The offense last year was one of the best in the NFL, which has typically been the case since quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006. The defense showed significant improvement last season, and the team seemed to upgrade a few positions in free agency.
The Saints have star power with Brees, Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore. They have experienced depth and role players. The coaching staff didn’t have any notable turnover.
That was all well and good until the season began Sunday (Sept. 9) with the team looking totally unprepared in a 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick having a nearly perfect day against the Saints defense.
“We needed this,” Lattimore said after the ugly loss. “We needed to get slapped in our face one good to see that we’re not on the level that we think we’re on. We’re going to get better.”
This isn’t a new position for the Saints as they’ve now lost their season opener five straight times. In three of those seasons, from 2014-16, the Saints finished 7-9, but last year the team rebounded to go 11-5 and win the NFC South.
In theory, the experience from last year could help the Saints as they try to quickly overcome this hole, but this is a new season.
“Nothing about last year carries over to this year,” Payton said. “I’ve said it a million times. There’s not a single thing that carries over to this year.”
The Saints hope that some things from Week 1, a performance several players called “unacceptable,” won’t carry into Week 2.
“If Cleveland is going to watch this tape, they’re going to be salivating, so we definitely got to get this cleaned up,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said, alluding to next week’s opponent.
The Saints have gone 0-2 each of the previous four years.
There were some positive takeaways for the Saints, mostly on offense as Brees, Kamara and Thomas carried the group to 475 total yards and 40 points. However, two lost fumbles, one by Thomas and one by running back Mike Gillislee, proved costly on an otherwise productive day.
The defense, meanwhile, had few highlights as the Buccaneers gained 529 total yards and scored 31 points. When asked about which defensive breakdown the Saints had, Payton said, “Take your pick.”
The pass rush was pretty much non-existent as the Saints had just two hits and zero sacks on Fitzpatrick. The coverage was bad as receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson were seemingly open every time Fitzpatrick looked their way. The Saints also allowed the Buccaneers to convert 62 percent of their third downs, including the final one that sealed the victory when Fitzpatrick scrambled for 12 yards on third-and-11.
“We didn’t take him out of his rhythm,” Lattimore said. “Once he got in his rhythm, he was making throws.”
Filling in for the suspended Jameis Winston, Fitzpatrick finished with the best performance of his 14-year career, going 21-for-28 for 417 yards, four touchdowns and a 156.2 passer rating. The yardage and rating were career highs for Fitzpatrick, as was his 14.9 yards per attempt. He also ran for 36 yards and a touchdown.
Jackson had five catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns, mostly taking advantage of a matchup with Ken Crawley. Evans had seven catches for 147 yards and a touchdown, much of it coming against Lattimore.
“We couldn’t stop anything,” Lattimore said. “”That’s not going to get us down, though. We’re still together, still brothers.”
It was impressive that the Saints bounced back a bit, cutting the final deficit to 8 after trailing by 24 in the fourth quarter. However, the Saints allowing 31 points in the first half proved costly as they fell to 0-12 in their history when allowing 31-plus in the first two quarters.
Saints players were split on whether or not it was fair to say they needed a game like this. Obviously, the group would’ve preferred to come out with a victory and put to rest comparisons to the recent struggles, but the players are certainly glad this happened early in the year if it had to happen.
“I think it will be good for us later on,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “When something like this happens you can either grow from it or cower down from this. We’re not the kind of team that’s going to cower away, so I definitely think this is going to be good for us in the end.”
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