The New Orleans Saints spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to fix coverage issues in the secondary.
New Orleans shifted its philosophy schematically in the offseason, overhauled the personnel at the cornerback position, and eventually fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, turning to Dennis Allen to pull the defense out of the cellar.
But the Saints still find themselves on pace to shatter the NFL record for passer rating allowed after a 331-yard, five-touchdown performance from Cam Newton in Sunday’s 41-38 loss to Carolina. Despite putting pressure on Newton and forcing turnovers in the first half, the Saints headed the other way in the second half, giving up 224 passing yards to Newton as receivers ran free deep down the field.
“With regards to the breakdowns in coverage, when they arrive, certainly that is one of the things we are looking at right now, and recognize that you can play with great effort and all of a sudden, if there is just one guy not in the right spot, it can affect you,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s a team game, and you have to count on all 11 guys.”
And the Saints lost an important guy early in Saturday’s game.
Delvin Breaux, a bright spot in a difficult season for the Saints’ secondary, opened the game on a tear, blowing up a screen to the outside, knocking away another pass and tearing the ball away from Ted Ginn for his second interception of the year.
Then Breaux pulled his hamstring 11 plays into the game. Breaux, who has often been the focal point of Saints’ game plans in coverage, wasn’t able to return to the game, and the Saints used Brian Dixon, who had played just 36 snaps on defense this year, and recently signed cornerback Chris Owens to help fill in for Breaux.
“It hurt a lot,” Payton said. “We were playing well and, obviously, we are already short one corner, but that’s how it is. Dixon did a good job of coming in there. ... There’s a lot of matchup things going into the game you are planning on that change (because Breaux got hurt).”
Without Breaux in the lineup, the Panthers isolated Ginn on Brandon Browner as much as possible in the second half. Ginn, who had beaten Browner for a deep ball in the first meeting between the two teams, dropped a few of his chances, but he also caught two touchdowns — one slipped into a zone between Browner and free safety Jairus Byrd — and Devin Funchess beat Browner for another touchdown. Ginn also got free for a 45-yard touchdown in a blown coverage, and Jerricho Cotchery appeared to beat Owens, who has been with the team only since Thanksgiving, for the game-winning touchdown late.
“Once you get in the heat of the battle, things are different,” Breaux said. “Especially for guys who weren’t put in that position all week in practice, have to get out there and play up to a great standard, and it didn’t happen. It was tough to watch.”
Penalties, another problem that has plagued the Saints all season, also handed Carolina six first downs.
For the Saints — who signed two cornerbacks in free agency, identified Breaux as a prospect out of the CFL, and drafted two more — the battle at cornerback has been tough. Third-round pick P.J. Williams was sidelined by a torn hamstring before he got started, presumed starter Keenan Lewis never played at full strength, and fellow rookie Damian Swann has been sidelined with concussions.
“In our league, you just have to get the next guy ready,” Payton said. “You just have to be ready to adjust to it, and it is challenging. That’s the game.”
A game that hasn’t given the Saints’ pass coverage much of a break at any point this season.