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A troubling home opener leaves the Saints with their fifth straight week 1 loss

New Orleans was expected to be a Super Bowl contender this year; instead, they played a game that raises a lot of questions about the team, particularly on defense

The New Orleans Saints went into week 1 as a 9.5-point favorite, at home against Tampa Bay, facing backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Behind the ever-efficient offense led by Hall of Famer Drew Brees, and a defense which brought in new talent last year that helped it surge into one of the best in the league, the Saints expected to be even better than last year.

Instead, for the fifth straight season, the team started 0-1; again with personnel being unprepared, misused, or confused; again with the team seemingly not having figured out who its best players are or how to use them, a particularly strange phenomenon this time around given that relatively few new players are on the team this year.

The 48-40 loss was rather troubling for a number of reasons. Though the score may make it look like the defense was the clear culprit here, the offense showed some worrisome components as well. Let’s start there.

The absence of Mark Ingram might be a bigger blow than initially thought.

Most observers expected Alvin Kamara to do just fine stepping into this lead back role during Ingram’s suspension, with his combination of efficient running and receiving skills. While Kamara did in fact do well–  — the Saints can’t rely on him for 30 touches a game, and neither Jonathan Williams nor Mike Gillislee was particularly inspiring in their snaps. (Gillislee, indeed, fumbled a ball that led to a Tampa Bay defensive touchdown.)

This problem extended beyond the running game, though: Kamara and Michael Thomas proved the only reliable receiving targets for the Saints, a strange occurrence given the talent they brought in this offseason. (Cameron Meredith was inactive for the game; it was not immediately clear why, but it did not appear to be related to injury.) Tre’Quan Smith not yet being a factor was understandable; besides the steep learning curve for rookies at wide receiver, he’d barely gotten any action with Drew Brees in the preseason, and they’ll probably want to wait until he and Brees get their timing down to use him.

But one strength of the Saints’ offense in the Brees-Payton era has been its distribution of offense– multiple running backs, multiple passing targets– and as it stands, right now, this is the Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara show, with some assistance from Ted Ginn and Ben Watson. Thomas and Kamara took up 29 of the team’s 45 targets; Kamara played 51 of 64 offensive snaps, while Gillislee and Williams combined for 10 total. Thomas in particular was a beast, turning 17 targets into 16 receptions for 180 yards and a touchdown. (His one failed target was a drop. They literally can’t guard Mike.)

This can work, in part because Thomas and Kamara are superstars, but it certainly wasn’t the intent of the Saints’ braintrust to lean so heavily on those two players. It suggests that the team just needs some time for Ingram to return and Meredith and Smith to get on the same page as Brees (the optimistic view), or that the Saints goofed yet again with their personnel moves (the pessimistic view). I’m choosing to remain optimistic, though I’ll feel better when Meredith starts playing, Andrus Peat gets back, and someone besides Kamara takes effective carries.

All that said, the Saints did score 40 points Sunday– even if 16 of them were in an almost-certainly-futile garbage-time rally (never say never, though, right?)– so any complaints about the offense might seem nitpicking. And that’s fair, because the real issue was on the other side of the ball.

The defense played like it had regressed to 2016 levels– or worse.

In an apparent attempt to make everyone forget Delvin Breaux’s “lost in the lights” moment from 2015, the Saints surrendered multiple long touchdowns where coverages were completely broken, burnt, or badly conceived to begin with.

First, we have Marcus Williams possibly expecting deep help (or just looking at the wrong receiver) against DeSean Jackson running free:

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Then we have Marshon Lattimore just get beaten by Mike Evans, a great receiver but also a guy Lattimore completely shut down last season:

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Last, we have Ken Crawley one-on-one with DeSean Jackson, which should not ever happen, and Jackson demonstrates why with one move:

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For a unit that added multiple players at every level, has everyone healthy this year, and only lost one significant player in Kenny Vaccaro, the Saints defense played less like the extraordinary unit it was for most of last season and more like the units from years past that have provided multiple “worst ___ in history” records. Why, though? This team was supposed to be upgraded at every position: Demario Davis at linebacker, Patrick Robinson and Kurt Coleman in the secondary, Marcus Davenport along the defensive line. Plus the team was healthier by far than it had been in 2017, plus the young players should have taken a step forward, plus the team was no longer insisting obvious liabilities like De’Vante Harris were viable NFL players. What happened?

It seems one culprit is the gameplan, the schematics the defensive staff run. Take a closer look at that Jackson touchdown: Ken Crawley is being put in one-on-one coverage with a guy who’s stuck around the league for over a decade because of his speed and swiftness. Despite the cushion Crawley gives Jackson, it only takes one feint outside by Jackson to completely turn Crawley around and lead to an easy touchdown. Ken Crawley is a fine cornerback, but he shouldn’t be put in that situation. The defensive gameplanning did not seem very suited to the actual game at hand.

To be fair on the other end, Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, new to play calling duties for Tampa this year, called an excellent game: He consistently schemed to find yards and create open receivers, he exploited the Saints’ weaknesses, and all in all, made Ryan Fitzpatrick look more like Steve Young than a guy on his seventh team who’s been more famous for attending Harvard than anything else.

The Saints also didn’t record a single sack; indeed, they rather struggled to contain Ryan Fitzpatrick– Ryan Fitzpatrick!– who not only ran for a touchdown, but secured the game for Tampa Bay with a scramble on 3rd-and-11. The second level of the defense didn’t seem any better off to start 2018 than it was in 2017.

The second-half defensive meltdown, where the Saints started racking up penalty after personal-foul penalty, was also unacceptable. Some of those weren’t necessarily fair, thanks to the NFL once again adding a byzantine, confusing wrinkle to when players are allowed to hit the quarterback (Marcus Davenport should not have been flagged for 15 yards, as he made a concerted effort not to land on Fitzpatrick in the fashion David Onyemata had been flagged the previous play for doing), but someone on the defense, or the coaching staff, needs to show some leadership when the team starts melting down like that.

It seems to happen every year lately with Payton’s Saints: They come into the season with a plan for what they want to do, only they realize they’re not actually good at that, so they take September to adjust until they get it right. But September is a full one-fourth of your season; there’s no excuse to waste that time figuring things out, especially when you’re starting from the place the Saints defense ended last season.

New Orleans will be nine-point favorites as they host the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. They had a great opportunity to start 2-0 with two matches they were substantial favorites in; if they blow this and start 0-2 for the fifth straight season, they may not get the opportunity to recover they had last season. Losing to Minnesota and New England last year was one thing; the schedule’s not getting easier than the Buccaneers and Browns at home.

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