NEW ORLEANS — Marques Colston lay on the artificial turf, barely moving after landing hard on his head, the impact twisting his neck in such a fashion that there was little doubt something was going to be wrong with the Saints receiver.
Two other times on Sunday, a similar scene played out with Saints players, Lance Moore staying down after big a hit by San Francisco a San Francisco defenders and Isa Abdul-Quddus after a big hit of his own.
It was the story of Sunday and, after a getting to .500 a week earlier, the Saints are back under, physically beaten by the 49ers 31-21 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees threw two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, the offense gained nearly 100 less than its season average and the defense couldn’t get off the field on a critical nine-minute San Francisco scoring drive.
And now the Saints must turn around and figure out a plan of attack for a game on Thursday at Atlanta.
“Any time you lose it hurts,” Moore said. “To come back here, we’re playing well and playing in front of our home crowd, to not be able to deliver and not get over .500 for the first time this year, is disappointing. But we’ve got an extremely short week so we’ve got to do what it takes to get back on track and get a win in Atlanta.”
Said interim head coach Joe Vitt, “It’s a challenge for our players and coaches on a short week. We’re not the first one to go through this.”
Both Colston and Moore returned the game after passing concussion tests. There was no word afterward about Abdul-Quddus.
The Saints also lost third-string right tackle Bryce Harris, who was starting because both Zach Strief and Charles Brown were inactive with injuries, to a right lower leg injury that required thick medical wrapping after the game.
“We knew coming into this how physical of a team the San Francisco 49ers are on both sides of the ball,” Brees said. “I felt like we matched that physicality today. Unfortunately, it’s the turnovers in the end that did us in.”
The 49ers (8-2-1) used a swarming, physical defense to keep New Orleans to 290 total yards, 3 of 11 on third down and 1 of 3 on fourth. Brees was sacked five times by four 49ers and was San Francisco was credited with seven total quarterback hits.
Brees finished the game 26 of 41 for just 267 yards, three touchdowns and the two interceptions.
“Obviously, what was glaring was the two turnovers that resulted in touchdowns for them,” Brees said.
After averaging more than 145 yards on the ground the past three games, New Orleans (5-6) gained only 59 yards on 21 carries against San Francisco.
“We just wanted to have as much pressure as possible,” 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “We know Drew Brees is one of the top passers in the NFL and we just wanted to collapse the pocket as much as possible and by doing that were able to get him off his mark a little bit.
“By closing the pocket and getting some hands in his face, we were able to get him off his game a little bit today.”
The loss spoiled the best effort of the season from the New Orleans defense, which gave up a season-low 375 yards and kept rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick mostly in check. He finished the game 16 of 25 for 231 yards to go with an interception and a touchdown.
But the biggest problem for the Saints Sunday was getting off the field on third down, when the 49ers went 6-for-13, including three conversions on a 9-minute, 28-second scoring drive.
San Francisco took a 7-0 lead when Kaepernick faked most of the Saints’ defense and ran in untouched for a 7-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter.
New Orleans answered tying the game at 7 when Brees hit tight end David Thomas for a 6-yard touchdown pass.
The Saints then took the lead, capitalizing on a muffed punt by San Francisco’s Ted Ginn Jr. that New Orleans’ Rafael Bush recovered. Two plays later, Brees hit Colston for a 10-yard touchdown catch and a 14-7 lead.
The scoring grab gave Colston sole ownership for most touchdowns – 56 – in Saints history.
With less than a minute to go before halftime, Patrick Robinson intercepted San Francisco’s Kaepernick and the Saints’ appeared to be in position to lengthen their lead. Instead, 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks returned an interception of Brees 50 yards for a game-tying touchdown.
“It was a little momentum swing going into halftime,” Saints right guard Jahri Evans said. “They made a good play on the ball and we just couldn’t get him down and that’s how the half ended. It sucks but they just made a good play.”
Minutes into the third quarter, New Orleans was behind again. Kaepernick led a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to Frank Gore. The drive was kept alive by a 45-yard pass to tight end Delanie Walker on third-and-two.
Moments later, Donte Whitner put the 49ers up 28-14 on a 42-yard interception return. The pass from Brees was intended for Colston, but the receiver couldn’t haul it in with a leap and was undercut by the San Francisco defense. The receiver came down hard and stayed down on the field before being led off and into the locker room, where he passed a concussion test.
New Orleans got back in the game on the ensuing possession. It didn’t face a third down as it
marched 80 yards down the field, eventually cutting the deficit to 28-21 on Brees’ two-yard touchdown pass to Jed Collins.
San Francisco’s lead grew to 31-21 on a David Akers 27-yard field goal, finishing a drive that ate up nearly two-thirds of a quarter and left the Saints with little time to make the difference up on the league’s second-best defense.
“They’re a good football team,” Vitt said. “It is what it is. We’re going to work hard to get better.”