Commentary

Saints suddenly far from perfect

After second straight home loss, New Orleans looks vulnerable as playoffs near

Originally Published: December 27, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Smarting from consecutive home losses by their beloved Saints, the locals might consider renaming this city.

Call it "The Big Uneasy."

New Orleans -- which failed to capture home-field advantage throughout the playoffs because of Sunday's 20-17 overtime loss to Tampa Bay -- has already secured a spot in the postseason, having won the NFC South. But suddenly the Saints look like a franchise that could be one-and-done in the playoffs unless they tighten things up considerably.

The game marked the first time in NFL history that a team with 12 losses defeated a club with 13 wins.

"In this league, it's either crisis or carnival … because none of that stuff in between matters at all," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.

Label this one a crisis for New Orleans, which three weeks ago was seemingly invincible at 12-0, averaging 36.7 points per game, playing opportunistic defense and not doing much to camouflage its fixation on a potential undefeated season.

Over the past three games -- a three-point victory at Atlanta, followed by losses to Dallas and Tampa Bay at the always-raucous Superdome -- the Saints have seemed anything but unbeatable. And despite trailing 17-3 at halftime after New Orleans scored on its first three possessions, the Bucs seemed to sense that their shaky opponent might be vulnerable.

[+] EnlargeCadillac Williams
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireTampa Bay's running game, led by Cadillac Williams, wore down the Saints' defense.

"At the half, we didn't change anything. We felt like we could move [the Saints' defense] around a little, maybe wear them down. We felt we were in the game," said Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, the first-round draft choice who outdueled Drew Brees.

Not only did the Bucs thrash the Saints in the second half, they dented the Saints' confidence as well. Tampa Bay's 29th-ranked offense outgained New Orleans 250-170 in the second half and bashed the interior of the New Orleans defense with a running game led by Cadillac Williams.

"We felt like we were being pushed around," said Saints free safety Darren Sharper, who had a first-half interception. "They were more physical than us. At the end, with [Williams] beating on us, we couldn't stop them."

The pickoff by Sharper was his ninth of the season and the 63rd of his celebrated career, tying him with Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott for the sixth spot in league history. Sharper's 21-yard return gave him 376 interception return yards for the year, an NFL single-season mark. But the interception -- which led to Brees' 30-yard touchdown pass to wideout Robert Meachem and a 14-0 New Orleans lead after just 13 minutes of play -- was one of the few bright spots for the Saints' defense.

Although the Saints got Tracy Porter back, his fellow left cornerback Jabari Greer missed a seventh straight contest with a sports hernia. Like most opponents of late, the Bucs came into the game feeling the Saints were vulnerable at the corners and confident they could take advantage of Sharper's freelancing tendencies in the middle of the field. But more than anything else, they felt they could run the ball at a New Orleans defense that has allowed an average of 160.5 rushing yards in the past two weeks, and an average of 136.7 ground yards and 4.5 yards per carry over the past three games.

Tampa Bay rushed 34 times for 176 yards, Freeman mixed in the pass just enough (21-of-31 for 271 yards) to keep the Saints honest, and the Bucs converted on 7 of 12 third-down opportunities. After Garrett Hartley missed a 37-yard field goal attempt that would have won the game for the Saints at the end of regulation, Tampa Bay won the overtime coin toss and put the game squarely in Williams' hands.

The five-year veteran, who has overcome catastrophic injuries to both knees to extend his career, carried on nine of the Bucs' 10 plays on the opening possession of OT to set up Connor Barth's 47-yard game-winning field goal.

New Orleans played without weakside linebacker Scott Shanle, but its front seven unit was otherwise intact. Still, the Bucs ran the ball effectively, especially inside against the tackle rotation of Sedrick Ellis, Anthony Hargrove and Remi Ayodele.

But culpability for the loss didn't lie solely with the defense. After scoring on its first three possessions, the offense didn't manage another point. Brees was 32-of-37 but threw for only 258 yards.

In the first 12 games of the season, the New Orleans offense scored on 60 of its 138 "viable" possessions (excluding series on which the Saints were running out the clock). Over the past three contests, that has dropped to 37.0 percent (10 of 27 possessions).

"We can't take things for granted," Sharper said. "Early on, we were getting up on teams and putting them away. We can't always count on the offense to outscore people. We're letting people hang around in games, and you can see the result."

Ellis, who has been a target of offenses for the past two weeks, suggested that the Saints' practices next week will be extremely physical.

"It's not the end of the world," Ellis said.

But unless the Saints get things turned around and enter the playoffs with some kind of momentum, it could be a quick end to their Super Bowl aspirations.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.