that the defense might be headed in the right direction.
Detroit (5-9) shot down that storyline right away. The Lions have had their own problems on offense this season, mostly a running game that ranks last in the league and a passing game that has been all too inefficient for most of the season.
New Orleans managed to cure all of the Lions’ offensive illnesses in one half, and Detroit’s offense relied on its newfound momentum to close things out in the second half.
The league’s worst rushing attack ripped off 150 yards on just 23 carries, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
And Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford took advantage, completing 22 of 25 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, all of which came in a 21-3 first-half blitz.
Stafford sandwiched two short scoring throws to Golden Tate around a touchdown pass to wide-open fullback Michael Burton.
“We’ve got to play better on defense,” Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We can’t give up that many points in a half.”
For most of the first half, the New Orleans offense couldn’t answer. When the Saints took over near the end of second quarter, a punchless New Orleans offense was averaging just 3.5 yards per play.
Then a bizarre sequence of plays cost the Saints a chance to begin their comeback at the end of the first half.
New Orleans finally broke out of its funk on a spectacular, twisting, one-handing catch by Brandin Cooks that was originally ruled a touchdown and overturned on review, with Cooks ruled down at the 1-yard line.
One play later, Tim Hightower scored on a 1-yard plunge, but the play was called back for an illegal formation. Then, on fourth-and-goal, play was stopped for a timeout by the Lions — even though they no longer had any timeouts.
“A timeout was granted inadvertently on that play,” referee Pete Morelli said. “There’s no penalty on that type of play. The only penalty is when they freeze a kicker. By rule, there is no foul for using an extra timeout. ... The play should have kept going.”
Detroit’s gaffe ended up costing the Lions nothing. Brees hit Marques Colston for a touchdown on the next play, but a penalty for an ineligible receiver downfield forced the Saints to head into the second half trailing 21-3.
Senio Kelemete, often the Saints’ sixth offensive lineman, was the player flagged, and coach Sean Payton said it shouldn’t have happened.
“He reported,” Payton said. “Typically, once you do that, the personnel doesn’t change. He was in for the prior play, and the explanation I got was that he never reported. … Senio’s one of the smartest guys on our team.”
New Orleans needed that touchdown badly.
That long throw to Cooks unlocked something in the Saints offense, allowing Brees to find momentum after suffering a minor foot injury in the first half. Working repeatedly to Cooks despite the second-year receiver’s matchup against star cornerback Darius Slay, Brees got things moving
First, a 27-yard touchdown pass dropped in to Cooks; then came an eight-play, 69-yard drive for a field goal that began with a 23-yard completion to Cooks; and finally there was a touchdown pass to Colston that cut the lead to 28-20, bringing the Superdome crowd to a roar again.
For most of the second half, Brees and the passing game were unstoppable. Cooks dominated his matchup against Slay, reeling in 10 catches for 124 yards, and Willie Snead added 10 catches for 76 yards, roaring the Saints back into a game they should have already lost.
Unfortunately, Allen’s defense couldn’t make the comeback count.
Handed the ball under fire from a roaring crowd, Stafford calmly took advantage of the Saints defense, directing a nine-play, 76-yard drive that Joique Bell capped with a 1-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach at 35-20.
After Brees found Benjamin Watson for his third touchdown pass to once again cut the lead to one score with 2 minutes left, the defense allowed Bell to rip off a 36-yard run that essentially sealed the game.
“We had some stops in the second half, but overall, we’ve just got to play better,” Vaccaro said. “They just had our number.”