Houston – A defensive adjustment, perhaps pocked by few outright failures, were an acceptable expectation of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, given that the defense was operating under a new coordinator (Dennis Allen) who'd assumed the position less than a week prior to the team's open date Nov. 22.
There was little belief that the Saints offense would be a problem area for the second consecutive game.
Not even Sunday at NRG Stadium against Houston's top-notch defense, which had allowed just 29 points in its previous three games, all victories.
But New Orleans' follow-up performance to scoring 14 points in a loss at Washington, the Texans smothered the Saints' offense in a 24-6 victory to extend their winning streak to four games, and New Orleans' losing skid to three.
The Saints (4-7) are on their second three-game losing streak this season and failed to score a touchdown for the first time since 2005, the season before Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees joined the franchise.
New Orleans was held to 268 yards and converted three times in 12 third-down attempts (25 percent), after entering the game as the league leader in third-down conversion percentage (47.2). The Texans (6-5), though, remained on schedule – defensively, they led the league in third-down percentage allowed (26.4) entering the game, and did nothing to damage their ranking or reputation.
"It's tough to lose a game like that," Payton said. "I thought after the early portion of the game, we settled down defensively. We got the field goal at the half (to pull to within 14-6). I was kind of encouraged by that.
"(But) the story of the game was their defense and our inability offensively to really sustain a drive. We couldn't stay on the field, it really took an effect on our defense because they're a good third-down front and part of it is your first- and second-down efficiency. It seemed as if most of the game, we were in those long-yardage situations. We didn't play well enough. Credit them, but surely I think when we put the tape on we're going to see a lot of things we need to clean up offensively.
"It's a good defense, we knew that going in. and yet, we've got MAs (missed assignments) on routes, guys busting some basic, basic things. There are some things that I know when we watch on tape, we're going to be upset about. And yet, they're going to make some plays."
The Texans were very effective defensively, preventing separation by receivers, shutting down the Saints' run game (10 carries for 50 yards) and harassing Brees for four quarters. Defensive end J.J. Watt produced both Houston sacks, and was credited with seven of Houston's eight quarterback hits.
"We had 12 third downs," said Brees, who completed 25 of 44 passes for 228 yards, with an interception. "I'm venturing to guess that a lot of those were third-and-long situations. We talked about it coming into the game, we needed to be very efficient on first and second down so that we would be in third-and-manageable situations because if you get in third and long against these guys, you're asking for trouble."
In the first half, the Saints had six downs of third-and-9 or longer. They didn't convert on any of the six. The lone conversion in the first half was on third-and-4.
"They're a very good pass rush team, they've got very good cover guys on the back end," Brees said. "It's tough sledding when you do that and we did that, and you see what the results were. I would say as we go back and look at why we were not very good on first and second down, I'm sure we're going to see that it was a lot of very simple things.
"Give a lot of credit to their defense and their plan. They played great, both in the run and rushing the passer and the back end. I think there were some things that we did offensively to put ourselves in a bind, behind the 8-ball, really because of lack of execution, maybe an unnecessary penalty here and there. Those add up, though.
"It's one thing here and then it's one thing on the next one and all of a sudden, the first half is over and you feel like you never really had a chance to get anything going. That's the frustrating part, I know how much better we are and today, we certainly didn't show that."
It was the second straight subpar offensive showing for the Saints, who entered the game averaging 424 yards per game, third-most in the league. But against Washington and Houston, New Orleans has struggled to move the ball and to score. And while the defense settled in somewhat after allowing touchdown drives of 70 and 50 yards on the Texans' first two possessions, the complimentary aspects of the game never developed for the Saints.
"They were able to get some pressure," said tight end Benjamin Watson (four catches, 53 yards). "We didn't convert well on third downs, weren't able to sustain drives and move the chains. Their defense did a good job of disrupting our rhythm. We knew coming in they were going to be very good up front, and they played better than we did up front.
"I felt like I didn't play as well as I needed to play for us to win. We didn't score points offensively, had a few three-and-outs. We put the defense out there like that repeatedly. It's hard for them to corral a good offense if they have to keep going back on the field and they don't have a chance to rest."
Unfortunately for the Saints, the defense didn't do its part in earning rest early.
After the offense was forced to punt on the game-opening drive, the Saints defense saw Houston convert three third-down plays on the Texans' 11-play, 70-yard touchdown march that ended on Brian Hoyer's 10-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Griffin on third-and-3.
New Orleans' next drive was a three-and-out, and the Texans drove 50 yards in seven plays – with two third-down conversions – to take a 14-0 lead with 1:29 left in the first quarter on Hoyer's 3-yard pass to Cecil Shorts III.
But the defense settled the rest of the half, producing a turnover (Jairus Byrd's interception, his first as a Saint) and three punts.
"I thought it was smooth, it was fast," Payton said of the defensive play calling and communication by Allen. "The preparation during the week, I was pleased with. There will be some things that we've got to clean up but overall, it was organized and efficient."
The Saints punted twice more – including after Byrd's interception and return gave them possession at the own 49-yard line with 12:57 left in the half – before constructing a short drive (six plays, 36 yards) that stalled at Houston's 12, and ended with Kai Forbath's 30-yard field goal, pulling New Orleans to within 14-3 with 6:31 left in the half.
And after forcing another Texans punt, the offense drove from its 20 to the Texans' 39 befor bogging down there and turning to Forbath, who converted a career-best 57-yard field-goal attempt, the thid-longest in franchise history.
The 14-6 deficit was the halftime score. Houston changed that on the first drive of the third quarter.
The Texans drove 80 yards in six plays, and took a 21-6 lead on Alfred Blue's 8-yard run. After forcing another Saints punt, Houston ended the game's scoring on the next drive with a 24-yard field goal by Nick Novak with 6:05 left in the third.
New Orleans failed on a couple of red zone opportunities in the fourth quarter; Brees was intercepted at the goal line by Kareem Jackson on a pass intended for Brandin Cooks on second-and-10 from the Houston 16, and he threw incomplete in the end zone for Brandon Coleman on fourth-and-2 from the Houston 6 with 5:43 left.
Those plays aptly summarized the frustration experienced by the Saints offensively.
"It's very simple: We've got to execute, the plays that are called we have to run correctly, when it's man on man we have to win more than we lose," Watson said. "It sounds cliché but that's how it goes in football, you have to be able to get open, catch the ball, block, throw, all those things.
"The plays are drawn up pretty well, we have to be able to execute them. When you look at the last couple of games offensively, we haven't been executing the plays. It's on us to play better."