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New Orleans Saints' race to improve includes critical assessment during bye week

"Are we doing things the right way? Are we calling it the right way? Are the right people on the field?"

Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Chargers matchup in Week 5 of the 2020 NFL season.
Game action photos from the New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Chargers matchup in Week 5 of the 2020 NFL season.

The glass half-full approach is simple: The New Orleans Saints are 3-2, tied for first place in the NFC South heading into their bye week, courtesy of consecutive double-digit comeback victories.

First, the Saints erased a 14-0 deficit to Detroit and raced to a 35-29 win on the road, then climbed out of a 20-3 hole en route to posting a 30-27, overtime victory over the Chargers on Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But the flip side is that New Orleans found itself in those predicaments to begin with.

"There's good and bad," Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. "There's a resiliency that was important in both of those wins. They weren't perfect games by any means, certainly not in the early part of the game but yet, the second half, fourth quarter, we managed to do what was necessary to get the win.

"You're always looking at it glass half-empty, half-full, but yet we're still in this race to improve. And we have to. You have to have that sense of urgency as we start playing better teams."

Payton said the Saints will take a back-to-basics approach in an effort to address problem areas that have been persistent in the first five games.

"I said this to the coaches yesterday and again today, we've got to look closely at everything, and the details," he said. "We're 3-2 and yet, we just have to improve situationally in a lot of areas. The good news is we've got time to do it, but that's going to require the honest evaluation of, hey, are we doing things the right way? Are we calling it the right way? Are the right people on the field? We have to answer those questions."

New Orleans especially has struggled in the red zone defensively. So far, opponents have scored touchdowns on 17 of 20 trips once they have reached the red zone.

"It's not one specific thing," he said. "That's certainly one of the things we're discussing that I think needs to be looked at. And I think we're far enough in now where it's not a coincidence. The numbers aren't a coincidence.

"And so, the communication relative to what we're doing in coverage, our ability to stop the run inside five yards, and then our third-down numbers in the red zone are not good. Typically, third down is really a four-point play down there. If you can get off the field there, they're kicking a field goal. We haven't forced many field goals right now."

Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said the Saints have lacked consistency defensively in the red zone.

"We've had times here as a defense in past years that we've been really stout in the red zone and been able to keep teams out," said Rankins, who had his first sack of the season against the Chargers. "We've just got to be able to hold teams to three (points). We'll play really great on one play, really great on the next play, and then something will happen where it's lack of communication, or just some confusion or whatever it may be, but we give up big plays.

"The thing about giving up big plays in the red zone, they're usually touchdowns. You can give up a big play in the middle of the field, stop a guy, still have 30 or 40 yards of field to defend. You give up a big play in the red zone, it's usually six (points).

"We've just got to continue to grind, continue to work, watch the tape, know what teams are going to do down there. We've just got to be more consistent. At the end of the day we can't make any excuses for ourselves; our red zone defense isn't good enough and we've got to get it better. If we want to achieve the goals we want to achieve, our red zone defense has to get better."

Payton said deep-pass success also has been worrisome.

"It's communication, No. 1," Payton said. "It's one thing if a player's catching a contested ball. We're not talking about that. We're talking about a player being wide open.

"And so, two different throws (Monday night) were uncontested, communication issues and things that we have to look at. We've got to look at that as coaches. It's hard for someone to be that open in our league, so what aren't we communicating and how can we be more efficient when we play a certain defense?"

Still, Rankins said, there's optimism from the fact that the Saints have been able to handle the unevenness and produce a winning record despite not having played at peak efficiency.

"I think we're a team that's faced a lot of adversity," Rankins said. "But the one thing you know about this team is when we face adversity, we usually come out on top.

"I think going into the bye week, you're happy with where you're at with 3-2, knowing you haven't played your best football, knowing your best football is ahead of you, knowing you're not in the rhythms you want to be in in any phase of the game.

"So we'll take 3-2 heading into the bye week, get healthy, and then come back and get ready for this long stretch of football. We can go into it knowing that our best football is in front of us and we can be excited about that."