Cleanup from Week 1 to 2 obviously was discernable for the New Orleans Saints in their home opener Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
New Orleans was perfect in the red zone (3 for 3, after going 1 for 4 in the opener), had a more Saints-like showing on third down (7 for 14, improving from 7 for 18), forced and recovered a couple of fumbles (doubling its output from Game 1) and routinely pressured Tampa Bay rookie quarterback Jameis Winston (three sacks and four hurries).
But there still was more spillage than sufficiently could be covered in a 26-19 loss to the Buccaneers that dropped the Saints to 0-2, and stretched to six games their home losing streak.
Three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception), 10 penalties committed (for 115 yards), four sacks allowed, a missed field goal and blocked extra-point attempt combined to help undermine the Saints against Tampa Bay (1-1), which took a 23-7 lead into the fourth quarter before New Orleans mounted a rally.
"Obviously, it's a disappointing loss," Coach Sean Payton said Sunday. "Frustrating, in that we were able to get some takeaways defensively and we never were able to take advantage of it, whether it was we turned it over the following possession offensively.
"We really struggled in the first half generating any type of momentum, both in the running game and our first and second down efficiency in the first half struggled.
"It's going to be difficult if we are turning the ball over like we did. There were a lot of things, and yet we were still kind of hanging around in that game. Defensively, there were a lot of positive signs. We have to do a better job, starting with me, as coaches. I felt we were ready to come in and play well and we didn't in certain areas."
Particularly, the offense labored. The Saints produced 323 yards and, clearly, the throwing arm of quarterback Drew Brees (24 for 38 for 255 yards and a touchdown, with an interception) was affected by a first-half hit.
"Maybe on a few throws," Brees offered, reluctantly.
"I'd say it affected me on a few of the throws down the field. They just didn't come out very well."
And for the Saints, the results again didn't post well at the Superdome. Prior to the six consecutive home losses the Saints had won 11 straight home games, doubling up opponents by an average score of 34-17.
But in dropping the final five home games of 2014, they were outscored by an average of 32-17 and committed 11 turnovers, while forcing two. They also fell behind early in each of the previous losses – by at least a touchdown in the first half – and fell behind again Sunday.
"It's very disappointing, because I feel like we have this great home-field advantage that we have not taken advantage of," Brees said. "I feel like every one of these games we've gotten down early and we've never come back.
"We haven't padded a lead in these games where we can really ignite the crowd and get things going in that regard. That's how you take advantage of a home-field advantage."
The Saints appeared poised to take momentum, driving from their 20 to the Buccaneer 35-yard line on the game's opening drive. But on first-and-5 from there following an encroachment penalty on the Bucs, Austin Johnson dropped a Brees pass on first down, C.J. Spiller was stopped for no gain on a run and Brees threw incomplete for Willie Snead on third down.
New Orleans punted and Thomas Morstead pinned Tampa Bay at its 4, but the Bucs drove to the Saints' 47 to flip field position before punting. After forcing a second Saints punt, Tampa Bay only drove four yards on its next possession, but took a 3-0 lead on Kyle Brindza's 55-yard field goal with 45 seconds left in the quarter.
The teams alternated punts the next three possessions before Brindza missed a 52-yard attempt. The Saints took over at their 42 and needed seven plays to drive for a touchdown, the score coming via Mark Ingram's 11-yard run with 1:23 left in the half.
However, the 7-3 lead was short-lived.
Bobby Rainey returned the kickoff 37 yards and the Saints worked the Bucs into a third-and-16 scenario from their 31 with 61 seconds left in the half. But Winston combined with Vincent Jackson on a 17-yard completion to the 48-yard line. After Winston scrambled for 4 on first down, safety Kenny Vaccaro was penalized for roughing the passer on second down to move the Bucs to the 33.
After a 5-yard penalty, a 23-yard play from Winston to Louis Murphy moved Tampa Bay to the 15 and from there, Winston connected with Jackson at the back of the end zone to give the Bucs a 10-7 lead they carried into halftime.
"I look at the first half and say, 'Man, we played that entire half on our side of the field,' with the exception of that one drive where we went down and got a touchdown," Brees said. "I felt like we were giving it to them at their 40-yard line or right around midfield every time, and we were taking the ball inside our own 10.
"Shame on us as an offense for not doing something about it and executing to maybe flip the field. That's got to change, too."
Tampa Bay opened the second half with a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive – half of the yards coming on a 40-yard pass interference penalty against cornerback Brandon Browner. Winston's 1-yard run gave the Bucs a 17-7 lead.
Brees' interception ended the next Saints drive, and it led to a 35-yard field goal by Brindza. New Orleans' next drive ended on Snead's fumble after an 8-yard reception (recovered by safety D.J. Swearinger) and Brindza kicked a 22-yard field goal to push the lead to 23-7 with 2:20 left in the third.
The Saints rallied from there with a drive that bled over from the third to the fourth quarter, originating at their 20 and ending on Johnson's 1-yard touchdown run. A failed two-point conversion kept the score 23-13, but New Orleans' defense again rose and produced.
Rookie linebacker Hau'oli Kikaha sacked Winston on third down on Tampa Bay's next drive, and forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Kasim Edebali at Tampa Bay's 25-yard line.
When rookie kicker Zach Hocker missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt, the defense forced another turnover – tackle Kevin Williams forced a Doug Martin fumble that was recovered by defensive end Cam Jordan at the Tampa Bay 30.
The Saints cashed in on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Brees to Snead to pull to within 23-19 with 7:15 left. But the point-after attempt was blocked and though the Saints forced a punt, their next drive ended on an Ingram fumble that was recovered by the Bucs at the Saints' 33.
Four plays and a 15-yard penalty later, Brindza kicked a 30-yard field goal to provide the final margin.
The Saints drove from their 20 to the Tampa Bay 27 in the final 1:51, but two Brees pass attempts in the end zone fell incomplete, the second as time expired.
"We played big when we needed it, but we've got to get to the point where we don't have to play big," Jordan said of a Saints defense that allowed 333 yards. "We've got to come out even stronger in the first half and really make that statement, we've got to find a way to get the game going in our momentum."
Photos from the New Orleans Saints vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)