CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Sunday’s loss doesn’t change the big picture for the New Orleans Saints.
They can still have a winning record. They can still win the division. And they can still make the playoffs.
But in the same city where one incumbent was recently nominated to keep his seat atop the political pyramid, the reigning NFC South champion appeared much less inclined to repeat.
Indeed, there were no votes of confidence gained by New Orleans on Sunday when the Saints appeared to show deep weaknesses in a 35-27 loss to the Panthers to fall to 0-2 for the first time since 2007.
There are problems all over the field for the Saints, that’s for sure.
Receivers are dropping passes that in years past they would have held onto. Quarterback Drew Brees appears to be putting the weight of the team on his shoulders and is making uncharacteristic mistakes. And the offensive line was sieve-like against Carolina, giving up at least five recorded quarterback hits and a sack.
Yet, the offense still gained 486 total yards, including 163 on the ground and 325 through the air.
The problem, as most Saints fans will easily point out, comes on the other side of the ball.
Speaking of sieve-like, the defense leaked yards at every position.
Carolina ran for 219 yards and passed for 244 and the Panthers were 6 of 12 on third down.
Most of all, though, the Saints were oh-fer in the fiery disposition category.
Unofficial as that stat might be, it’s obvious that New Orleans is missing something on defense.
There's no excitement when there’s a stop. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo isn’t running on the field and all but head-butting a defensive player after a pass breakup.
There’s more hesitation than there is celebration.
Linebacker Scott Shanle doesn’t believe they need a “rah-rah” guy on the sideline, however. Spagnuolo has won in the past by being cerebral and calm. That’s what Shanle is counting on.
“I think Spags does a great job of picking his times of when to uplift and motivate the defense,” Shanle said. “A lot of times, that can be more beneficial, when a guy doesn’t say much but when he does say something, all ears are listening.”
So far, though, that’s not happening.
OK, so let’s say the Saints defense isn’t missing fire.
They’re still missing something and that still falls on Spagnuolo’s shoulders.
His defense might have worked with the New York Giants, where he helped win a Super Bowl in 2007 with an innovative and big-play producing defense.
But every good coach must work with what’s in his cupboard and, so far, he hasn’t done that. New Orleans doesn’t have one dynamic pass rushing defensive lineman, let alone two like Spagnuolo had in New York.
The Saints don’t have depth in the secondary with trustworthy players whose athleticism can produce awe-inspiring moments.
And Spagnuolo hasn’t made corrections and changes based on these facts.
Maybe there’s a reason Gregg Williams’ defense succeeded early in New Orleans – aggressive play-calling makes up for lack of understanding and right now, the Saints’ defense isn’t showing an understanding of Spags’ defense.
One play stands out in showing that the Saints’ defense still isn’t proficient in Spags’ playbook.
On Cam Newton’s 66-yard pass completion to Steve Smith, defensive back Corey White bit on a run fake before bailing to cover the deep corner. Meanwhile, cornerback Patrick Robinson and safety Malcolm Jenkins both dove inside to cover receiver Louis Murphy.
Smith ran wide open down the sideline, a momentum-killing play for New Orleans just after the Saints had cut Carolina’s lead to 28-20. Four plays later, Carolina scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
The Saints are 0-2 for the first time since 2007. It’s the 19th time in franchise history that has happened. Only once have they made it to the playoffs in spite of an 0-2 start (1990), and even then, they finished the regular season 8-8.
There’s little good news that can come of starting 0-2. But if there’s one thing, it’s that those in the locker room realize that even with 14 games remaining, time is running short.
“I don’t want to say we’re not going to panic because it’s a long season, but there’s definitely a sense of urgency,” Shanle said. “You definitely want to start off fast in this league. You don’t want to try to dig yourself out of a hole the whole time.”
So yes, the big picture is still attainable; it’s still there for the Saints to grab.
Dig a hole too big, though, and it suddenly is not.