The fix may be in for the New Orleans Saints offense.
The unit that averaged 37.3 points over the first 11 games has scored 50 points total – 16.7 per game – in the last three. The Saints (11-2) still won two of the three and muscled to within a victory of securing the NFC's top seed for the playoffs. But it has been uncharacteristic to watch one of the most prolific offenses in the league average 273.3 yards (172 passing), and convert 13 of 36 chances (36 percent) on third down, in its last three games.
In past seasons, the Saints have emerged intact and re-established efficiency on the other side of offensive ruts, and the expectation is that will be the case this season.
"We've got a handful (of errors), not as much communication-related but nonetheless, things that tangibly we can look at and clean up," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "And then certainly, some of the penalties (nine, totaling 80 yards against Carolina). Those would be specifically things that you'd notice."
Among the offensive penalties, there was a pass interference by rookie receiver Keith Kirkwood; a false start by running back Alvin Kamara; a dead-ball personal foul by left guard Andrus Peat; an unnecessary roughness penalty by receiver Michael Thomas that offset a Carolina face mask, and negated a 20-yard completion to Thomas; an illegal formation that erased a 16-yard completion to Thomas; a false start by right guard Larry Warford; and a holding penalty by Tayson Hill that erased an 18-yard carry by Kamara on a direct snap. Payton said the penalty attributed to Hill wasn't an infraction.
"Obviously, you're constantly looking at what are the things you can do to score, how can you improve," he said. "I think this past week (against the Panthers), we shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit. On the road at Dallas, that's a good defense and we felt it was going to be a low-scoring game. At Tampa, the same way. So there's some things that we feel like we can clean up and there's some things, I know from my standpoint and us as coaches, that we can improve on and we'll work to do that."
PLANTING SEEDS: New Orleans has two chances to win one game to secure the No. 1 seed, beginning with Sunday's game against Pittsburgh (8-5-1) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. That won't be the main message, though.
"Our focus right now is this game in front of us, and playing our best football game this weekend," Payton said. "As you go through the course of the season, you talk about winning the division and then you talk about improving your seeding. I think everyone's aware of how that all works. But the focus is doing what we can to win this week."
BACK ON THE GRIND: After producing a combined 165 yards on 49 carries against Dallas and Tampa Bay, the Saints hit Carolina for 155 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. Payton said he was pleased with the offensive line play, which worked through injuries that sidelined center Max Unger and left tackle Jermon Bushrod at different points in the second half, and that the running game tilted the game in favor of New Orleans' offense.
"We felt it was going to be important and certainly, we didn't score as many points as you'd like," he said. "And yet, I thought that was the difference in the game. We hit some explosives, we had one called back that really shouldn't have been. But I think in the end, it ended up being the difference."
A DYNAMIC DUO: The Saints have faced their share of standout individual receivers this season. Pittsburgh likely will present the best duo, in Antonio Brown (90 catches, 1,112 yards and 13 touchdowns) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (95-1,274-6).
"They're explosive players," Payton said. "They run well, they've got great ball skills. It's challenging with two, relative to how you cover them. I think they transition very well – they can get to top-end speed but they can also stop, and that allows them to create the separation. And then you partner that with a quarterback like Ben (Roethlisberger), and that makes for a challenging day."