The New Orleans Saints honored late owner Tom Benson at halftime Sunday with a well-deserved place in the franchise’s Ring of Honor high up in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Surrounding that ceremony, casting a huge and ugly shadow over it, the Saints defense wore a ring of shame.
What has been touted as a Super Bowl contending season for the Saints got off to an ominously awful start with a 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team widely projected to finish last in the rugged NFC South. A loss within the division adds a bit of weight to the anchor of an 0-1 start.
The 88 points resulting from Sunday’s relay races made this the highest-scoring season opener in NFL history. Despite two turnovers — one of them resulting in a scoop-and-score fumble return by Tampa — the Saints should have scored enough points to win.
The glaring problem was the defense.
A couple hours after the game there were some kids having a catch on the Superdome turf. All the Saints players had long left the building, but even so these youngsters weren’t any more open than the Buccaneers’ receivers New Orleans was actively trying to stop.
Marshon Lattimore once talked about last year about how he approaches every game as if it is going to define who he is as a player.
They played a video of Benson at halftime from the day his statue was unveiled outside the Superdome.
“You go through life and you don’t think something like this will ever happen,” Benson said then, though he could have been referring to the circumstances surrounding Sunday’s game.
Tampa Bay, which started journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in place of a suspended Jameis Winston, was virtually unchecked, rolling up 529 total yards. The only time the Bucs punted was after Fitzpatrick overthrew a wide open Mike Evans on a go route up the sideline when Saints cornerback Ken Crawley fell down.
Fitzpatrick roasted Crawley and the rest of the Saints defense, completing 21 of 28 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns with a 24-karat quarterback rating of 156.2 (158.3 is perfect). When he wasn’t passing Fitzpatrick was scrambling away from the New Orleans pass rush, including a 12-yard run on third-and-11 just before the two-minute warning that put the Saints’ lights out.
The last time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored 48 points in a game was Jan. 26, 2003.
Asked what was the worst thing about his defense Sunday, Saints coach Sean Payton replied: “Take your pick. We did not hurry the passer. Guys were open. Third downs were awful (Tampa was 8 of 13). They had over 500 yards. We didn’t disrupt the timing to any element of the passing game, and we had too many penalties. I can’t think of any positives.”
Neither can we, Sean, other than the Saints did not give up down 48-24, rallying for a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns and two-point conversions to make Tampa sweat a bit.
“We can’t lose if our offense is going to score 40 points,” cornerback Marshon Lattimore said candidly.
You can, if you play defense this badly.
“If Cleveland is going to be watching this tape,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said, “then they are going to be salivating. We have to get this cleaned up.”
Facing Cleveland next Sunday in the Superdome — the Browns are coming off a 21-21 tie with Pittsburgh — brings up another unpleasant reminder from the last time Saints preseason aspirations ran this high.
New Orleans opened the 2014 season with all the earmarks of a title contender but suffered a heartbreaking 37-34 overtime loss at Atlanta. The following week the Saints gave up a late score in a 26-24 loss at Cleveland, an 0-2 gut punch from which they never recovered en route to a 7-9 record.
“That’s not the type of game that suits us,” Payton said of Sunday’s performance. “That’s the type of game we’ve played in years past as a .500 team. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to correct.
“Obviously it starts with me and our staff. We didn’t do a good job.”
It’s only Week 2, but the Saints MUST beat the Browns. Especially with a trip to Atlanta the following week, and games against Minnesota, the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh and reigning Super Bowl champion Philadelphia among the many other potential pitfalls dotting the schedule.
If there is any positive to take from Sunday’s debacle, it is that the Saints have been here before. They have lost seven of their past eight season openers dating to 2011. They lost 29-19 at Minnesota to start last season — maybe the Saints haven’t recovered from that season-ending playoff loss at Minnesota in January — and then came home and got rolled for 555 yards total offense in a 36-20 loss to New England. But the Saints bounced back from that dreadful start to reel off eight straight wins en route to the division title.
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“It’s not new territory,” Rankins said. “It’s not something that we want to deal with this early in the season. The great thing about this game is that you get another week to go out and try to prove yourself again.
“We will get ready to play next week.”
During training camp, Payton hung a banner at the Saints facility in Metairie that read “Prove Them Right,” an unsubtle embrace of the team’s enormous expectations.
Now, with the Saints looking so vulnerable, maybe the more traditional “Prove Them Wrong” would be more appropriate.