Saints: Avoiding early hole key to success

Atoning for the Saints’ worst offensive performance under Sean Payton won’t take complicated game-planning, if you ask the coach.

It’s simply a matter of preventing the beginning of their NFC Divisional playoff at top-seeded Seattle (13-3) on Saturday from overwhelming them in the manner it did when they were pummeled 34-7 in that city last month.

“We’ve got to do better ... just handling the early portion of the game,” Payton said this week. “There’s certain things in playoff football, or for that matter just playing on the road, that you’ve got to give yourselves an opportunity. I think we’re working hard this week to do that.”

Enveloped by a record-breaking din as well as a misty rain at CenturyLink Field, New Orleans did the exact opposite of giving themselves a chance the night of Dec. 2. On their first three drives, they ran nine plays and gained 9 yards.

Two of those drives ended in punts, which Seattle’s offense answered with a field goal and a touchdown. On the other one, Drew Brees fumbled upon being sacked by Seahawks’ defensive end Cliff Avril; Michael Bennett scooped the ball up and ran it back for a 22-yard score.

The stunned Saints (12-5) found themselves down 17-0 with 1:55 still left in the first quarter, and they had been outgained by 125 yards. The game was over — New Orleans only gained 179 yards the rest of the way and scored off a 2-yard pass to Jimmy Graham. The Saints ended up with their fewest yards in a game on offense since 2003 and their fewest points since 2008.

New Orleans kneeled to the end the first half, punted four more times and lost possession on downs twice on their remaining drives against a Seattle defense that was No. 1 in the league at the end of the regular season.

“That was not a very good performance by us,” said Brees, who was 23-of-38 for 147 yards passing and was complemented by a rushing attack that managed a mere 44 yards on 17 carries. “There’s a lot about that game that we walk away from and say that’s not us.”

Indeed, it wasn’t. Brees put up such meager numbers even though he was sacked only once and hit three times on his 39 pass dropbacks, according to the website Pro Football Focus.

Graham — first on the Saints with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and the NFL with 16 touchdown grabs in the regular season — caught only two other passes despite being targeted a team-leading nine times. Each went for 20 yards, the Saints’ longest gains.

Receivers combined for only eight grabs. The dink-and-dunk passes to running backs that so often fill in for the rushing game when it’s sluggish yielded little — Darren Sproles had seven grabs for 32 yards on eight targets, and Pierre Thomas had four grabs on as many targets for 21 yards.

Sproles this week admitted it stunned him how quickly the Seahawks clamped down on screen plays.

“They sniff it out fast,” said Sproles, who has topped the Saints in combined yards from scrimmage the three seasons he’s been with them. “They seemed like they knew it was coming when we tried to run our screens. You can tell they study film real (well).”

Right tackle Zach Strief added: “Look, we got exactly what we deserved, and they got what they deserved. They played better than us, and we didn’t execute.”

Yet the Saints know they were in the middle of a road slump when they first faced Seattle, who dealt New Orleans one of its five losses in its last six trips away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome during the regular season.

A pair of major things that faltered in some of those losses — the defense and the run — shined in the Saints’ most recent trips: a last-minute, 17-13 defeat at Carolina on Dec. 22 and the 26-24 wild-card victory at Philadelphia on Saturday.

The Saints moved the ball on the ground an impressive 126 yards at Carolina against the NFL’s second-ranked defense. They notched their second-highest rushing total of the season, 185 yards, to help secure the franchise’s first win in a road playoff game against Philadelphia.

On defense, the Saints held Carolina to 222 yards, the Panthers’ season low. They held Philadelphia’s second-ranked, up-tempo attack to 161 yards below its average.

And that all inspires confidence in the Saints that they can avoid another fatal 17-point hole, even if they take a couple of drives to settle in and it rains like it’s forecast to.

The first clash with the Seahawks “was just one of those games,” rookie receiver Kenny Stills said.

“We’re trying to put it behind and focus on getting a chance to prove that that’s not who we are and show that we can move the ball on this defense.”

Count Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as one of those who believes the Saints can pull that off.

“There were some plays made in that game for good fortune on our end of it,” he said. “We understand ... how well they execute and how well-equipped they are that we were very fortunate in that game.”