Although the New Orleans Saints (3-0) are off to a great start this season, there are some cracks in the foundation that they certainly won’t ignore. Their struggles in the run game have been well chronicled. But they’ve also been more porous in pass protection than ever before during the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.
The Saints have allowed 10 sacks this year -- the most in any three-game stretch since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006. Brees has also taken a pounding on several other throws that didn’t result in sacks, some of which led to even more costly interceptions.
That’s certainly not the norm around New Orleans, where the Saints have allowed the fewest sacks of any team in the NFL dating back to 2006 -- a total of 158, including this season, and an average of 21 per year from 2006-2012. That’s pretty remarkable considering they throw the ball as much as they do, but Brees’ savvy and Payton’s scheming have a lot to do with it.
“I don’t think there’s anything different (this year). We just need to do a better job of protecting him,” center Brian de la Puente said after the Saints allowed four sacks for the second straight week, this time in a 31-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. “That’s unacceptable, and we take full responsibility for it because we’ve got to do a better job in giving him time. We know when he has time, he’s very dangerous. We’ve got to do a better job of it.”
In the Saints’ defense, there was one very noticeable difference in their lineup last Sunday. Undrafted rookie Tim Lelito started at right guard in place of injured four-time All-Pro Jahri Evans, and Lelito was primarily responsible for three of the sacks allowed against the Cardinals. The Saints will be in much better shape when Evans recovers from a hamstring injury -- maybe as early as Monday night against the Miami Dolphins.
But Lelito hasn’t been the only victim. Every starter on the line, except for left guard Ben Grubbs, has been responsible for at least one sack this year. Others have come against a tight end, a tailback or when a pass rusher ran untouched at Brees after a stunt or delayed blitz.
Perhaps that can be considered a good thing, though. No one lineman has been repeatedly victimized. And new left tackle Charles Brown has been mostly solid in place of former Pro Bowler Jermon Bushrod – so it’s not a case where Bushrod’s absence has created an insurmountable void.
One could argue that former offensive line coach Aaron Kromer has been missed even more, since he was a steady influence for years. But the Saints have faith in new line coach Bret Ingalls, who spent the past four seasons as the team’s running backs coach. And the linemen themselves are established veterans who know they aren’t living up to their standard.
The good news is the Saints have a proven track record in this department -- much like the red zone problems they cleaned up in Week 3 after a slow start in the first two games.
So consider this another issue that the Saints won’t ignore -- but remain confident they can fix.
“We play close attention to it,” Payton said Monday. “It is something we have done a good job with, and we feel like it is important if we are going to throw the football to be successful. We have to keep him upright.”