Vargas: Red zone, wideouts troubling for Saints

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (12) runs after a catch in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig) Show caption
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston (12) runs after a catch in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

People don’t spend much time talking about flaws on the Saints offense; but on occasion, the topic comes up, and what’s been most cited lately is a ground game averaging 3 yards per carry, as well as quarterback Drew Brees’ being sacked more than he has since arriving in New Orleans.

However, as the Saints returned from their off week and began gearing up Monday for the final 10 games of their season, two other conspicuous cracks are showing in the offense’s armor.

New Orleans is still scoring touchdowns less than half the time it ventures beyond its opponents’ 20. And a wide receiver corps that on paper promised to be tough to stop, despite the loss of Joe Morgan to a year-ending knee injury in training camp, hasn’t been responsible for many yards at all.

The Saints will want to patch that up as they strive to capitalize on an opportunity to lock up home-field advantage throughout the postseason. No one in New Orleans will forget what happened the last time the Saints managed to do that in 2009.

The Saints have scored touchdowns on 10 of their 22 trips to the red zone (45.5 percent), which ranks 26th in the NFL. The efficiency of an offense in the red zone alone doesn’t translate into success or failure, but it can serve as a strong indicator of one or the other.

One of the top teams in the NFL, 6-1 Denver, leads the league with a red-zone efficiency of 78.8 percent. Arguably the worst team, 0-7 Jacksonville, is last at 27.8 percent.

At least it seems the Saints are well on their way to addressing this year’s blues in the red zone. They were a respectable 6-for-10 in the red zone in their past three games, wins vs. Miami and at Chicago and a last-second loss at New England.

They’ll hope the same positive trend carries over to their wideouts and their ho-hum production.

Saints wide receivers have tallied just 660 of the team’s 1,958 receiving yards — and three of the 14 touchdowns. The relative quietness of the receivers didn’t matter when tight end Jimmy Graham caught 37 catches for six touchdowns and a league-high 593 yards in the first five games.

But then, in the 30-27 Week 6 loss to New England, the Patriots prevented Graham from making a single catch. The wide receivers mostly didn’t pose a threat. While rookie Kenny Stills had three catches for 64 yards and a 34-yard touchdown, Marques Colston struggled to get involved and had one catch for 11 yards. Nick Toon had one catch for 7 yards. Robert Meachem had no catches.

Lance Moore has been inactive since hurting a hand in Week 3, but he hadn’t been much of a factor before his injury.

All of that enabled New England to keep the team’s second-most productive receiver, running back Darren Sproles (32 catches for 366 yards and a touchdown), out of the end zone and hold him to six catches for 58 yards.

To be fair, Colston (24 catches for 324 yards and a touchdown) and Stills (10 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown) have contributed decently, and the wideouts have avoided any costly drops. But there’s a steep drop-off in numbers from wide receivers after Colston and Stills: Toon has three catches for 60 yards, Moore has four catches for 44 yards, and Meachem has two catches for 34 yards and a touchdown.

New Orleans can expect teams to attempt to mimic the way the Patriots contained Graham. The receivers need to be ready and able to exploit the opportunities afforded them.

Nonetheless, the Saints on Monday emerged from their off week at 5-1, gaining 397.7 yards per game, a commendable sixth-best in the NFL. They are passing for 311 yards per game, second-best in the league, and scoring almost 27 points a game, sixth-best in the league.

That level of production is a credit to coach Sean Payton, Brees and playmakers Graham and Sproles. They’ve helped masked flaws other offenses may not have overcome.

It’s also a credit to a defense that has already proved it can consistently end opponents’ drives by sacking quarterbacks and generating turnovers.

If it came to it, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s crew, which is tied for seventh in the league with 20 sacks and has created a respectable 12 takeaways, has shown it’s poised to give New Orleans’ offense a chance to outshoot fellow NFC heavyweights Seattle and San Francisco.

On Monday, the 6-1 Seahawks, who host the Saints on Dec. 2, and the 5-2 49ers, who visit the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Nov. 17, were the only teams remaining on New Orleans’ schedule that were more than one game above .500. They appeared to have the best prospects of ruining any aspirations the Saints have at a top seed — the rest of New Orleans’ opponents were a combined 19-27.

But life will be much harder for the Seahawks and 49ers if the Saints operate in the red zone like the elite offense they are.

Life will be much harder for them if the Saints force them to consistently account for more than just a couple of pass-receiving threats.