Brees, struggling Saints insist they aren't in panic mode

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees still smells greatness in the New Orleans Saints' locker room, even though they stunk up the Louisiana Superdome during their most recent performance against the struggling Cleveland Browns.

"We're all in the midst of trying to put our finger on what exactly is going on," Brees said Monday, one day after the Saints dropped to 4-3 with a stunning 30-17 loss to the Browns. "We know the type of team we have. We know the type of work ethic we have. The effort is there. Guys want to win. Guys want to be great."

Last season, the Saints wore T-shirts around the locker room that read, "smell greatness," a motto derived from a motivational speech they received from San Francisco 49ersHall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. The Saints won their first 13 games in 2009, lost just three all season and won their first Super Bowl.

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In 2010, the Saints have vacillated from super (a 31-6 road victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), to so-so (close wins over the struggling Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers) to plain sloppy (turnover-filled losses to the Browns and Arizona Cardinals).

Brees, who threw 11 interceptions all of last season, already has 10 in this campaign, tying him with Minnesota's Brett Favre for the NFL lead in that category entering Monday night's Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game.

Against Cleveland, Brees' passes were intercepted four times, tying a career high for one game, and two were returned for touchdowns by linebacker David Bowens. Brees also was sacked three times by the Browns, and the Saints were penalized seven times for 98 yards, too.

Brees also threw three interceptions during a 30-20 loss at Arizona.

Coach Sean Payton said Brees' turnovers, as well as the lack of interceptions by New Orleans' defense, are symptomatic of the Saints not jumping out to big leads as they did so often last season.

"Certainly your chances of turning the ball over from an interception go up if you're playing come-from-behind football," Payton said, pointing out that teams are often forced to throw more when trailing. "It gets back to being in a position where you're playing with a lead, playing with balance. As soon as you become one-dimensional, it becomes more difficult."

At the same time, Payton said, opposing offenses have had an easier time calling conservative plays and protecting the football, limiting takeaways by a Saints defense that was among the best in the league in that category last season.

"The way we practice and the effort we give, I think the turnovers will come," Payton said. "The difference this season clearly is that there haven't been many cases or series or quarters where we've played with a lead of above a score compared to a year ago. When (a team has a two-score lead), the defense has more opportunities to rush the passer and the opposition is one-dimensional."

On paper, New Orleans' defense appears to be one of the bright spots on the team, ranking fourth overall in yards allowed per game, compared to 25th last season. All-Pro safety Darren Sharper, who on Sunday played his first game since having offseason knee surgery, said using such stats to judge the Saints' defense can be tricky.

"Now we're top-five, but we haven't created as many turnovers as last year, so is the defense better than last year, or is the defense worse?" he asked.

"We don't worry about stats," Sharper continued. "Getting takeaways is what we pride ourselves on doing and that's the biggest factor in changing the makeup of a game and whether or not you win or you lose."

Brees said the whole team was mindful of how hard it can be to defend a title, and how often recent NFL champions have faltered the following season, a phenomenon often referred to as the "Super Bowl hangover."

The Saints never underestimated how hard it would be to maintain last season's excellence. They're simply disappointed they have struggled to play well consistently through the first seven weeks. It only gets harder this week, with the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1) visiting Sunday night.

"We're never going to panic, but there's definitely a sense of urgency," Brees said. "We just have to really focus on the details -- not letting anything slide, from being on time to meetings, from what you're doing in the film room, what you're doing in the weight room, what you're doing in the training room, taking care of your body. Just don't let a single thing slide. Make sure you're accountable to one another. That's what everybody's preaching right now."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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