NEW ORLEANS — The defending champion New Orleans Saints are finding themselves on the defensive about their normally high-flying offense.
Two weeks into the season, Drew Brees and Co. are 106 yards per game below their 2009 league-leading pace of 403.8. The Saints’ 19.5 points per game ties them for 15th in the NFL, well off their NFL-best scoring average of 31.9 points last season.
Brees and his teammates are still trying recapture their swagger of a year ago heading into an NFC South showdown today with longtime rival Atlanta (1-1), but the Saints aren’t sounding alarm bells yet. They’re still undefeated, after all, and it’s early.
“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,” Brees said. “There haven’t been as many yards, maybe not as efficient on third down and in the red zone as we want.
“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 back in the routine of playing on Sundays again.”
By virtue of winning their first Super Bowl last season, the Saints are appearing on prime time a lot in 2010.
They opened the season at home on a Thursday night with a 14-9 triumph over Minnesota. Then they had 11 days off before pulling out a 25-22 win at San Francisco last Monday night.
The Saints were dominated statistically by the 49ers and needed a last second field goal by Garrett Hartley to escape the West Coast with a win. San Francisco outgained the Saints in total yards 417-287, and had the Niners not turned the ball over four times and allowed a safety on a bad snap, New Orleans might have lost its first game.
If Saints coach Sean Payton is concerned by the fact that his offense — which led the NFL three of the last four seasons — now ranks 21st, he’s not showing it publicly.
“I don’t think there has been offensive frustration,” said Payton, who designs and calls New Orleans’ offensive plays. “The key for us is to win and to understand how that’s going to happen in each game. In both cases, we feel like we’ve played two real good defenses.”
Payton said the Saints placed particular emphasis on ball security and not risking turnovers in their past two games. They’ve been perfect in that area and have a plus-five differential in takeaways, tied for second in the NFL with the New York Jets, just behind the Steelers at plus-six.
One reason the Saints haven’t turned the ball over yet is because Reggie Bush successfully dived on his muffed punt in the fourth quarter at San Francisco. While the Saints retained possession on that play, they lost Bush for four to six weeks with a broken right leg.
Bush’s injury removes one of the most versatile and explosive players from an offense that was already struggling to match last year’s torrid pace. Running back Pierre Thomas may have to carry more of the load in a running game that has averaged an anemic 64.5 yards so far. New Orleans also brought back Ladell Betts, who they had cut at the end of the preseason.
Still, the Saints appear confident they can quickly regain their usual offensive stride, and Falcons coach Mike Smith sees no reason to question that.
“Reggie is a very talented player that creates issues not only for the Atlanta Falcons but for every team, but I really think what it does is it really puts a lot of onus on (Atlanta’s) coaching and defensive staff to now figure out where those 10 to 12 touches Reggie usually gets are going to be distributed,” Smith said. “Drew has a number of weapons that he can distribute the ball to.”
Smith said he remains concerned about how to limit quick passes down the seem to tight end Jeremy Shockey, throws across the middle to 6-foot-4 receiver Marques Colston and screen passes to Thomas. Then there are the deep throws to speedy receiver Devery Henderson, who had 158 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown, the last time the Falcons visited the Louisiana Superdome.
“Drew and that offensive unit has been a very explosive team over the last four or five years in terms of creating offensive plays of over 20 yards,” Smith said. “Again, we’re two weeks into the season. I don’t think anything becomes a trend until four, five or six weeks into the season. ... I see a very potent offense that can strike at anytime in what I think has the best group of skill players in the league.”
The Falcons’ offense is no slouch, either. Matt Ryan threw for three TDs and Atlanta racked up 221 yards rushing in a 41-7 victory over Arizona last weekend. Those numbers came without the services of Jerious Norwood, who went down with a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff.
Ryan was pleased with the improvement over a season-opening loss at Pittsburgh, but wasn’t about to put too much stock in one stellar outing.
“We felt like we improved from Week 1 to 2,” Ryan said. “The biggest thing is that things are never as good as you think. We looked at the things from last weekend and we have a lot of things to improve on and tighten up, especially going against a really tough, physical team in New Orleans.”