LANDOVER, Md. — Sean Payton made an analogy last week about how, when he sees a child misbehaving in a grocery store, at a certain point he looks at the parents and places blame on them instead of the child.
Sunday’s 47-14 loss to the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field might have been a full-blown tantrum by his New Orleans Saints.
They did very few things worthy of a gold star and put together one of their worst performances of the past two seasons — if not overall, then certainly on defense.
With New Orleans now entering its bye week, there’s a growing perception that Payton needs to take a long look at the various guardians he employees — in particular defensive coordinator Rob Ryan — and make decisions that could affect their futures with the franchise.
Payton, as has been his method of operation for years, declined to get into his thinking immediately after the game during his news conference.
“We’re sitting here after a game, and we’re not going to discuss any of those types of changes,” Payton said. “Certainly not right now.”
That moment is coming. New Orleans can’t keep going down this path. The team stripped its offense of talent to improve the defensive talent, dropped Ryan’s exotic scheme in favor of a simplified one and brought in former head coach and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to serve as an assistant on defense.
Sure, the team has dealt with injuries to key players like linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Keenan Lewis, and defensive end Junior Galette decided to break bad this offseason — all of that has led to some of the struggles. But there are few silver linings to be found right now, and many of the mistakes go beyond talent or personnel.
The New Orleans defense, by almost every statistical measure, is among the worst in the league. Seemingly every quarterback the Saints face sets career marks, whether it’s a rookie like Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota or an established player like New York’s Eli Manning. Even journeymen like Brandon Weeden have had good days against this defense.
It’s not just the guys passing the ball who have found New Orleans to be as hospitable as it claims on travel brochures. Running backs and tight ends also have found the Saints to be gracious hosts. Just ask Washington running backs Alfred Morris and Matt Jones: They combined for 148 rushing yards and 145 receiving yards Sunday. And while the Saints did a good job against tight end Jordan Reed, who had three catches for 29 yards, he still scored a pair of touchdowns.
Members of the New Orleans defense wouldn’t go on the record saying they are ready for a change. Those decisions, they said, they’d leave up to Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis. They are, however, ready for general change after allowing 514 yards Sunday.
“I just want to win,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Whatever Coach Payton and Mickey decide to do, I just want to be in a position to win and have fun.”
It wasn’t fun Sunday, and there was little chance of winning. The Washington offense didn’t take deep shots and blow New Orleans off the field. Instead, the Redskins located a vulnerability in the defense, dumped it off to their guys underneath and let them run all over the Saints. This was evidenced by Kirk Cousins completing only eight passes for 114 yards to his wide receivers. He finished 20-of-25 for 324 yards with four touchdowns.
For a team that has struggled with fundamentals at times, it was the perfect approach. New Orleans never figured out how to defend Cousins’ screen passes, and the guys catching his throws inflated the yardage total by doing the bulk of the damage after the catch. Jones alone probably topped 100 yards after the catch on three receptions.
The approach was a change of pace for Washington, and the Saints never figured out how to adjust to it.
“(There are) certain things you see on film and then, when you get to the game, it’s schematically different from what was on tape,” cornerback Delvin Breaux said. “They did a real good job of underneath routes and throwing screen games and getting their backs involved. We didn’t have a call for it, and they did it real well. We did the best we could. The coaches had a great game plan. It’s like chess. Pieces moving, and they countered everything we had.”
Vaccaro disagreed about not having the right calls in. He said the coaches can’t call something to specifically stop a screen pass and surrender everything else. Every call the defense makes should be able to combat against those plays.
It comes down to fundamentals. The defense needs to rally to the ball, tackle and clean up anything that gets by the first line of defense. That didn’t happen Sunday. Repeatedly.
It’s fair to wonder whether things could have been different if the defense was healthy. Maybe it would have been different if backups like linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Michael Mauti weren’t playing significant snaps.
Maybe the team would have tackled better if Ellerbe and fellow linebackers David Hawthorne and Hau’oli Kikaha (limited Sunday) were on the field. Maybe Ellerbe does a better job picking up guys in coverage. There’s no question that having everyone on the field would have helped. But would it have helped enough?
New Orleans still would have been caught off guard, and most of the guys on the field still wouldn’t have closed to the ball well or tackled any better. And most of that stuff is on the players.
“That’s on us,” Vaccaro said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with any call (Ryan) has.”
Maybe it doesn’t.
But with repeated issues, there’s no doubt Ryan is at least getting a sideways glance from Payton, if not a direct glare.
The question now: Will Ryan get the opportunity to make Payton look away?