You could tell reviewing the season-opening loss to the Minnesota Vikings this week left Sean Payton annoyed.
One reason could be how many missed opportunities the Saints had. New Orleans drove into the red zone five times during that game and only reached the end zone once. Even worse, two field goals came from the 2-yard line and another from the 6.
Being that close hurts. Being that close in a 29-19 loss hurts more.
“When you fall behind, and you get in that game where it’s a little bit one-dimensional, that becomes hard, especially there,” Payton said. “I thought the other thing that hurt us is that we settled for field goals in some early drives, really much like Carolina did in this past game against us. We had scoring opportunities and weren’t able to take advantage.”
Squandering opportunities won’t often work against a team that that is only allowing 15 points per game. And while you're expected to struggle at times against such a stout defense, New Orleans knows that there were some self-inflicted wounds during the Week 1 game.
Mitchell Trubisky didn’t stand a chance.
On one trip, Zach Strief suffered a torn ACL on a run that lost a yard, and on the next play, Senio Kelemete missed his assignment on a trap run by Mark Ingram, that in the guard’s words, should have scored a touchdown. The Saints instead settled for a field goal.
In the third-quarter trip to the red zone, Drew Brees had a pass go off Brandon Coleman’s hands in tight coverage and then missed a throw to Ted Ginn Jr. Another field goal.
Another trip to the red zone in the third quarter ended when the offensive line couldn’t open a hole for Alvin Kamara, and Brees couldn’t find anyone open after rolling out of the pocket on third down. Wil Lutz connected on another field goal.
If those drives end instead in touchdowns, that’s 12 more points in a 10-point game. Even if one or two result in touchdowns, the Saints wouldn't have had to operate so one-dimensionally and could have run the ball more.
Cameron Jordan made headlines earlier this week when he sent Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton a bottle of Jordan wine.
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“You have to be able to score in the red zone. That’s a big point of emphasis, especially against a good defense like that,” Ingram said. “Points are important. Points are everything. Three and seven can be the difference between winning and a loss. At least being able to convert points in the red zone, that will be a factor for us.”
The Saints haven’t spotted anything special or unique about what Minnesota is doing in the red zone. They see a team that is simply carrying the success it has in all other areas of the field into the final 20 yards.
Minnesota features the third-best red-zone defense in the NFL, allowing touchdowns on 40 percent of the opposition’s trips. The Chargers (36.11 percent) and Jacksonville (37.93) lead the league. Over the past three weeks, the Vikings have allowed their opponents to convert just 20 percent of the time.
Just getting there against Minnesota can be difficult. Offenses only reached the red zone 40 times against the Vikings. But the silver lining for New Orleans might be that the Saints’ five trips were more than anyone else made against Minnesota this season — and that was before the Saints had achieved an identity on offense.
At that point, New Orleans was still figuring out it was going to be a running offense, and carries were being split up between Ingram, Kamara and Adrian Peterson. Peterson has since been shipped away, and Kamara has emerged as perhaps the most important player in the Saints’ offense.
“I felt like we didn’t really have an identity that first. We didn’t know what we had,” Kelemete said. “We had so many things going on. Obviously, we had Adrian Peterson here, and Mark. They were all trying to share the ball. I feel like that didn’t really help the offense get into a groove. Especially when you’re away, if you don’t get into a groove it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a long day.”
The offense knows what it is and what it must do. The question is if the Saints can get figure out a way to get it done and avoid another long day.
Few teams have been able to hold Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in check the way the Carolina Panthers did in last week's NFC wild-card game.