LANDOVER, Md. — The New Orleans Saints find themselves in a position they thought they had left behind.
Except, this time, there is even less room for recovery.
Two weeks after clawing their way back into the playoff race, New Orleans again finds itself in last place in the NFC South after a disheartening 47-14 loss to a Washington Redskins team that overwhelmed the Saints’ overmatched defense and sent New Orleans into its bye week searching for answers.
“I told the players, ‘Hey, all the things that we set out to accomplish in this game, I don’t know that we checked one box off,’ ” coach Sean Payton said.
New Orleans (4-6) found itself defenseless again Sunday, a problem that has plagued the Saints for the past two seasons.
A defense remade both from a personnel and a philosophical perspective has fallen flat, torched three straight weeks by pedestrian offenses. Washington (4-5) has been anything but explosive this season. Under coach Jay Gruden’s direction, Washington entered Sunday’s game with one of the league’s worst rushing offenses and a passing game that had often been efficient but rarely produced fireworks.
At least until quarterback Kirk Cousins faced the Saints.
Already decimated by injuries at linebacker and cornerback, the Saints lost rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha when he aggravated an ankle injury in the first quarter and lost cornerback Keenan Lewis in the second after an awkward hit to his knee.
With or without those players, the Saints offered little resistance.
Washington rolled up 514 yards of offense, the most the franchise has posted since 1991, and averaged 8.7 yards per play, the team’s highest average since 1996.
“We can’t make no excuses for it,” rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony said. “Every Sunday that we’re called to play, we’ve got to show up and play.”
Cousins and Gruden didn’t need to do anything exotic.
After a 42-yard completion to DeSean Jackson that kick-started Washington’s first drive, Cousins settled into an easy rhythm, content to throw the ball short and let his receivers do the rest. After the injuries at linebacker, the Saints remain vulnerable underneath, and Cousins tossed four touchdown passes: a 16-yarder to Jordan Reed, an 11-yard score to Jamison Crowder, a 78-yard screen to Matt Jones and an 8-yard slant to Reed — largely by throwing short routes to the middle of the field.
New Orleans fared no better against the run. With Gruden alternating Jones and Alfred Morris at running back, Washington ripped off 213 rushing yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the first time since November 2013.
With the Saints struggling again on defense — New Orleans ranks near the bottom of most major categories — coordinator Rob Ryan has been roundly criticized. Although Payton declined after the game to answer a question about Ryan’s job security, the defense’s architect is under fire once again.
“Anytime you’re in his situation, anything that goes wrong, they point the finger at you,” Anthony said. “He hasn’t caught a break yet. It’s on us to play better, and that’s just something we’ve got to get handled.”
And the Saints failed to turn this one into a shootout, failing to score after two early touchdown passes from Drew Brees to Brandin Cooks.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t too much good to speak of,” Brees said. “We got beat in all three phases.”
Whatever the Saints decide to do on defense during their bye, they need to find a way to regroup and go on a run in the season’s final six games.
Placed in the same situation a year ago, the New Orleans locker room disintegrated, but the Saints insist those problems are gone. No matter what New Orleans has faced this season, the Saints have steadfastly reiterated that they don’t believe this group will face the same problems.
“Not with this team,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “We started off real slow, and that didn’t divide the team. We just ended up hitting a stretch, so we’ve got to get it back going.”
By dropping back-to-back games to Tennessee and Washington, the Saints are a half-game behind Tampa Bay in the division, needing a remarkable run and probably some help to have any chance at the playoffs.
But this group of Saints said the team will remain focused.
“These are tough times. ... Everyone wants to question our team, our talent and whatever else people want to question,” Brees said. “Things haven’t gone the way we want the past two weeks. Maybe it hasn’t gone the way we envision the whole season. We’re sitting here at 4-6. We thought that we would be better than that, but this book hasn’t been written yet.”
New Orleans has rewritten the narrative once already this season, putting together a three-game winning streak to bring itself back from the dead. Now the Saints have to find another plot twist sometime in the next two weeks.