The biggest disappointment in the NFL has been the 0-3 New Orleans Saints. Many expected the Saints would have a bit of a letdown after bountygate and the suspension of Sean Payton and Joe Vitt, but few envisioned the team falling as hard as it has.
For clarity, I asked three NFL front office men who have studied the team to analyze what is going on in New Orleans. These are the problems they identified:
*The absence of Payton
The Saints miss Payton from a game planning standpoint, a leadership standpoint and a motivational standpoint. But it goes beyond that.
“They have come out efficiently early in games, but have struggled as games have gone on and teams have adjusted,” one pro scout said. “They have not made good counter-adjustments.”
They also miss Payton’s special connection with his quarterback. Drew Brees’ play was elevated when he hooked up with Payton, and it’s gone down without him. “Sean Payton always was in Brees’ ear,” a front office man said. “He was always giving him guidance. They truly miss that.”
*Brees trying to do too much
With other elements of the team struggling, Brees has taken a lot on his shoulders. One scout thought Brees has been trying to do too much and forcing passes. He said Brees misses not having a long ball threat since Robert Meachem left and Devery Henderson has been injured. That means defenders don’t have to honor the deep threat and have a smaller field to concern themselves with.
“They are sending a lot of guys out and trying to get the ball downfield,” he said. “That has led to some protection issues. They are just out of sync offensively.”
Brees is completing only 54.7 percent of his passes (that ranks 26th in the NFL). Last year he completed 71.2 percent. “He isn’t getting away with some of the things he has gotten away with in the past,” the scout said.
*Defenders have not yet grasped what new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wants them to do
All three men said Spagnuolo’s defense is complex and it takes time to master the nuances of it. Defenders may be unsure of some assignments and not all of them have completely mastered the techniques they are being asked to play.
*The Saints can’t stop the run
They were gashed by Jamaal Charles this week, and they have been giving up big rushing yards every week. Their average of 215 rushing yards allowed per league is worst in the league—by 60 yards per game.
Some of this could be attributed to the new defensive scheme and players being unfamiliar with fits. “They have not been consistent up front,” the pro scout said. “They miss Jonathan Vilma’s leadership, but Curtis Lofton is a good player. So are Cam Jordan and Will Smith. They just aren’t playing confidently defensively, and they aren’t working together well. If you can’t stop the run it opens up holes all over and stresses the offense.”
*The burden of bountygate
One look at the Saints and you know they have been through a lot. “They look beaten up mentally and physically after the year they have had,” the front office man said. “They look tired.”
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com.