|Saints quarterback Drew Brees is hoping to get the offense back on track. (US Presswire)|
The vultures are circling in New Orleans with the Saints 0-2 and appearing on the verge of a free fall. Look closely, though, and you'll notice the birds are hovering around only one side of the ball.
Without suspended coach Sean Payton, the Saints remain strong on offense, his specialty. They rank third in the NFL in yards and seventh in points. After a penalty-prone, sloppy opener against Washington, they converted seven of 13 third downs and averaged 6.0 yards per carry against Carolina.
Sorry, nothing ominous there. The Saints' downfall has been abysmal defense, and if new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can coax significant improvement as players become more familiar with his scheme, Drew Brees will carry this team into playoff contention.
That's a big if because the defense lacks playmakers across the board. Tackle Sedrick Ellis never has developed into the force the Saints expected when they drafted him seventh overall in 2008. End Will Smith had 13 sacks in 2009 but has not matched that total in 31 games since (12). Starting safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are looking for their first interceptions since 2010.
New Orleans, which finished second-to-last in the NFL with 16 forced turnovers in 2011, has caused one turnover in two games this season.
Still, the defense can't possibly be as bad as it looked in the first two games, when Washington and Carolina torched it for 922 yards with run/pass quarterbacks. That average of 461 yards is almost as high as the New Orleans offense produced when it set an NFL record for yards (467.1) last season.
“I do know this,” Spagnuolo said. “If we stick together, there's enough character and enough good men in that locker room and certainly on the defensive side of the ball that we'll get everything right.”
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, imported from Atlanta to replace Jonathan Vilma, is recovering from a high ankle sprain he suffered in the preseason. He was a tackles machine with the Falcons (398 in the last three years) and should get better each week.
Cornerback Jabari Greer, the Saints' most reliable cover man, is recuperating from sports hernia surgery he had in August. He missed the opener, played some against Carolina and should be close to full strength against Kansas City this Sunday.
If the defense shows a pulse, the offense can breathe life into the season. The dropoff there has been much less significant than portrayed. Chief among the misconceptions:
Brees is not the same player without Payton: The evidence cited is his four interceptions, but Brees has been prone to picks in the past. He threw 22 interceptions two years ago, and the Saints still went 11-5 thanks to his 4,620 passing yards and 33 touchdowns.
Even his awful pick-six against Carolina, when he threw out of his own end zone into traffic with no chance to pick up a first down, had precedent.
Against Atlanta in 2010, he flipped a wild backhanded pass under heavy pressure that was returned for a 26-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, reminiscent of Brett Favre at his worst.
Later in that game, like Favre at his best, he completed six straight passes on a touchdown drive as the Saints rallied to win 17-14.
Brees struggled against Washington, but he went 31 of 49 for 325 yards and two touchdowns against Carolina.
“I'd be really concerned here if we had played the way we did in game one and really had taken a step back in game two, saying obviously something's wrong,” he said. “But the fact that we're moving forward despite the loss, that gives us a lot of hope and excitement about just stepping on the field again, feeling like we're going to be putting our best foot forward.”
The offensive line is in disarray while offensive line coach Aaron Kromer focuses on his duties as interim head coach: Carolina sacked Brees once. Running back Pierre Thomas gained 110 yards on nine carries as New Orleans rushed for 163 yards. The Saints had 486 yards overall.
Where exactly was the problem? The line graded out well in week 1 and played well in week 2. The lone newcomer, left guard Ben Grubbs, is a capable replacement for departed free agent Carl Nicks.
“I am spending enough time with the offensive line,” Kromer said. “The offensive line has been solid.”
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is in over his head without Payton: Carmichael called the plays for the final 13 games last year, including the playoffs, after Payton broke his leg against Tampa Bay. The Saints set multiple NFL records for offense.
Carmichael did not drop consecutive passes at the goal line, as sure-handed receiver Lance Moore and tight end Jimmy Graham did in the first half last Sunday.
That was an anomaly. The Saints still have almost all of their key players from a year ago, including Graham, a Pro Bowl selection, and Darren Sproles, who broke the NFL record for all-purpose yardage.
Any panic about the offense is premature. The Saints don't need to be good defensively. They just need to be close to average, and the offense can take care of the rest.
Follow Saints reporter Guerry Smith on twitter @CBSSaints.