Following Sunday's disappointing overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons in their season opener, the New Orleans Saints began picking up the pieces and invoked the infamous "24 hour rule" with regards to wiping the slate clean and shifting their focus to the next game.
That next game entails a trip to Cleveland where the Saints will play the Browns on Sunday, the same venue where coach Sean Payton's tenure began in 2006 in week 1 of that year with a season-opening win at the Dawg Pound.
However, even with the 24 hour rule in effect, it was hard not to reflect on some of the lowlights of the team's week 1 outing, with the defensive miscues and general woes standing out, in particular. Players and coaches lamented the lack of execution of what was supposed to be an effective game plan. Sean Payton would like to see his team clean up their mistakes on both sides of the ball.
“Overall, we had a bad day," linebacker Curtis Lofton, a former Falcon, said after the game. "We won't make excuses. They came out and made plays. One of the things that stood out, they stayed on the field on third down. We didn't get off the field on third down. We didn't tackle well and didn't play great red zone defense. So, when you have a combination of all three of those, then that is what the outcome is going to be.”
The Saints came out the gates strong on both sides of the ball, but settling for two early field goals after a pair of methodical drives came back to haunt them, as did the two turnovers, including Marques Colston's overtime fumble which set the Falcons up to win the game.
Nevertheless, the offense more than did its part, and their teammates on the opposite side of the ball were the ones left scratching their heads, trying to wrap their minds around what was a disappointing performance across the board. A lack of pressure on Falcons' QB Matt Ryan, poor tackling, and lack of execution in space doomed New Orleans, as the Saints surrendered 568 yards of offense, the 2nd-most ever allowed by a Saints defense, and a team record for the Falcons.
“It was almost nonexistent," LB Junior Galette said of the team's inability to put Ryan under consistent duress. "I felt he had great pocket awareness and when he stepped up, we missed a few (sacks). We left some on the table, but it doesn't really matter whether we got him down or not.”
Ryan had a career day, going 31-43 for a career-high 445 yards, taking advantage of extra time by moving around the pocket and capitalizing off of the Saints' lack of a pass rush. Even worse, Atlanta, who was already without the services of Sam Baker, lost for the season with a knee injury, saw rookie Jake Matthews exit late in the first half with an ankle problem. The likes of Gabe Carimi and Lamar Holmes stepped up and helped protect Ryan, who exploited some coverage breakdowns and soft spots when the Saints employed zone looks. Ryan's receivers did a tremendous job of taking advantage of those spots, and were able to make defenders miss in space after the catch.
“We had one sack and one hurry,” coach Sean Payton said. “With the amount of times (Ryan) threw the football, we’d like to see more disruption than that. Based on just a game like that, I’d say they were more effective in this game than they were in other spots last year. I think we need to be better in that area.”
While the defensive line was able to disrupt the pocket at times, Ryan was able to maneuver around enough to hit his open receivers. Compounding the Saints' frustrations was the fact that his inside receivers, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas, did most of the damage with Roddy White contained for most of the second half, and Julio Jones doing most of his damage in the short passing game on designed screens and quick outs.
“They have good players. Julio Jones is a great player...Roddy White," said CB Keenan Lewis, who was beaten in the end zone by White on a back shoulder fade for Atlanta's first touchdown. "They brought in Devin Hester. He made some plays, but, we will see them again.”
Third down was another key area where Atlanta was able to make New Orleans pay. The Falcons were effective on third down, particularly in the second half, going 6-11 as Ryan kept drives alive with some crucial pocket awareness, scrambling, and timely throws to his receivers. Payton also lamented his team's two turnovers, and the fact that they lost the turnover battle 2-1 to Atlanta. Keenan Lewis knows that better days are in store for the Saints defense.
“Well turnovers were probably, I would say, the number one thing that comes up in this series, typically this series," he said. "I think the third down numbers, I don’t know if you would just look at the third down numbers and guess who won the game. The turnovers though had been a key indication of who wins and losses. The timing and which they occur can take a smaller mistake and make it a bigger one so that would be the first one.”
As for the players on the defensive side of the ball, Galette was adamant that Sunday was a one-off, and that he and his teammates will be ready to make things right starting in Cleveland.
The Saints often rushed four men in obvious passing situations, dropping into zone coverage where Ryan was able to pick his spots with several high-percentage throws underneath to his backs and receivers.
“It’s just not going to happen,” Galette said, citing the Saints' lack of pressure on Ryan. “Me and Cam (Jordan) discussed that last night. That feeling I had, I’ve never had in five years. We just didn’t get it done. It was a nightmare, just terrible. We’ll never rush like that again. That’s a fact. We’ve gotta do a way better job. Especially if Rob Ryan is gonna trust our four-man rush to get there. That’s just not gonna happen again."
Though pressure on Ryan, or lack thereof, was near the top of the list of reasons why New Orleans emerged on the wrong side of the ledger last Sunday, the team's poor tackling may have been a firm number 1 at the top. The Saints missed several open field tackles, highlighted by key catch-and-runs by Falcons' running backs Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith, the latter breaking multiple tackles en-route to a 54 yard score on a routine swing pass. According to Pro Football Focus, New Orleans missed a grand total of 23 tackles Sunday, the highest in the league for week 1. Only Galette and Tyrunn Walker, who recorded the game's lone sack, received positive overall defensive grades from PFF.
"There were, as that game went on, too many runs of seven yards. All of the sudden, plays that were an underneath throw to the running back that turns into 48 yards," Payton said. "There were too many of those things for us to be as good as we want to be defensively and as a team that we’ve got to get corrected.”
The Saints will look to emphasize their mistakes and rectify them with a strong week of practice in advance of Sunday's trip to Cleveland. The Browns are coming off a difficult loss of their own, in which they rallied from a 24 point deficit, only to lose to Pittsburgh on a late Shaun Suisham field goal.
Brian Hoyer showed why he was annointed the team's starter, though it stands to reason that Cleveland could look to unleash rookie Johnny Manziel with a package of designed plays to give Saints' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his charges something extra to think about.
The Saints' miscues last Sunday are correctable. If those mistakes rear their ugly heads in Ohio this coming weekend, and Hoyer and the Browns compile anything close to the amount of points and yards that Atlanta put up, then the alarm bells will truly begin to sound.
Until then, it is back to the basics for New Orleans. The 24 hour rule has passed, the players are enjoying their typical Tuesday off, and will be back at the facility tomorrow. Time to close the book on week 1, open a new novel, turn the page and focus on the Browns.