The New Orleans Saints knew they would have to alter their approach in the red zone after trading their All-Pro tight end.
They probably weren’t expecting to struggle to finish off drives as much as they did in Week 1, however.
New Orleans will try to improve its efficiency when it goes for an eighth straight victory over the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
The Saints had scored 32 or more points in three of their last four openers before falling 31-19 at Arizona on Sunday. Moving the ball wasn’t a problem, as they gained 408 yards – just shy of their NFL-best 411.4-yard average of last year – and Drew Brees went 30 of 48 for 355 yards.
They managed only one touchdown in four red-zone trips, though, in their first game since trading Jimmy Graham to Seattle.
New Orleans ranked sixth in the NFL last year by scoring touchdowns on 60.0 percent of its red-zone possessions, but that was due in large part to Graham, who leads the league with 35 red-zone receiving TDs since the start of 2011. He caught 12 of his 21 red-zone targets last season, including nine for scores.
"When you lose someone like him, it’s not one player that replaces the touches," coach Sean Payton said. "Usually it’s a handful of players."
Benjamin Watson started at tight end and caught three passes for 19 yards, but wasn’t targeted within the 20-yard line and has only eight red-zone TDs in the past five seasons.
Brandin Cooks led Saints wideouts with eight targets, catching four passes for 49 yards. At 5-foot-10, though, he isn’t an ideal threat around the end zone. Only six of his 69 targets last year came in the red zone.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Brandon Coleman may have the best shot to become Brees’ new favorite receiver inside an opponent’s 20. The rookie enjoyed an impressive debut with four catches for 41 yards, including the team’s only touchdown.
"There’s no magic wand. You’ve got to work on it," Payton said. "When you play young players like we are, they’re going to get acclimated to those areas of the field."
A more efficient running game would likely help open things up, as New Orleans managed 54 yards on 20 carries last week. Mark Ingram led the way with 24 yards on nine attempts, though he had career highs of eight receptions for 98 yards.
"Our yards per carry in the run game wasn’t what we had hoped for," Payton said. "We understood we were playing kind of a run-heavy front, but that’s something that has to be better."
New Orleans is trying to avoid its third 0-2 start in four years, though the team has won six of its last seven home openers, and facing the Buccaneers figures to be significantly easier based on Tampa Bay’s ugly opener.
Brees, three TD passes shy of joining Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Dan Marino as the only players with 400, has posted a 104.4 rating in nine home meetings with the Bucs since joining the Saints in 2006. New Orleans has averaged 435.1 yards during a seven-game winning streak against Tampa Bay, the longest by either team in series history.
Tampa Bay has lost 18 of 20 following Sunday’s 42-14 defeat to Tennessee, as it was blown out by the only other team to go 2-14 last season.
"One disappointing game doesn’t define our season. We won’t let it," coach Lovie Smith said. "If we had been on the other side, we wouldn’t be printing up Super Bowl tickets right now either. It’s just one game. The season isn’t made on it. … You have to keep that in perspective."
Jameis Winston, who threw the first of his two interceptions on his first pass attempt, was 15 of 33 for 210 yards – 123 of which came in the fourth quarter when the game was all but decided. He was outclassed by the No. 2 overall draft pick, Marcus Mariota, who threw four TDs and achieved a perfect quarterback rating.
"I’m always going to be confident," Winston said. "This is just one game, I always can bounce back."
One encouraging sign for the Buccaneers’ offense was the play of tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught five passes for 110 yards, including both of Winston’s touchdowns.
Winston also hopes to have Mike Evans at his disposal after the receiver practiced for three straight days on a limited basis. He caught a franchise-record 12 TD passes in 2014 but sat out Sunday due to a strained hamstring. Evans is listed as questionable.
”I feel real good. The training staff did a real good job on my hammies. They feel better than they ever have. Hopefully, I’ll get to go this week,” he said.
Both teams need to play with more discipline after Tampa Bay was flagged 12 times for 97 yards, while the Saints were penalized seven times for 73 yards.