A few plays away from being 0-2, the Saints are thrilled to have a chance to address their weaknesses at 2-0.
A week after surviving two Atlanta passes into the end zone in the final minute of a 23-17 victory, they won 16-14 on a last-second field goal Sunday at Tampa Bay despite a litany of issues that could have cost them.
Drew Brees threw two bad interceptions and was sacked four times. Bucs running back Doug Martin gained 144 yards. New Orleans was stuffed on downs near the end of the first half after having first-and goal at the 1.
“We haven’t played as well as we can play, but the position we are in right now is the best position we could be in,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said Monday. “Down the road, these early games that we just found a way to win will come back big. At the end of the year, there’s no asterisks.”
The Saints are alone in first place in the NFC South, a game ahead of defending champion Atlanta and two up on Tampa Bay and Carolina. A year ago at this time, New Orleans was halfway toward an 0-4 September without suspended coach Sean Payton.
That dramatic difference tempered the Saints’ frustration.
“There’s certainly a ton of things that we have to look at and clean up,” Payton said. “Fortunately it’s coming off of a win. We’re quickly trying to make the corrections and look for consistency.”
Those problems were particularly evident on the goal-line failure.
On first-and-goal from the 1, Brees tried to hit tight end Jimmy Graham with a play-action pass but threw the ball away when he was not open.
On second-and-goal, Mark Ingram could not turn the corner on a pitch to the left and lost a yard.
On third-and-goal, the Bucs stopped Pierre Thomas near the line of scrimmage. Strief said center Brian de la Puente missed a difficult block that would have sprung Thomas.
On fourth-and-goal — after Payton took a field goal off the board when Tampa Bay jumped offside — Ingram got knocked sideways just before he reached the goal line on a run to the left.
“It’s a team deal,” Strief said. “There’s no finger-pointing down here. We all take accountability for when it’s on us. You look at it, you say, ‘OK, there’s about five different reasons why we didn’t get in.’ It’s not any one guy, but it can’t happen; I know that.”
Payton blamed himself for the first-down pass. He tried to reward Graham, who had taken a vicious, penalized hit from Tampa Bay safety Ahmad Black earlier in the drive before having a touchdown overturned by the replay official.
“The goal-line sequence is on me,” Payton said. “We had a plan going in, and I got off of that with the play-action pass. That was coaching. It wasn’t the players.”
Despite Payton’s commitment to re-establishing the running game, New Orleans ranks 23rd in the NFL in rushing, averaging 76.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry.
Ingram, the starting running back, has gained only 31 yards on 17 carries (1.8 average) with a long of 8 yards. Thomas has 72 yards on 14 attempts.
Brees was hit more than usual, too. His four sacks were one off his season high of a year ago, and that total did not include the sack and fumble that was nullified by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn.
“(Sunday), there were some plays that even after the pass he took a pretty good shot,” Payton said. “We’re always mindful of that.”
Graham and good defense saved the day. Graham tied a career high with 10 receptions while setting a Saints record for receiving yards by a tight end with 179.
“He was physical, changed field position for us and was very focused,” Payton said. “He was outstanding.”
The defense, which ranks 10th in the NFL a year after allowing a league record 7,042 yards, held Atlanta to two touchdowns and Tampa Bay to one. It forced the Bucs to try a field goal on their final series when one more first down would have allowed them to run out the clock.
“We are a confident bunch,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “To win the first game with a fourth-down stop and then come to this game and having to get the ball back to our offense, I feel like we are flying pretty high.”
Lofton admitted the run defense needed to get better. Payton and Strief lamented the offensive breakdowns.
Still, the Saints made enough plays to win.
“We’ve had some character building these first two games,” Strief said. “You start saying, ‘Boy, you know, this team can win close games.’ Having that faith and the belief that your team is going to step up and win games when they need to be won will go a long way.”
NOTE: Payton had no update on the leg injury suffered by cornerback Patrick Robinson, who was carted off the field Sunday.
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