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John DeShazier: Red zone struggles stick out in New Orleans Saints loss to Cardinals

Saints were 1 of 4 in the red zone

Glendale, Ariz. – One team converted all three of its red zone opportunities, while the other did so on just one of four occasions.

There were other statistics of note in the New Orleans Saints' 31-19, season-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, but the red zone failures glared at New Orleans perhaps more menacingly than any, given that the Saints haven't constructed one of the NFL's most-dominant offenses over the last decade by leaving points on the field.

Rookie kicker Zach Hocker made all four of his field-goal attempts – from 37, 23, 45 and 33 yards – in a debut that he undoubtedly will remember. But offensively, that wasn't what was wanted from a Saints unit that produced the two longest plays of the game (completions of 63 and 59 yards from Drew Brees to Mark Ingram and Willie Snead, respectively) and wound up settling for field goals after them.

"You look at the overall efficiency, 1 of 4 (in the red zone)," said Brees, who completed 30 of 48 passes for 355 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. "That's not good enough. On the flip side they were 3 for 3. That's obviously the difference in the game.

"I think overall, really, we played that game the way we wanted to and then once we got in the third quarter I felt like offensively, we didn't take advantage of some opportunities that we had. Our defense got them off the field a few times, we had some opportunities, we were going down and just kicking field goals and not touchdowns.

"That was our opportunity to kind of take command, take control, take the lead and go forward from there. We had a couple of big plays, but for the most part just felt like we moved the ball pretty methodically."

Said Coach Sean Payton: "We had some opportunities. Hocker did a great job. You hate to be kicking four field goals and yet, as that game was unfolding, he did a very good job."

Hocker wasn't alone in having a solid performance. Add in Brees, Ingram (eight catches for 98 yards, both single-game highs for the running back) and some notably improved defensive play in the second half (the Cardinals converted 4 of 6 third-down attempts in the first half, 1 of 4 in the second).

But the Saints never cleared the hurdle, falling behind 14-3 and managing to pull to within 14-13 and 17-16 before the Cardinals put away the game with a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns. Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer completed 19 of 32 passes for 307 yards and three touchdowns, without an interception. And though Palmer was pressured several times, he wasn't sacked.

"Halftime, I felt kind of good about where we were," Payton said. "We felt like it was going was to be a game where we were going to have to be patient, really pay attention to turnovers, the field position. I felt pretty good about that at the half.

"For the most part, we eliminated the big play. But there was a sequence there that obviously swung the momentum. We had an opportunity after Mark's long play and we ended up settling for a field goal, and they were able to come down and score on the next series and kind of put it into a two-score game."

At halftime the Saints trailed 14-10, answering a Palmer touchdown pass to John Brown and Andre Ellington 1-yard score with Hocker's 37-yard field goal and Brees' 12-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Coleman, his first regular-season catch.

New Orleans opened the third quarter with a huge offensive play. After rookie defensive tackle Tyeler Davison returned the opening kickoff 10 yards to the Saints' 25-yard line – Davison had the line-drive kickoff slam into his chest before picking up the loose ball – Brees connected with Willie Snead on a 63-yard pass to Arizona's 12-yard line.

But the Saints gained eight yards in three plays, and Hocker finished the drive with his 23-yard field goal to pull the Saints to within 14-13 with 12:01 left.

The teams swapped punts before the Saints forced their first turnover this season – rookie linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha stripped Ellington, and cornerback Delvin Breaux caught the fumble midair to give the Saints possession at their 48-yard line with 5:18 left in the third.

"I was just flying to the ball and like they say, good things happen when you're around the ball," Breaux said. "It just popped out and I just jumped on it."

Roughly three minutes later, on third-and-7 from Arizona's 45-yard line, the Saints returned the gift. Brees' pass attempt for Marques Colston bounced off Colston's hands and into the waiting arms of safety Rashad Johnson, who returned it 10 yards to the 40.

Five plays later, Arizona's Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 43-yard field goal to boost the lead to 17-13 with nine seconds left in the quarter.

The Saints' next drive, to open the fourth quarter, featured a 30-yard pass from Brees to Brandin Cooks. But it stalled at the Arizona 27, leading to Hocker's 45-yard field goal and pulling New Orleans to within 17-16 with 12:24 left.

The Cardinals put together a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, aided by a defensive holding penalty against Breaux and a pass interference by Kyle Wilson, that ended on Palmer's 17-yard pass to Darren Fells and gave them a 24-16 lead.

Hocker's final field goal pulled the Saints to within 24-19 but after the teams again swapped punts, with the Saints having to punt on fourth-and-6 from their own 7-yard line with 1:58 left, the Cardinals popped running back David Johnson loose on a short pass on second-and-8 from the 45, and Johnson sprinted untouched 55 yards for the sealing score.

"It was kind of a real quick back and forth," Payton said of the turnovers. "The ball kind of kicked off of Marques and into their player's hands. The guy made a play.

"We really went in with a mindset of paying attention to ball security and trying to win that battle, and feeling that that was going to be extremely important to win a road game. That's why I think the mood at halftime was pretty good, just with where we were at.

"Defensively, part of the plan was to be patient and eliminate the big play, knowing that a lot of the running game is going to set up what they're wanting to really do, (which) is get down the field. So there's a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game. The third downs, the third-and-10s, those are the ones that are disappointing. But I thought there were a handful of things, I'm sure, when we watch the tape we're going to be encouraged with."

And, also, some things to be cleaned up, like the fact that while Breaux came up with the fumble recovery in his regular-season debut, he also was penalized four times.

"We have to go back and correct those technical errors, and just come back next week and be better than we were this week," Breaux said.

And, undoubtedly, the lack of efficiency in the red zone will be addressed and corrected.

"We had some sequences there where, I've got to do a better job," Payton said. "Two things that stood out that I would say we've got to get cleaned up: We had seven penalties, and a handful of those were costly. And we've got to be better when we get in that area of the field of coming away with a touchdown. Those are the two things offensively."

Said Brees: "That's a kind of tough way to leave the game, knowing you left some points out there."

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