Amid the struggle, there have been glimpses of the New Orleans Saints offense performing the way it is capable of executing.
The Saints (12-2) have scored 50 points, total, in the last three games after averaging 37.2 in the first 11 games. They've averaged 273.3 yards per game during the stretch, after tagging opponents for 416.6 yards in the first 11.
But during the dip, there was a 25-point, second-half bombardment of Tampa Bay, including 17 points in the fourth quarter. And there were a couple of drives against Carolina that were indicative of how the Saints have operated.
The first was an 11-play, 84-yard touchdown march that lasted 6:13 and gave New Orleans the lead in the fourth quarter. The second, a seven-minute drive later in the quarter, from the New Orleans 35-yard line to the Carolina 1, ended when Tommylee Lewis ran to the 1-yard line and, extending the ball while diving, fumbled out of the end zone for a Panthers touchback.
With those drives, the Saints understand that they still possess what they need offensively to be as potent as they were before the patchy stretch.
"I think really establishing the tempo, which for us creates the rhythm by which we perform well," quarterback Drew Brees said regarding the issues that have slowed the offense. "When we're clicking on all cylinders, we are running the football effectively, we are good in the short to intermediate passing game, which opens up the shots down the field. We possess the ball and we convert first downs and those results lead to points, which is good and also plays a more complementary brand of football with our defense.
"Just look at the last drive, for example, in this past game (against Carolina). We convert a couple of third downs, a fourth down on our way to…We got the ball with eight minutes and fifty one seconds left, and really had a chance to run the clock out.
"If we get that last first down to Tommylee (Lewis) in the corner, because they didn't have any timeouts and we'd be on a knee three times (if there wasn't the fumble). It's those types of drives that I'm talking about, that I think really can help the team at times when we need them."
The offense also has been working through the maturation process of its young receivers. Third-year sensation Michael Thomas (a franchise-record 109 catches for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns) is heading to his second straight Pro Bowl. But rookies Tre'Quan Smith (24-386-4) and Keith Kirkwood (11-174-2), and second-year pros Dan Arnold (12-150-1) and Austin Carr (9-97-2), hadn't caught an NFL pass before this season.
"It's always challenging any time you have new guys that you really just haven't had a ton of time with," Brees said. "And we all kind of laughed back, I guess during that Thanksgiving Day game (a 31-17 victory over Atlanta) when four undrafted free agents caught touchdowns, three of which it was their first touchdown ever, right.
"But it takes time and there's so many nuances to this offense, too, and such a trust factor and the chemistry that goes into the passing game that it just takes time, and I think we've gone through some growing pains at times, but you know we're progressing."
Help at receiver may be on the way. Ted Ginn Jr. returned to practice Wednesday and is eligible to return from injured reserve.
"He was moving pretty well," Coach Sean Payton said. "He's a guy that runs and I know he's been working hard with the trainers, doing everything that he can to get prepared for this opportunity to come back. We'll see how he progresses."
Until then, the Saints have seen the glimpses. The challenge is to make them longer, consistent looks.
A FEW GOOD MEN: Payton said he hopes in the near future that the NFL will expand gameday rosters.
"The 46-man roster on gameday, I think, will be soon, dated," he said. "I think that's got to change. If we're interested in health and safety, and it sounds like we are – at least, that's something that we talk about a lot – that number should be higher. And that'll affect the overall roster size. That might cost a little bit more money, but that's the price."
The Saints could have benefitted from an expanded roster against Carolina.
They were perilously thin along the offensive line due to injuries to center Max Unger (concussion) and left tackle Jermon Bushrod (hamstring). The remaining offensive linemen on the gameday roster – Cameron Tom and Will Clapp – filled in admirably, but there were no linemen active beyond those two.
But that's not the only circumstance under which teams would benefit.
"This comes up in those games where people say, 'Rest your starters,'" Payton said. "Have you ever looked on the sideline during a game? We played Cincinnati this year, we're resting starters (during a 51-14 victory), you're talking about three different changes, maybe. It's different than, obviously, college where you have a large number of players on the sideline."
Payton said a roster expansion would have to be approved by the management council, players union and ownership.