Saints 'not playing smart,' playoff chances fade
Another mistake-filled loss has left the New Orleans Saints in a situation they've never dealt with since Drew Brees arrived in 2006 - playing for little more than pride in with three weeks still left in the regular season.
Although the 5-8 Saints aren't officially eliminated from the playoff race after falling 52-27 to the New York Giants on Sunday, they know it would take a miracle for them to have a postseason future. Four turnovers and horrendous kickoff coverage against the Giants essentially ended their final chance as they ran their turnover total to 11 in their last three games.
''In the National Football League you have to first keep from losing before you can ever win,'' assistant head coach Joe Vitt said Monday. ''Right now we're not playing very smart and we're not playing very disciplined, and it starts with me. I have to do a better job of making sure our team understands the critical factors that go into winning, and then we have to execute them on Sunday.''
The Saints missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, too, but this is the first time in seven years they won't be at least 7-7 after 14 games. Ten NFC teams have a better record than they do entering next Sunday's game with Tampa Bay in the Superdome. Instead of worrying about playoff seeding in the final three weeks, their only motivation is finishing .500 and ending on a positive note.
''We have a prideful group in this locker room,'' said running back Mark Ingram, the only player available for interviews on Monday. ''Our focus going forward is just getting better every single day and improving individually. We've had three straight losses. It would be nice to close the season with three straight wins.''
While Brees threw two more interceptions in the second half against the Giants - he had been picked off seven times in defeats to Atlanta and San Francisco the two previous weeks - the Saints also found two new ways to lose.
Their kickoff coverage, which had been among the NFL's best, allowed a franchise-worst 287 yards on six returns.
Giants rookie David Wilson returned the opening kickoff 58 yards to the New Orleans 44, then scored on a 97-yard return and ran one back 52 yards to the New Orleans 46 on his next two attempts. When Thomas Morstead began pooching his kicks in the second half, Jerrel Jernigan returned one 60 yards to the New Orleans 25.
Before Sunday, the longest kickoff return the Saints had allowed was 38 yards.
''If you're talking about kickoff coverage, lane integrity is the No. 1 thing and No. 2 is leverage,'' Vitt said. ''You have to leverage the football and not the blocker, and you have to make sure you're in the proper lanes and you can't piggyback one another. They broke down yesterday.''
Saints wide receiver Marques Colston and fullback Jed Collins fumbled after catches on consecutive first quarter possessions. Until then, New Orleans had not lost fumble on the road all year.
''We're pressing,'' Vitt said. ''We have to let it go and let it flow. Play hard, play smart and play together and do the things we do in practice every day.''
The litany of mistakes on offense and special teams gave the New Orleans defense almost no chance. The Giants started seven series inside Saints territory, including four from the 35 or closer.
Still, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said his group took a step back after playing better in the previous four weeks. He was particularly unhappy about a 2-minute drill at the end of the first half, when quarterback Eli Manning led a 69-yard touchdown drive that gave New York a 21-13 lead.
The Giants scored touchdowns four of the five times they got inside the New Orleans 20.
''We've had our struggles, but when other phases struggle we have to somehow find a way to rise up,'' Spagnuolo said. ''We have to make them kick field goals.''
After starting 0-4 without suspended coach Sean Payton, the Saints thought they had recovered from their bounty-related distractions when they climbed to 5-5. Three consecutive ugly losses to division-leading teams have proven them wrong.
''We knew we had a tough stretch ahead of us, but we knew we controlled our own (playoff) destiny at that point,'' Brees said Sunday. ''The most disappointing thing is just losing the way we have and doing some uncharacteristic things, doing all the things that get you beat.''
Notes: Vitt dismissed the idea of giving backups more playing time in the final three weeks, saying his goal was to win every game and he would put the most deserving players on the field. ... A year after setting the NFL offensive record for yards in a season, the Saints are still on pace to give up the most yards in NFL history, although the 394 yards they gave up to the Giants lowered their average to 436.9.