Quick read: Cardinals at Saints

It’s rare when the Saints offense, one of the most dangerous and productive units in the NFL since 2006, struggles for an extended period of time.

Sure, there have been hiccups here and there over the years since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived. But they’re usually vanquished in a hurry — like the very next week.

The Saints are 2-0 heading into Sunday’s game with the Arizona Cardinals, but it’s hardly because of an offense that hasn’t exactly purred the way it usually does.

Their new-look defense, which has been riddled by injuries, is largely responsible for back-to-back wins to start the season.

It’s a good thing the defense has performed well under late-game pressure, because the offense has scored just three touchdowns in the two outings.

It’s only the eighth time since 2006 that Brees and the Saints have scored three or fewer offensive touchdowns over a two-game stretch.

What’s really alarming is their poor red-zone efficiency. They’ve scored just one TD in seven trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line for a 14.3 percentage — which is last in the 32-team league through the first two weeks.

That poor percentage is the direct opposite of the 2012 Saints offense that scored a touchdown on 68.4 percent of its red-zone visits to rank second in the NFL.

No one has to tell Brees and his teammates they have to stop settling for field goals when they get in close because it’ll come back to bite them eventually.

So being able to punch the ball in is going to be a top priority Sunday.

Sheldon Mickles

It’s no secret that Saints coach Sean Payton likes to use a committee of halfbacks depending on the opponent and, more importantly, the down and distance.

Despite putting extra emphasis on it this offseason, the Saints, with the exception of Pierre Thomas, are struggling to get going. Thomas is averaging 5.1 yards per carry; the problem is, he’s been given the ball just 14 times.

No one else in the Saints backfield averages more than 3.2 yards per attempt, which means he could be a key against a Cardinals defense, with Darnell Dockett, that ranks third in the NFL in giving up 58.0 yards a game.

So getting Thomas and the others going is a must.

While he doesn’t get a lot of snaps on the offensive side, cornerback/wide receiver/quarterback/kick returner Patrick Peterson has become quite the weapon for the Cardinals.

In last week’s 25-21 win against the Detroit Lions, the third-year pro became the first defender since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to catch a pass and complete a pass.

Of course, his primary duties are as a shutdown cornerback who made the Pro Bowl last season after collecting seven interceptions and as a punt returner.

His versatility forces opponents, including the Saints this week, to spend extra time preparing for all of his talents.

At 6 foot-1, 219 pounds, Peterson is bigger than most cornerbacks — which allows him to go against the top wide receivers in the game.

Lions’ All-Pro Calvin Johnson had six catches for 116 yards last week, but his 72-yard TD grab wasn’t against Peterson — which means Johnson was held to 42 yards on his other five receptions.

1GETTING NO. 1: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, a former Saints assistant, picked up his first official win as an NFL head coach last week when his team hung on for a 25-21 victory against the Detroit Lions. Arians was 9-3 as an interim coach with the Colts in 2012.

2 COMING BACK: The Cardinals will be playing in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time since dropping a 45-14 decision to the Saints in the 2009 divisional playoffs, which started the Saints’ magical run to a win in Super Bowl XLIV.

3 DOME SWEET DOME: With their 23-17 season-opening win against the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints have compiled a 30-11 record at home since the start of the 2008 season — which ranks as the fourth-best mark in the NFL during that span.

After a disastrous 2012 season in which they lost 11 of their final 12 games, the Cardinals believe they’re headed in the right direction.

Things went terribly wrong after back-to-back NFC West titles in 2008 and ’09 — which included their first Super Bowl appearance.

But they haven’t been the same since the Saints put a 45-14 beating on them in the 2009 divisional playoffs — and bottomed out with a five-win season a year ago that cost coach Ken Whisenhunt his job.

New coach Bruce Arians, who won nine games as the Indianapolis Colts’ interim coach last season, doesn’t believe in the word “rebuilding.”

Which is why he’s certain he can win right away after bringing in quarterback Carson Palmer to throw the ball to perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and some talented young receivers.

The defense wasn’t the problem last year, thanks to, among others, versatile cornerback Patrick Peterson — the former LSU All-American.