Even though the Saints have gotten off to a slow start this season, the team believes it has been conducting productive practices full of quality moments.
But for whatever reason, those feelings haven’t been translating to Sundays. New Orleans did manage to sneak out a win over the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, but the team fell flat Sunday in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
So in an effort to ramp up the intensity this week and keep guys sharp heading into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Sean Payton changed up one of his practice periods by letting the offense face off against the defense.
“The schedule was very similar, and yet, look, obviously there’s that sense of urgency that needs to be present,” Payton said. “We get prepared now and work our way through this. This will be a tough challenge playing against Tampa.”
The change drew rave reviews from all parties involved. The players said the intensity level was higher than usual and it gave them a more competitive period than they would typically receive working against the scout teams.
“I think anytime a coach switches it up, throws something different in there, it makes you more alert, like, ‘OK, it’s changed up,’” safety Jairus Byrd said. “A lot of times if you do the same thing, it becomes monotonous. Everyone is like, ‘OK, we know what’s coming next.’”
“It all goes back to we have to find ways to win. You have to compete,” offensive tackle Zach Strief added. “At the end of the day, you could drop a scheme on the board for an hour and none of that scheme is going to win a game for us. It’s about winning one-on-one battles and beating the man across from you. The more you can do that, the more you can practice that, the more comfortable you are doing it in a game.”
One risk in holding an intrasquad session is that it takes the focus off preparing for the upcoming opponent. Typically the first-team units would go against a scout team that is focused on simulating the upcoming opponent by running their plays and mimicking their tendencies.
On Wednesday, the Saints first-team offense went head-to-head against the Saints first-team defense operating entirely as themselves. But the players said they do not feel as though anything was sacrificed since the session was more competitive than usual and believe they will come out ahead in the end.
“I think you’re working against your offense because you’re getting probably a better look than you would against your scout team,” Byrd said. “You’re operating at a higher level, and at the same time you’re still getting your work. That’s not getting thrown out the door working against the plays you’re going to see on Sunday.
“I don’t really think you can, you know, act like whoever you’re playing. You can kind of simulate it. They’re trying to emulate it, but it’s more about the progressions that you’re seeing. It’s not really about exactly what the quarterback is going to do. It’s minute things.”
In many ways, the Saints early struggles have not been about being unprepared for the upcoming opponent. The belief is that they have lost three of their first four contests by self-inflicted wounds. There have been breakdowns in coverage and technique, communication errors, and turnovers at inopportune times.
The goal has become to tighten things up, execute better, and put forth a full 60-minute effort — something that alluded this team through the first quarter of the season. With critics howling on the outside, there is an internal belief that sweeping changes are not needed. It’s more about staying the course and cleaning things up.
If it can do that, the Saints, who trail the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers by one game in the NFC South standings, believe they can get their season back on track and compete for a playoff spot.
“If I had a doubt we couldn’t win, I’d turn my equipment in and go home,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “I definitely feel like we can get this thing going.”
So it’s not time to panic?
“It’s easy because there’s never panic,” Payton said. “That doesn’t exist, but each week as you prepare in this league, there is that sense of urgency.”
That sense of urgency led Payton to switch things up during Wednesday’s practice. The question is, who won the battle between the offense and defense?
“What do you think?” Lewis said before being pressed for a more precise answer.
“I don’t know, we have to go to the film study and watch,” he said.
Many players said the film session after the Dallas game was not a pleasant experience.
If Payton’s wrinkle harvests results against Tampa Bay, maybe next week’s viewing session will be more enjoyable.