Saints again plagued by defensive woes in loss to Patriots

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) carries against New Orleans Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (32) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) When New Orleans rookie safety Marcus Williams intercepted Tom Brady in the third quarter, the Saints were flagged for 12 men on the field, negating a needed turnover and return deep into New England territory.

The next time the Saints picked Brady off, they were called for defensive holding.

When they played by the rules, the Saints appeared helpless to stop anything Brady did. New England scored on five of its six first-half possessions and finished with 555 yards in a 36-20 victory on Sunday that spoiled New Orleans’ home opener. Brady finished with 447 yards passing and three TD tosses, while the Saints fell to 0-2 for the fourth consecutive year.

The question was how much of the credit went to Brady and how much of the blame went to a reeling defense.

A week after Minnesota’s Sam Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns in a 29-19 win against New Orleans, Brady came close to those numbers in the first half alone. He threw for three scores in the first quarter for the first time in his career and passed for 300 yards before halftime for only the second time.

”We’re going to make our plays and they’re going to make their plays,” linebacker Manti Te’o said. ”They just made more plays than us today.”

A lot more. Brady went 5 for 5 for 101 yards on the Patriots’ five third downs in the first quarter, leading England to touchdowns on all three possessions.

On one of them, tight end Rob Gronkowski ran across the field on a slow-developing pattern, beat rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone and easily sidestepped a tackle by Williams, completing a 53-yard touchdown reception.

”We were probably more man coverage than we were a week ago,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. ”Obviously there were some guys open. There were a handful of big plays where (Brady) had too much time.”

Although the Saints talked about having plenty of time for a turnaround, their frustration clearly was mounting. The 0-2 start comes after three consecutive 7-9 seasons when the defense ranked near the bottom of the NFL.

”We didn’t do enough to stop them,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. ”At some point in the first half they had 30 points, and that’s something you can’t be proud of.”

The Saints thought they had changed their fortunes when Williams intercepted a floater by Brady and returned it inside the New England 20 on the Patriots’ opening possession of the second half. But Te’o did not get off in time after a late substitution, and Brady’s quick snap led to a penalty for 12 men on the field.

”It’s classic Tom,” Payton said. ”I haven’t seen how close Mantei was to being off. The substitution (mistake) was not our challenge tonight.”

Just about everything else was, and the defensive struggles led to a surprise benching. Vaccaro, a fifth-year starter with 336 career tackles, was pulled during the second half.

”We need to get more consistent play,” Payton said in explanation. ”That dates back to last weekend.”

Vaccaro said no one told him why he was taken out. He characterized his performance at Minnesota as below his standards, but wondered what he did wrong against the Patriots.

”Gronk had two catches on me, really great catches, and that was about it,” he said. ”I don’t understand what happened, but I take full responsibility. I’ve got to move on. I’ve got to keep pushing.”

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