Saints' offensive woes not causing panic yet

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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METAIRIE, La. -- Rumors of the disappearance of the New Orleans Saints' offense have been greatly exaggerated.

Or have they?

The Saints rank 21st in the NFL in total offense.

Reggie Bush's leg injury will force the Saints to change their game plans. (Getty Images)  
Reggie Bush's leg injury will force the Saints to change their game plans. (Getty Images)  
Not first, 21st.

That probably hasn't happened since Mike Ditka was in New Orleans, and certainly not even close to that during the Sean Payton era.

But apparently it's cool to be cold offensively.

Here are some other 2-0 teams and where they rank offensively: Tampa Bay (24th), Miami (27th), Kansas City (30th), Pittsburgh (31st). Here's where they rank in points per game: New Orleans (15th), Kansas City (17th-tie), Tampa Bay (17th-tie), Pittsburgh (21st), Miami (22nd).

"The big thing is we're 2-0, so we've found a way to win these games and that's the most important thing, albeit the most important statistics are there, which is ball security, taking care of the football," quarterback Drew Brees said.

Brees simply hasn't been as sharp as we're all accustomed to seeing. Brees looked more like Alex Smith than Alex Smith did in Week 2 in San Francisco. Brees has only looked like Brees during the first drive of the Vikings game in Week 1 and during the first and last drive against San Francisco.

Brees so far has averaged only 6.6 yards per attempt this season. He averaged 8.5 yards per attempt last season. Brees has misfired on those deep passes (and some by plenty) that we're so used to seeing him connect on.

And for those screaming, "We're only two weeks into the season," blame Brees for us expecting more. His brilliance has raised the bar. Look, Brees will bounce back. He went through a bit of a lull during Weeks 3 and 4 last season and then continued to impose his will on just about everyone.

Congruently, though, opponents have taken away the Saints' deep passing game, forcing Brees to dink and dunk the ball to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, who combined for 19 catches through two games.

"It's been where I could have probably forced that opportunity in there, but then that would have been exactly what it is, which is forcing it in there," Brees said. "We knew the type of game that was going to be up there [in San Francisco]. We need to have as few mistakes as possible, play a pretty clean game as far as penalty free and mental-error free and taking care of the football, turnover free.

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"We might have to punt and play the field-position game a little bit, which we did. But, in the end, just give us a chance to win. That game turned out exactly like we thought it would, although when we sit there and looked at the film, we saw where we had some opportunities that we probably could have scored some more points and it could have been that close."

The loss of Bush could become the real concern, especially starting this week as Atlanta comes to town on Sunday and figures to challenge the Saints for NFC South supremacy this season.

Bush entered into this past offseason injury free for the first time since the start of the 2007 season. Now his image isn't the only thing in need of repair as his fractured right fibula could sideline him somewhere around six weeks.

The Saints historically have been successful without a healthy Bush. He has missed 12 games because of various knee injuries over the past three seasons and the Saints are 8-4 without him. But don't kid yourself in thinking that the Saints are better off without Bush.

"Obviously we do a lot of things with Reggie," Brees said. "We've had times before where he's been out of the lineup. Other guys are going to have to step up and fill that role and void. It might not be at the running back position."

Payton will be forced to chuck a sizable chunk of his playbook out the window until at least Halloween. Bush is involved in so many formations, whether he's the primary ballhandler or not. That's the beauty of the way Payton uses Bush and no one on the Saints can replicate Bush's presence in an offensive formation or in the return game.

"In terms of game planning, there is a little bit of an unknown," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "When Reggie Bush is in the game he's going to get his touches. Now you're basically working on a premise of, 'Where's the ball going to go? Who's it going to go to?'"

So, Pierre Thomas, you want the big bucks? Here's the time to prove it.

Thomas missed all of OTAs and minicamp during the offseason as he refused to sign his restricted free agent contract in an attempt to strong arm the Saints into giving him a more lucrative deal. It didn't work as Thomas signed his RFA tender shortly before the start of training camp.

The reports of Thomas wanting money in the neighborhood of what the Rams gave Steven Jackson were exaggerated during the offseason. But if Thomas wants cash anywhere near what Jackson or Bush makes, this will be his shot.

Thomas is the only healthy running back of significance on the Saints' roster despite the re-signing Ladell Betts on Wednesday. The team lost Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill for the season during training camp. Upstart undrafted rookie Chris Ivory appears to be returning after spraining his MCL during the preseason, but has never played in an NFL regular-season game.

Thomas already has been the most visible offensive weapon other than Brees as he leads the Saints in rushing yards and receptions. He has already been the primary ballcarrier in the running game, yet his results have been uneven at best, averaging 3.2 yards per carry.

A lack of offensive pop has forced the Saints defense into a corner. To its credit, it has delivered with what it does best -- creating turnovers.

The Saints lived, and rarely died, because of turnovers last season. They ranked second in the NFL with 39 takeaways and third in turnover margin at plus-11. That fact was never more evident than in the NFC Championship Game, where they needed all five takeaways to advance to Super Bowl XLIV. One less turnover and the trip might never happen.

New year, same reliance.

The Saints are plus-5 in turnover margin already this season with the offense yet to give the ball away. It has saved the Saints in both games. Like last season's NFC title game, the Saints wouldn't have beaten the 49ers on Monday night without all four turnovers.

Even then the Saints missed chances to capitalize on the defense's fortunes as the offense has only chalked up three points off the five turnovers.

"The thing that I see is when we've gotten turnovers, we haven't taken great advantage of them, which is frustrating for me and our offense ... yet despite all of that, because of the key statistic of ball security as well as other things such as defense, special teams ... we're 2-0," Brees said. "As I look at it, it's just a matter of execution, getting back into the flow and rhythm just as you get back into playing games and the so-called midseason form where you're just back in the routine of playing on Sundays again."

Combine the pedestrian outings, by Brees' standards, the loss of Bush for at least several weeks and the team's early-season survival so reliant on turnovers, and it could be a cause for panic.

It goes to show you how good the Saints can be and likely will be once the offense finds its rhythm. And that might happen even without Bush as the Saints are home against Atlanta and Carolina, on the road against Tampa Bay and Arizona and at home against Cleveland in the next five weeks. It's certainly a winnable schedule with or without Bush.

Payton likes throwing around the phrase that the atmosphere surrounding the Saints is either "carnival or crisis." It's still seemingly "carnival" considering the Saints are 2-0 against teams many figured would be joining the Saints in this season's playoffs.

It's just with an offense without the typical gloss or sizzle.

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