What do you say about an NFL team that had such high hopes for the season and has such top-notch talent on its roster that an 0-4 start to the season just seems utterly ridiculous?
Focus on the positives.
You scoff. How could there be positives to a winless first quarter of the season? There are, trust me.
The New Orleans Saints haven’t won a game yet in 2012, but they haven’t been blown out either. Losses to the Washington Redskins and Carolina Panthers in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, were by eight points. New Orleans lost by three to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime and then by one point in Green Bay.
The two positives to take here are the margins of defeat are being reduced each week, and the total margin of defeat for the year is a mere 20 points.
There are other bright points to the season as well, like the fact that no quarterback has thrown for more yards than the 1,350 by Drew Brees. But the list of shining moments for the Saints this year are few and far between. There’s a much larger list of deficiencies and areas of repair that need attention.
To avoid an 0-5 start—and that’s amazingly important, because no team that’s started a season with five losses has ever made the playoffs—here’s what New Orleans must do Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
Don’t Throw All the Time
There’s an alarming trend with this year’s Saints offense. New Orleans calls 2.65 passing plays for every one running play.
The Saints' 75 running plays ranks them 28th in the league. Their 191 passing attempts are more than everyone else. That’s a huge disparity in play-calling.
Not only is the pass-run balance skewed dramatically, the Saints are running ball far less than they did a year ago. Last season’s team ran the ball 26.7 times per game. This year, it’s 30 percent less at 18.8 rushes per game.
That statistic might be understandable if New Orleans had a weak rushing attack, but that’s not the case. The team ranks 11th in the NFL with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average, and Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles are both well over five yards per carry.
The Saints can run the football and need to start doing so more often.
Including last year’s two playoff games, the Saints were 14-4. That team played in five games where it did not rush for at least 100 yards, and it lost four of them. The 2012 Saints are 0-3 in games where they did not rush for 100 yards.
Must Get to Rivers
The Saints failed to sack last week’s opposing quarterback Aaron Rodgers and have just six sacks on the season. Only four teams have fewer, and none of them have winning records either.
It was not only necessary to mention Rodgers because the Saints defense wasn’t able to sack him. It’s also important to note that San Diego’s quarterback Philip Rivers is similar to Rodgers in the fact that both like to get the ball out of their hands quickly, leaving much less time for the defense to get to the passer.
There were times in Green Bay where Rodgers had tons of time to find an open receiver. On this nine-yard touchdown pass, Rodgers held the ball for six seconds while never being touched by a pass-rusher. Even with a shortened field that helped the Saints in coverage, giving anyone six seconds to throw is deadly.
Here's a play later in the game where the Saints line made almost zero push toward Rodgers. He stood in the pocket for four seconds (and could have done so longer, but he found an open man) with no pass-rusher within three yards of him.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to pressure opposing passers with just his front four defensive players. That may have to change if New Orleans wants to see success in the pass rush.
Spagnuolo’s defenses in the past that have had success rushing just the defensive linemen were much more capable than the unit of Cameron Jordan, Brodrick Bunkley, Sedrick Ellis and Will Smith.
Until this current scheme is tweaked to give the team an advantage, or the Saints bring in more capable pass-rushing linemen, the only way New Orleans will effectively disrupt opposing quarterbacks is through rushing more than four players.
Disrupting Rivers is indeed an important strategy. Rivers ranks fourth in the league with a 69 percent completion percentage. But that rank drops to No. 21 when he’s under pressure, completing just 47.7 percent of his passes while under pressure.
Force the Chargers Off the Field
This might seem simplistic, as it’s the goal of every defense in the NFL. But the Saints defense has been terribly bad at getting off the field in 2012.
Last season, New Orleans ranked third in opponents’ time of possession. Teams held the ball for just under 28 minutes of every game, on average, last year, This year, the Saints rank No. 28, allowing opposing offenses to hold the ball for over 33 minutes per game.
The strength of this New Orleans team is its offense. But, if the defense is spending more time on the field, Brees and this high-powered offense can’t do what they do best.
San Diego is very good at holding onto the football. Only three teams this season have a greater time of possession than the Chargers, who keep the ball on offense for almost 33 minutes per game.
The Saints defense must come up big Sunday and make sure Brees has more time on the field than Rivers.