CLEVELAND — The dunk no longer exists. After scoring a pair of touchdowns Sunday, Jimmy Graham tucked the ball under his arm, jogged to the sideline and tossed the ball to someone standing near the bench.
The Saints’ performance Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium was similar to Graham’s new, subdued celebration. There were no thrills, and it was something of a dud for those waiting for this team to slam down an exclamation point on its offseason bravado.
The only difference was New Orleans tripped at the beginning of the game, stumbled at the end and ultimately fell to the Browns 26-24.
It’s confusing. This team is supposed to be contending for a Super Bowl title. Instead it sits 0-2, a record that is often a death knell for playoff hopes. In the past 15 years, only 12 percent of teams that dropped their first two games made the playoffs.
“It’s head-scratching,” safety Jairus Byrd said. “We got to figure something out. Both times it’s been the fundamentals. It’s the little things that are making big impacts negatively for it.”
It was head-scratching at different moments on both sides of the ball Sunday. The tackling woes that plagued the Saints during their Week 1 loss at Atlanta were mostly cleaned up. This time, the issues were in coverage and discipline.
The biggest miscue came on Cleveland’s final play before its winning field goal. The Browns had three receivers on the right and, instead of each cornerback picking up one man, Patrick Robinson picked up the man going over the middle and Corey White and Keenan Lewis both went after Miles Austin, who ran a route to the right sideline.
There was no safety on the right side of the field. Byrd was down in the box and matched up with the man Robinson was covering. Kenny Vaccaro blitzed.
Andrew Hawkins was allowed to march down the field, uncovered.
Robinson was flagged for holding on the play, but it didn’t matter. Quarterback Brian Hoyer found Hawkins down the right side for a 28-yard reception, setting up the winning 29-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff.
Why did two players go with one man?
“We were trying to figure that out right now,” White said after speaking with his fellow defensive backs, including Lewis. “We’re going to go watch the film and figure it out from there. We don’t know.”
What the Browns knew is that the coverage fell apart, and they were ready to take advantage of the blitz after the Saints sent extra men on the play before and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage.
“We were surprised they all-out blitzed us two plays in a row,” Hoyer said. “I’m reading (Austin) first, then you just see everyone fly down; it’s almost like you throw a punt and just let him catch it.”
Robinson was taken off the hook for his misstep in this instance, but many will look to him when trying to diagnose what went wrong since he was partially responsible for the Browns’ first 10 points.
Robinson was in coverage on Cleveland’s first touchdown when Austin beat him on a double move for a 3-yard score. He was flagged for pass interference earlier in the drive on a third-down play, then was hit with another penalty for jumping offside on Cleveland’s next drive after Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal. He connected later in the drive after the Browns picked up 7 more yards.
After a few mixups, White replaced Robinson on the outside. On nickel plays, Robinson re-entered the game and covered the outside, with White moving into the slot.
“He’s an easy target,” coach Sean Payton said of Robinson. “I’m sure there’s going to be a ton of stuff on tape we’ve got to look at and will want to clean up. There’s a lot on my hands to just single out one player. ... He’s going to work to improve, and we’ve got to look at it overall.”
Offensively, the Saints got the ball rolling later in the game, but the first half was full of wasted opportunities until Drew Brees led a 12-play, 85-yard drive to pick up a touchdown before halftime.
The first 17 plays resulted in three punts and 35 yards gained. The next drive yielded a field goal, but Brees followed that by throwing an interception that Tashaun Gipson returned for a touchdown.
After that, the offense got rolling, scoring touchdowns on three of its final four drives to take a 24-23 lead. But looking back, it’s hard for the Saints not to focus on the first four series and not feel as though the difference might have come during those first 17 plays.
“So much of this game is momentum, and you have to be able to stay very composed and fight through adversity at times — especially if you’re on the road,” Brees said. “You have to deal with certain elements — the crowd noise and that kind of thing. I felt like, once we settled down, we started rolling.”
Brees also said he believes the Saints were one play away from winning this game. There are several candidates for this hypothetical game, but one stands out above the rest.
With 3:36 left in the fourth quarter, the Saints faced third-and-5 at the Browns’ 31-yard line. Cleveland overloaded the offensive right side of the field, and Brees called an audible to pitch left for running back Travaris Cadet.
With the play clock winding down, Brees received instructions to call a timeout and was sacked on the next play. The Saints punted and gave up the winning field goal on the ensuing possession.
“I kind of wish I would have just waved it off and said, ‘Hey, we got this,’” Brees said. “There are times where obviously, if you’re on the sideline, you see something that doesn’t just seem to be going the way it’s supposed to. That was a critical play in the game, so you want to make sure you have a really good play on. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it off in time.”
There were several things the Saints didn’t get off in time or could have done differently. If they had, this team could easily be 2-0 instead of 0-2.
It just hasn’t worked out that way.
“The NFL is a tough league to get a win in,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “It doesn’t matter who you play or where you play them; you’ve got to be able to finish games. We’ve always been able to finish games, but unfortunately the last two weeks we haven’t done that.”