Five things the Saints must improve on

New Orleans Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt throws his challenge flag during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin) Show caption
New Orleans Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt throws his challenge flag during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

After having a week to digest an unpalatable 7-9 finish, their first losing season since 2007, the New Orleans Saints coaching staff has had time to figure out where it all went wrong.

Then again, it didn’t take a lot of time to do that after a team that won 13 games, advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs and came within a half-minute of playing for a second NFC
title in three seasons just one year ago, took a major step backward with six fewer victories in 2012.

While that was difficult to swallow, the task of fixing the problems that caused their mercurial drop from title contenders and left them as one of 20 teams with nothing to play for in January will be harder.

Here are five things the Saints must do a better job of next season if they expect to be among the conference’s elite teams in the postseason next January:

1. Stop the run.

The No. 1 spot was a
toss-up between stopping the run and stopping the pass, and unless you were vacationing in Antarctica the past four months, you know why it could go either way.

Any defensive coach will tell you that stopping the run is the first order of
business. The Saints didn’t do that, ranking last in
allowing 147.6 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry — nearly a yard more than the league norm of 4.3 yards.

Two of the eight 200-yard games posted by running backs this season came against the Saints, so that says a lot right there.

1a. Stop the pass.

OK, so it was hard to break the tie. This is no excuse, but when you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to stop the pass. The rushing yardage wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if the Saints could have been at least average in defending the pass.

But they were subpar there as well, even though they weren’t last. They ranked 31st in giving up 292.6 yards per game, surpassed only by the Tampa Bay Bucs (297.4).

3. Improve on third down.

The Saints led the NFL in converting third downs in 2010 and 2011 at 44.9 and 56.7 percent, respectively. This year, they were fourth at 44.0 percent. While that’s still pretty good, it’s one of the first stats Drew Brees looks at when he pores over the game statistics while sitting at his locker just after coming off the field.

So that has to get better as well as the defense in stopping it. The Saints were slightly above the league average at 38.5 percent and finished 18th, but getting off the field and giving Brees and the offense more opportunities to score points will only help.

4. Cut down on turnovers.

For all the great numbers he puts up — with three 5,000-yard passing seasons in the past five years — Brees has to protect the ball better. He’s the first to admit that 19 interceptions — three fewer than his career high — is unacceptable.

There are going to be picks when you throw the ball more than 650 times a season, but he knows that must come down.

5. Tighten up the kick coverage.

While they have one of the game’s elite punters and kickoff men in Pro Bowler Thomas Morstead, the Saints had lapses at times and ranked 29th in punt coverage and 24th in kickoff coverage.

While they did a decent job most of the year, they gave up a club-record 287 kickoff return yards to the Giants, which upped the average to 25.0 yards per return, and a 69-yard punt return in the season finale against the Panthers to allow 12.6 yards per punt return.