O-line issues keep pressure on Brees

They’re off to their first 3-0 start since winning Super Bowl XLIV, but the New Orleans Saints are turning their attention to an issue on offense that, if left unresolved, could prevent them from fighting for a second title or might get their $100 million quarterback hurt.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has already been sacked 10 times this year, a pace that translates to more than 53 sacks and 346 yards lost over a 16-game season.

Between 2006 — when coach Sean Payton took charge in New Orleans — and 2012, the Saints were consistently among the least-sacked teams in the NFL, surrendering a regular-season average of 21.1 sacks, or less than two a game, for 143 yards lost.

They’re headed toward giving up much more than that this year, though, after Brees was sacked twice in a 23-17 win over Atlanta (1-2), four times in a 16-14 win over Tampa Bay (0-3) and four more in Sunday’s 31-7 win over Arizona (1-2).

Center Brian de la Puente on Monday admitted that the amount of sacks on Brees so far is “unacceptable.”

“We take full responsibility for it, because we need to do a better job in giving him time,” de la Puente said. “We know when he has time, he’s very dangerous, so that’s our job to do a better part of it.”

Payton on Monday said part of the problem involves the fact that the Saints have seen more man-to-man coverage from defenses than usual, which can cause quarterbacks to hold onto the ball “a half-count longer” and may result in more sacks.

“It’s more challenging to find your interceptions on the defensive side, but it aids in getting quarterback sacks and hurries,” Payton said.

Payton also said at least one of the sacks by Arizona was because of a mental error, though he didn’t specify which.

Against the Cardinals, Brees was sacked in the first quarter after rookie right guard Tim Lelito failed to contain defensive end Darnell Dockett. Lelito was filling in for Jahri Evans, who missed the first start of his eight-year career with a hurt hamstring and had been listed on the injury report the first two weeks of the season because of his back.

On another sack against Arizona, also in the first quarter, tight end Benjamin Watson didn’t pick up blitzing strongside linebacker Sam Acho. The third sack, in the third quarter, came from Dockett because of tight coverage from Arizona’s secondary.

On the last sack, also in the third quarter, it seemed Brees had gotten a shovel pass off to receiver Lance Moore as Dockett wrapped him up, but Brees was ruled “in the grasp” and down.

Payton said the team is “paying close attention to” the lackluster protection by Brees, who has completed 63.8 of his passes for six touchdowns, 1,021 yards and four interceptions.

“It’s something that we’ve done a good job with” in the past, Payton said. “We feel if we’re going to throw the football — and we’re going to be successful — we have to keep (Brees) upright.”

The offensive line’s struggles might have factored into Payton’s decision to abandon the run game in the first half, when he said Arizona’s defense deployed five-man fronts that were impractical to challenge on the ground. The Saints rushed the ball just three times in the first two quarters — all were handoffs to running back Pierre Thomas, who tallied minus-5 yards.

Saints running backs had 83 yards on 15 carries in the second half Sunday, most of which were earned after New Orleans built a commanding lead.

The Saints permitted 20 sacks in 2009 when they went on to win the Super Bowl. In 2011, when they accumulated the most yards on offense in NFL history before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs, they gave up 24 sacks. The Saints gave up 26 sacks in 2012.

Aside from de la Puente and Evans, right tackle Zach Strief remains from the 2011 line. Ben Grubbs was signed last year to take over at left guard for Carl Nicks, who joined Tampa Bay in free agency last season; and Charles Brown took over at left tackle this season for Jermon Bushrod, who is now with Chicago.