METAIRIE, La. ― Many of the 70,000-plus fans who sat in the Superdome on Sunday likely left the building shaking their heads, wondering what team was playing in white jerseys and black pants.
They weren’t alone.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton barely recognized the team, too, starting with a run defense that allowed 202 yards on 50 carries to Atlanta in a 27-24 overtime loss in the NFC South showdown.
“There are going to be some times where you give up some run plays and give up some yardage but yesterday was the first time in a while where gave up 200 yards and that’s not us, that’s not our defense,” Payton said Monday during his day-after news conference.
“Certainly that’s not us offensively, putting them on the field that long. That being said, we’ll spend a lot of time now looking closely at the things we can do to improve.”
Indeed, the Saints (2-1) of 2010 look nothing like the dominant team of 2009.
The offense is ranked 13th, not first. The defense is ranked 30th against the run and 22nd overall. And they can’t get off the field on third down, ranking 29th in the category.
But Sunday’s loss sent a message to those in the Saints locker room that it’s time to regroup and correct mistakes that have lingered for three weeks.
“As a competitor, you never like losing,” strongside linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “Regardless, it stings. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to learn from it. It’s definitely a reality check. We haven’t lost in a long time and that’s not something you want to do. You don’t want to feel a loss.”
Against Atlanta, the flaws were more than visible.
New Orleans couldn’t cover tight end Tony Gonzalez in the first half, when he caught seven of his eight passes. Six of his catches were third- or fourth-down conversions.
Atlanta turned nine of its 18 third downs into first downs and two of its three fourth downs into series extenders.
And yeah, there’s those 202 yards on an appallingly high 50 rushes. New Orleans ran only 56 total plays.
“Not panicking, but at the same time, it has been a good two to three weeks that we’ve been talking about it,” middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “You start talking about it and it’s not getting corrected, something has to give. It’s just an issue we’ve really got to get right, we’ve got to get corrected.”
And lest anyone think it’s just the defense, the offense shares part of the blame. Quarterback Drew Brees had two uncharacteristic interceptions and the run game produced only 43 yards on 16 carries.
But right guard Jahri Evans said it is best not to blow this loss or performance out of proportion.
“Nobody’s happy with the loss,” he said. “But you win some, you lose some. It’s a long season. The goal is just to get better and come back next week and put another one together.”
Now the Saints must prepare for Carolina (0-3), another NFC South opponent. That game is at noon on Sunday in the Superdome.
The Saints must move on from Atlanta and not try to win two games at once.
“I think a lot of people are going to look at the Saints are 2-1 and they’re playing against an 0-3 team and it’s kind of a rebound week,” weakside linebacker Scott Shanle said. “If we don’t play a lot better than we did last week, Carolina has enough weapons all over the field that they can win any week.”