BALTIMORE — It was supposed to look different.
New players. New schemes. New attitudes. A better product couldn’t be promised, but a different brand of football was. Saints coach Sean Payton spent the offseason saying he didn’t want to be “that team.” You know, “that team” that suffered defensive breakdowns, made dumb mistakes, and gave up easy yards. “That team” that took the field last season.
On Thursday, during the preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, the Saints were, sadly, “that team.” In fact, the 30-27 loss might have been the worst possible version of “that team” while the starters were on the field.
Slap the disclaimer on it: It’s the preseason and quarterback Drew Brees, running back C.J. Spiller, and safety Jairus Byrd weren’t on the field. The team basically ran its base packages and the opponent wasn’t schemed for. But it was as bad as a dress rehearsal could go. It was ugly.
“We just have to go back to the drawing board and fix it, make corrections,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “We’ll be all right.”
It would take a certain brand of optimism to find things to highlight when the starters for both teams were on the field. Maybe you could hang your hat on fullback Austin Johnson’s almost hurdling a guy on the sideline late in the first quarter. On defense, you could point to rookie linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha looking good in run support on one play.
Brandin Cooks’ touchdown on a fourth-down screen, which was created by a Terron Armstead block was nice and showed the receiver maybe developed more ability after the catch, but some style points are lost for it coming against the second-team defense.
That’s it. And if you happened to feel good about those moments, injuries to cornerbacks Brandon Browner (carted off with a knee injury after Kikaha collided with his knee) and Delvin Breaux and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe before the end of the first quarter negated the positive vibes.
Disappointment hit as soon as the curtain opened. The first drive was 8:15 of frustration. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Lorenzo Taliafero dinked and dunked and ran their way to a 7-0 lead on a 16-play, 80-yard march on the game’s opening series.
The excruciating part of the drive was New Orleans forced three third downs and couldn’t find an answer. On the first one, Flacco hit Steve Smith over the middle for a first down. On the next try, a third-and-7, Cam Jordan and Kyle Williams created pressure off the left edge, but Flacco slipped out around the right corner and scrambled for a 17-yard gain. He was awarded 5 additional yards because of illegal contact.
The third one went better. Dannell Ellerbe stuffed Taliafero at the 1-yard line. The only issue is that he sacrificed his body to do it and left the field with an injury after the play. The Ravens got it right on fourth down and pounded it in for a touchdown. Browner was hurt on that one.
“We have to slow them down,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We have to get off the field on third down. We had a chance to and I think Flacco rolled out and we failed to execute.”
The second-team defense came on for the next series and responded by giving up a 45-yard touchdown pass from Matt Schaub to Michael Campanaro. The culprit: broken coverage.
The first-team offense didn’t perform much better against Baltimore’s first-team defense. Mark Ingram picked up a pair of yards, Cooks dropped the first pass of the game and Luke McCown wrapped things up with an incompletion. It was the same thing on the next series, as the offense went three-and-out.
Special teams also got into the act by having a 49-yard kick return by Marcus Murphy negated by a Khiry Robinson hold. The Saints were “that team.” The saving grace is that it’s the preseason. Perhaps the defense would have been better with Byrd and defensive end Akiem Hicks on the field. The offense unquestionably would have been better with Brees and Spiller.
All isn’t lost because the first game of the preseason went the wrong way. It’s too soon to panic. But a certain level of concern is acceptable and understandable. Maybe it was even unavoidable. Thursday night was a dud, and that familiar feeling of frustration dominated the night until the reserves came in and turned things around a little.
“This group will swim or sink on its own merit,” Payton said. “There’s certainly a lot of work to do.”
Maybe this season plays out differently. Last year’s disappointing season was preceded by a 3-0 start during the preseason. Everything felt right back then. The coaching staff will leave this one with plenty of coaching points and the film needed to support a message of urgency.