New Orleans Saints: 2013 Week 15 NO at STL

Saints' road woes hit home in a big way

December, 15, 2013
Drew BreesAP Photo/Tom GannamSaints QB Drew Brees had a rough day against the Rams, with four sacks and three turnovers.
ST. LOUIS -- Of course the New Orleans Saints were aware that they had been struggling on the road this season. But up until Sunday, it was something they were adamant they could overcome.

Then the St. Louis Rams slapped them in the face, slammed them to the turf a few times and proved that the problem was even bigger than the Saints realized. New Orleans lost 27-16 in a sloppy game that wasn't as close as the score indicated.

Now the Saints (10-4) have to dust themselves off and figure out how they can go and win on the road next Sunday at Carolina (10-4) -- or else they'll almost certainly wind up hitting the road as a wild-card team in the playoffs.

"That was pretty ugly," Saints coach Sean Payton said in his opening statement after the game. "Obviously we didn't get them ready to play, we looked flat coming out, and I take responsibility for that. Much has been written about how we play on the road and how we play at home. And you know what? That is where it is right now, with this season.

"We come out here with a lot at stake ... and we can't line up and kick a field goal, we can't get the run stopped, we turned the ball over. We did everything we talked about that you can't do to get a road win.

"How we played today is unacceptable, and that is on me."

If Payton was ever more frustrated by a loss, I don't remember it.

And it wasn't just his postgame comments that revealed how he felt. He yanked left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup during the third quarter after Brown was repeatedly burned by Rams pass-rusher Robert Quinn. And Payton could be seen a few times on the sideline giving some animated rallying speeches to his players.

"Yeah, it's been a while," Payton said when asked if the performance was as frustrating as any he can remember. "This one was hard. I think, honestly, because of where we're at. I mean, how much time and energy goes into your preparation, and you put yourself in a position that we have, as well as we played a week ago."

Payton didn't complete the thought. But his point was well made. He thought this team was better prepared for a playoff run at this stage of the season. Even after their blowout loss at Seattle two weeks ago, the Saints responded with an emphatic 31-13 victory over the Panthers last week in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But now they're still scratching their heads -- still wondering exactly what they're made of.

When asked if he was surprised to see that performance from a "veteran team," Payton's response was telling.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast"The record doesn't lie," said Saints QB Drew Brees, whose team is 3-4 away from home. "We have to play better on the road."
"I don't necessarily agree that this is a veteran team," Payton said. "We have some veterans on this team, but we are still trying to find out a little about our leadership.

"We will challenge these guys and challenge our coaching staff. We are going to have to improve in a lot of areas in order to play better than that, obviously, or else we will get the same result. Or it will be a mixed bag. One week we will play well, and the next week we won't. I am sure the tape won't be very exciting. But it will be revealing."

I also don't think I've ever quoted Payton so extensively in a postgame column. But that was another telling sign of the imprint he left with his raw, honest statements.

Payton wasn't the only one in that mode Sunday. Team leaders such as quarterback Drew Brees, offensive tackle Zach Strief and safety Malcolm Jenkins shared many of the same thoughts.

"I think it's more in the style that we lost the game that was probably the most disappointing," Jenkins said. "If you watch football, you know what loses. If you can't stop the ball and turn the ball over, you're going to lose the game. Those are things we've done poorly on the road, and that's why we've lost games.

"It's not some voodoo magic or some bad luck we have where we can't play well on the road. We just make mistakes, and those are things we have to get cleaned up."

It started almost right away. After forcing a Rams punt, Brees threw an interception on the Saints' first offensive play -- while being hit by Quinn as he threw.

Then one play later, Rams tight end Cory Harkey broke three tackles on his way into the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown.

Then on the Saints' next drive, they marched to St. Louis' 10-yard line before Brees threw another interception while trying to force the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham in triple coverage.

Later in the first half came a successful surprise onside kick by the Rams, a 40-yard, tackle-breaking touchdown run by Rams running back Zac Stacy, a penalty that nullified a Saints touchdown and a blocked 36-yard field goal attempt -- Garrett Hartley's first of two misses.

St. Louis led 27-3 through three quarters before the Saints started to rally on both offense and defense. Brees finished with 393 passing yards, a touchdown pass and a touchdown run. But he also threw the two picks and was sacked four times, including a sack-fumble by Quinn.

"Well, it didn't help that we had the turnover on the first play. And you want to talk about just kind of waking the whole place up. That did it," said Brees, who also reluctantly admitted that the Saints' road struggles are a real trend. "We're kind of proving you guys right, which is unfortunate, because we certainly don't feel that way about ourselves. But the record doesn't lie. We have to play better on the road."

Brees said the Saints knew all of the dangers they faced in St. Louis, having lost a game in almost the exact same fashion here in 2011 when the Rams were 0-6 at the time. Yet they did everything they had warned against anyway.

And he said the process for improving this week will have to be "methodical." But the message will be simple.

"If we play well, we can win," Brees said. "If we make some of the same mistakes that we've made these last two road trips, then we'll get beat."

Payton on benching Brown: I saw enough

December, 15, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton took an unprecedented step to try and stop the bleeding during his team's 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. He yanked left tackle Charles Brown out of the starting lineup -- something no one could remember Payton having done before.

"I saw enough. I saw enough, period," Payton said. "It was enough penalties, pressures, sacks. It was enough. At some point you can't just keep watching it. Feelings get hurt, it is tough."

Brown had been decent this year in his first year as the Saints' full-time starter. Certainly some highs and lows -- but nothing to this extent. He was burned repeatedly Sunday by Rams end Robert Quinn -- one of the top defensive players in the league this year.

Quinn beat Brown on the first play of the game, hitting quarterback Drew Brees and forcing an interception. Later, Quinn also sacked Brees twice (once forcing a fumble). Brown also was penalized twice (once for holding, once for illegal hands to the face).

Payton made the switch in the third quarter -- after the sack-fumble. He moved right tackle Zach Strief to the left side and inserted backup Bryce Harris at right tackle.

Brown politely declined comment after the game. Teammates showed faith in him, though.

"I don't recall if it's happened before or not. I know this, we'll rally behind Charles," Strief said. "You can't … I personally don't judge a guy by one game, by a half. Coach Payton does what he thinks is best for this team, and we're 100 percent behind whatever it is that he chooses. Yet at the same time, it's our responsibility as a group to lift those guys up and to perform when your number's called."

"I've got a lot of confidence in Charlie Brown. And he had a tough day," Brees said. "But I've got a ton of confidence in Zach Strief, and really that entire group. So Bryce Harris comes in and does a great job. I've got a lot of time on task with all those guys. I've got a lot of confidence in all those guys."

Payton didn't indicate whether he'll make a permanent switch at left tackle. "I don't think now is the time to discuss it," he said.

Beyond that, the Saints will ultimately have to make an even greater decision on Brown's long-term future since he's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. But that will obviously be a decision for a later date.

Brown, 26, who had battled injuries throughout his first three NFL seasons, has started every game this year. He wasn't perfect, but he was solid -- especially in recent weeks. Before Sunday, Brown had allowed between five and 6.5 sacks on the year, depending on the statistical service. And he had been flagged for six holding penalties (three declined) and two illegal hands to the face penalties.

St. Louis has proven to be a nightmare destination for Brown. He allowed two sacks at St. Louis in 2011 and suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury, calling it the worst game of his pro career earlier this week.

Saints’ Brees says hand is fine

December, 15, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had his right throwing hand wrapped in ice as he addressed the media following the Saints' 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams. But he suggested it was nothing serious. And Brees played the entire game without any indication of an injury issue.

It was simply worth noting since that's the most important body part on the Saints' roster.

Brees had a rough day all around. He threw two interceptions in the first quarter, lost a fumble on a sack and was sacked a total of four times. The Saints' pass protection struggled to the point where left tackle Charles Brown was benched during the third quarter.

Brees did rally the Saints in the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late. He finished 39-of-56 passing for 393 yards, one touchdown and two picks.

"Well, it didn't help that we had the turnover on the first play. And you want to talk about just kind of waking the whole place up. That did it," Brees said of what went wrong Sunday. "And the second interception down in the red zone, just that can't happen. You're down there, an opportunity to get points, no need to try to force it. So that was on me. And then from there, it was just ... I look at the stat sheet, and we were in the red zone six times. Six times, and we come away with 16 points.

"That's not us. That can't be us, if we want to play well and win. We've gotta find a way to improve that."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 15, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams, which moved them to 10-4 on the season.

What it means: Yikes. This was probably the Saints' most disturbing loss of the season -- despite their efforts to make it close in the fourth quarter. The Saints' dreadful start (St. Louis led 27-3 through three quarters) was even more surprising than the blowout loss at Seattle two weeks ago. And it further added to the notion that they can't win consistently on the road -- something they will now have to do next week at Carolina.

Drew Brees struggled with two first-quarter interceptions. The pass protection was as bad as it's been all season. The tackling was poor on defense. And kicker Garrett Hartley missed two field goals. The good news is that the Saints can still clinch the NFC South title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC by winning at Carolina next week. But they will obviously have to prove they can play vastly better on the road.

Split personality: The Saints bristle at the notion that they struggle away from home. But they've done little to prove that theory wrong this year. Although they entered Sunday with the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14), they're now 3-4 on the road this year. At home, they've outscored opponents 230-108. On the road they've been outscored 162-129.

Stock watch: Left tackle Charles Brown was removed during the third quarter after being repeatedly burned by Rams end Robert Quinn (two sacks, a forced fumble, a hit that forced an interception and two penalties). Right tackle Zach Strief moved over to the left side, and backup Bryce Harris came in at right tackle. Brown didn't appear to be injured on the sideline.

Brown has been decent in his first year as the Saints' starter. He's had a few miscues, but never a performance like this. It will be interesting to see if the Saints turn back to him next week.

Up next: Next week's game at Carolina (10-4) obviously looms as the most important game of the year. If the Saints win, they're the No. 2 seed in the NFC. If they lose, they need to count on help in Week 17. Two good omens for the Saints -- they just clobbered Carolina last week (though it was at home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome) and the Saints haven't lost back-to-back games under Sean Payton since 2009.