Coach Payton wants more consistency from Saints' offense

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' once-prolific offense is lacking its usual punch, and coach Sean Payton sees a troubling pattern of fundamental breakdowns as the primary cause.

"We'll put a quick drive together, move the ball with efficiency, and the very next sequence, we'll have a penalty or a minus play, or a turnover," Payton said Monday after reviewing video of his team's 30-20 loss Sunday at Arizona. "You can't operate that way and expect to have real good results."

Everyone expected more from the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, who have had the NFL's leading offense for three of the past four seasons.

A few pivotal players are injured, but the system is the same, and Drew Brees is still the quarterback.

"There's an expectation level that we get accustomed to when we perform at a high level," Payton said. "When you don't meet those expectations, certainly there's disappointment."

Nearly a third of the way into their Super Bowl title defense, the Saints (3-2) have yet to produce on offense at a pace remotely close to that of last season, when they led the NFL in yardage and scoring.

In winning all of its first five games in 2009, New Orleans piled up 22 offensive touchdowns, or more than double the number (10) it has so far in 2010. For all of last season, Brees averaged 8.5 yards per passing attempt, which ranked third in the NFL. This season, he averages 7.1 yards, tied for 13th with Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and Tennessee's Vince Young.

The Saints won their first six games by double digits last season. Their three victories this season have been by margins of five, three and two points.

"Obviously, what we'd done last year is way different than what we've done this year, so that's why I have a question, and I'm sure the fans do, too," offensive guard Carl Nicks said. "I really haven't been able to put my finger on it. I mean, we've got the same guys. We're nicked up in a couple spots, but basically we're the same team, so I really don't know."

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The Saints have lost two of three games since running back Reggie Bush fractured a bone in his lower right leg. Pierre Thomas, the Saints' leading rusher last season, has missed the past two games with a left ankle injury.

The Saints also had a run of bad bounces at Arizona. When Ladell Betts fumbled, the Cardinals scooped it up and returned it for a score. By contrast, Arizona fumbled four times and recovered all of them, including one that bounced right to an offensive lineman as he lunged into the end zone for a touchdown.

That fortuitous bounce for the Cardinals came shortly after an interception in which Brees' pass bounced off of Ladell Betts' hands deep in Saints territory.

Betts was signed after Bush's injury and pressed into service after Thomas went down. But Payton showed little interest in blaming his offense's recent floundering on injuries or bad bounces. He noted that the Saints have had a number of productive games when Bush has been out and said Betts has performed well overall. On the interception off Betts' hands, Payton said his own regrettable play-call and the way Brees threw a hard pass at close range into traffic didn't help.

Brees, who has been playing with a brace on his left knee, threw two other interceptions in the game. The Saints have nine turnovers in their past three contests, going 1-2.

Other mistakes, such as penalties and missed assignments, have stalled drives close to opponents' end zones. The Saints have had to settle for six short field-goal tries -- one of which was missed -- in the past two games.

"It's little breakdowns. We don't need a system overhaul here," right tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "There are groups across this league that I think in their heart of hearts know that they can't produce a lot of points. This locker room doesn't feel that way. Right now we're missing on some opportunities, and I think that really boils down to small breakdowns across the group of the 11 of us."

Wide receiver Devery Henderson said opposing defenses deserve some credit for adjusting pass coverages to defend against big plays. It's only natural, Henderson said, that the rest of the league would spend more time studying the Saints' offense -- and how to slow it down -- when it has led the NFL in three of the past four seasons.

"We can't dwell on what we did in the past," Henderson said. "We have to worry about this year and what we can control. Things haven't been going the way we expected, but we've just got to keep going and get things corrected."

There have been times Brees and the offense have looked as explosive as ever, such as during their 80-yard scoring drive Sunday that took just 1 minute, 36 seconds and ended with Robert Meachem's 35-yard TD catch.

Payton remained complimentary of the talent, work ethic and attitude of his players. He didn't see the need for a "chair-throwing" tirade to snap them out of their funk. The coach said they just need to work on being more consistent and eliminating the mistakes that stall drives and lose games.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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