NFL

Saints preach staying the course despite 0-2 start

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METAIRIE, La. (AP)

Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer's message to his 0-2 team on Monday had less to do with what has gone wrong than what could still go right.

That is, if everyone can avoid pointing fingers, stick together and continue trusting the system left in place by suspended head coach Sean Payton.

''When you are on the inside, you'll see that we are going to be a good team,'' Kromer said. ''We're not good enough yet. We've lost two games by eight points so we are that much not good enough. ... We need to be nine points better than we are right now, and that's not asking a lot.''

The Saints entered the season defiant in the face of bounty sanctions that included Payton's season-long suspension, saying expectations remained high coming off three straight playoff appearances. They knew they would miss Payton's presence to some extent, but readily point out that they still had a coaching staff full of experienced Payton disciples, and they had the talent and leadership of record-setting quarterback Drew Brees.

''If you're in this locker room and you've been a part of this team, then you have high expectations,'' said right tackle Zach Strief, an offensive captain. ''We know how talented this team is. I mean, there's a lot of talent in this locker room, and talent doesn't give you wins, but it gives you chances to win games.''

Yet, through two games, something is amiss, and if solutions don't come soon, the climb back to playoff contention could become exceedingly difficult.

The most glaring deficiencies are on defense; the Saints are last in the NFL in yards allowed with 922, and tied for last in points allowed with 75.

New Orleans certainly expected better when Payton moved quickly last January to lock up Steve Spagnuolo as the club's new defensive coordinator.

Spagnuolo made his name with the 2007 New York Giants, which upset New England in the Super Bowl on the strength of a dominant defensive performance. Incidentally, that same Giants defense was torched for 80 points through its first two games, both of them losses.

Spagnuolo said he has already looked at notes he kept from that season to help him recall what turned that 2007 unit around.

''I would say that I don't have a magic wand. There were no secrets to that when it happened,'' Spagnuolo said. ''It came together because nobody - nobody - pointed fingers. Everybody stuck together and (you) just grind your way out of it.

Spagnuolo blamed himself for several breakdowns that helped Carolina beat New Orleans 35-27 on Sunday. He said alignments he called on a couple third-and-long plays were mistakes which Panthers quarterback Cam Newton exploited for long completions. He said he called blitzes too aggressively in the second half.

Still, he stressed that his system is proven and that the Saints have the players to make it work.

''The growing pains will pay off in the end,'' Spagnuolo said. ''I believe in our players and our coaches, and I believe in the scheme. And unless something out of the sky falls, I'm not going to change in that regard.''

Linebacker Scott Shanle said initial impressions of the Saints' defense could be skewed because New Orleans opened with a pair of unconventional, dual-threat quarterbacks: Washington's Robert Griffin III, then Newton.

Yet the Saints spent nearly the entire offseason learning how their new defense works against conventional drop-back passers, which is what they will see this Sunday against Kansas City and quarterback Matt Cassel.

''The past two weeks, we've been running defenses to take things away things you really don't work on a whole lot,'' Shanle said. ''It'll be good to get back to conventional stuff.''

There are fewer problems with New Orleans' offense, which ranks third, averaging about 422 yards per game.

Still quarterback Drew Brees has been routinely under pressure, and has four interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown at Carolina and a few late turnovers that have sealed each loss.

Strief used the word ''quiet'' to describe everything from the Saints' flight home on Sunday to the running and lifting sessions on Monday. He could not recall outward expressions of anger or frustration, but added it would be wrong to take that as a sign that players didn't care. They've simply been looking inward for answers, rather than playing the blame game.

''We could have a guy come in here and throw his helmet against his locker as hard as he could, OK? So that's something that you do when you're 6. We could have tantrums,'' Strief said. ''That's not this locker room. It never has been this locker room. And I think it is very much reflective.

''You have to figure out for yourself, what can you do? What can you do to get better? Because we are not collectively as a team right now winning enough plays to win games.''

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Panthers, Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Cam Newton, Saints

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