It looked like it was going to be another “blah, blah, blah” game for the New Orleans Saints.
The kind of performance where you could say the Saints blew opportunities, struggled on defense and couldn’t stop the run — and the person listening would be able to fill in all the details.
In other words, this one started off how last week’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals ended. There was only a faint pulse early. New Orleans couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t get out of its own way long enough to find success.
It looked like it was going to be another long, noncompetitive game.
It eventually turned into a game, with the Saints keeping hope alive at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome until late in the fourth quarter, but they eventually fell 34-27 to the Baltimore Ravens. The loss keeps New Orleans (4-7) tied for first place in the NFC South with the Atlanta Falcons before figuring in tiebreakers.
It was also the third consecutive game the Saints have lost at home.
“We’re not trying to figure it out; we’re trying to correct it,” Payton said. “Our margin for error isn’t good enough to win. We’ve lost some close games. We’ve got be able to play better and coach better. That falls on me, it falls on our staff, our players — all of us together. We got to make sure we got enough thick skin ... to bounce back next week.”
And, in some ways, perhaps this was another “blah, blah, blah” performance by the Saints. The same issues that have plagued this team at various junctures this season came back again Monday night.
What it came down to, as it has in other games this season, is that the offensive line couldn’t keep the pocket clean enough for Drew Brees to finish the job, and the defense, despite being galvanized by a dustup between safety Vaccaro and Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. early in the third quarter, couldn’t get enough stops to change the outcome.
Brees fought all night. Facing heavy pressure throughout the contest, he completed 35-of-45 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns, but it will be his one costly mistake that defines his performance. With 5:10 remaining in the third quarter, Brees took a snap, immediately faced pressure from Terrell Suggs and was forced to hurry his pass. In his haste, he threw it slightly behind Jimmy Graham and into the arms of safety Will Hill, who took it back 44 yards to give the Ravens a 24-17 lead.
It became clear the offensive line had lost the battle on the next series when Brees was sacked on consecutive downs by Suggs and linebacker Elvis Dumervil. In all, Brees was sacked four times.
“We got to be better at that,” the Saints’ Jahri Evans said. “He was under pressure a lot this game.”
Until the Hill interception, Brees and the passing offense was the only thing keeping New Orleans in this game. Running back Mark Ingram had little success running the ball, and the defense couldn’t slow Baltimore, whether it be through the ground or air.
There was a moment when the defense ramped up its intensity: Vaccaro and Smith traded blows on the sideline, which led to Vaccaro being flagged for a personal foul, but the drive still ended with Baltimore hitting a field goal to tie it at 17.
“It was a thing where I’m not going to back down,” Vaccaro said. “It’s just the way it is. He’s a grown man. I’m a grown man.”
But things returned to the status quo quickly after. The defense couldn’t get third-down stops, allowing Baltimore to convert 9-of-13, and the Ravens quickly went back to gutting the defense, with running back Justin Forsett finishing with 182 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
New Orleans fighting its way back into it really only served to make the loss sting more. The Ravens (7-4) put the finishing touches on the game when Forsett broke a 20-yard run to make it 34-20 with 2:53 remaining, leaving the Saints to spend another week in a state of frustration — which is exactly how the game started.
In some ways, the opening drive personified the struggles this team has faced all season. Receiver Joe Morgan, filling in for injured rookie Brandin Cooks, came off the left side of the formation and ripped up the sideline for a 62-yard gain on a handoff on the game’s second play. He would have scored but was brought down by a horse-collar tackle that gave New Orleans first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
But the Saints were stuffed on consecutive runs and lost 5 yards on a false start. Brees scrambled the Saints back to the 1-yard line on third down, and Ingram was stuffed going up the middle on fourth down.
“I thought it was an important time for us in the game to maybe send a message,” Payton said. “That’s one of the reasons why not only did we go for it, but we ran it. It’s two times now, two weeks in a row where we’re not able to get it, but we’re not able to defend it from that position on the field.”
The Ravens gutted New Orleans by opening with a 38-yard run by Forsett on first down and ended the drive with Joe Flacco (18-of-24, 243 yards, one touchdown) finding Smith in the left corner of the end zone. He scored a 15-yard touchdown after Brian Dixon, who provided tight coverage, failed to locate the ball.
New Orleans’ third drive started out like the first. On the fourth play, Brees connected with a streaking Morgan, who got open down the seam for a 62-yard reception, the longest reception of the season by a Saints player. This time, New Orleans was able to take advantage, with Brees finding Graham in the end zone for a 10-yard score.
The Ravens pushed down to the 6-yard line on their next drive, where rookie safety Pierre Warren, playing in his first game with the Saints after being signed off Minnesota’s practice squad, stripped the ball from fullback Kyle Juszczyk and recovered it at the goal line.
New Orleans was able to take advantage and was forced to punt on its next possession. After receiving the ball, Baltimore opened with a 40-yard pass to Smith (four catches, 89 yards) down the right sideline over Corey White. The drive ended with Forsett going up the middle — and past a diving Warren — for a 13-yard touchdown.
“When you’re not able to defend that, then it becomes tough to do some of the other stuff because of play action and the coverage it puts on your defensive backfield — and all of the sudden, you are getting a lot of single safety or zero looks,” Payton said of Baltimore’s running game.
The Saints pushed to the 2-yard line on their next drive but were denied a touchdown when Hill knocked the ball out of Graham’s hands. New Orleans settled for a field goal and finally came to life on its next drive.
After the Saints surrendered three third-down conversions to this point, pass rusher Junior Galette blew through the line and dropped Flacco for New Orleans’ first sack of the game on third down. Baltimore was forced to punt, giving the ball back with two minutes remaining.
Brees and the offense went to work. Operating out of the two-minute offense, the Saints quickly moved 81 yards on eight plays, four of which came without a huddle. The play culminated with Brees connecting with Marques Colston for a 26-yard touchdown pass placed right between the cornerback and a closing safety to give the Saints a 17-14 halftime lead.
That lead did not hold. The Saints slowly crumbled during the second half and now head to Pittsburgh on Sunday in need of a victory.
“We got to keep progressing; we just need to get a win,” Vaccaro said. “That’s our biggest goal. Drew said it best: ‘We need one win.’ ”