Posted: Friday October 15, 2010 12:37PM ; Updated: Friday October 15, 2010 2:13PM
Peter King
Peter King>GAME PLAN

Why Payton's Saints are struggling, plus 10 things to watch for Sunday

Story Highlights

Sean Payton points out positives with Saints on verge of confidence crisis

Jason Garrett is under pressure to get Cowboys offense to perform

Big Ben, Brett Favre, Antonio Gates and more things to watch Sunday

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Sean Payton and Drew Brees are not having as much offensive success in 2010 as they did during their record-breaking 2009.
Bob Rosato/SI

Sean Payton, his Super Bowl champs on the verge of a crisis of confidence this week, channeled his inner Parcells. I covered the Bill Parcells Giants for four years in the '80s, and I remember thinking how odd it was to be around the team after a big win and see Parcells growling and unhappy about all the little things they were doing wrong; or sometimes when the team was in a tailspin, he'd be Dale Carnegie, convincing them they were on the cusp of something great if they'd only clean up this or that.

We've all watched the Saints in the first five weeks, and something's wrong with the explosive offense that propelled them to an unlikely title last year. New Orleans seems so discombobulated that it's almost not odd to see them in third place in the NFC South this week (Atlanta 4-1, Tampa Bay 3-1, New Orleans 3-2). A game we thought would be a gimme a month ago now looms as a very important test with playoff consequences. The Saints play the Bucs at the Pirate Ship on Sunday.

Where to begin with the Saints' problems? They're scoring 12 fewer points per game than last year. The middle of the offensive line, peerless in 2009 with the best guard tandem in the league (Carl Nicks, Jahri Evans), is caving in more than it should. Drew Brees, playing with a brace to protect a strained left knee, isn't throwing effectively downfield. The running game, minus Reggie Bush since Week 2 and now with Pierre Thomas missing with a sprained ankle, is killing them.

The Saints were sixth in the league in rushing last year, creating lots of favorable second-down situations (second-and-four, second-and-three) that allowed play-calling Payton the luxury of doing whatever he wanted on a quasi-free down several times a game. But when you're last in the league on the ground, and averaging an awful 3.26 yards per rush, all of a sudden the pressure to do everything on offense falls squarely on Brees. And you can see the pressure is taking a toll.

Last year, in the all-important yards-per-attempt category, Brees' 8.54 yards-per-pass-play dwarfed Peyton Manning's and Tom Brady's. This year, his 7.09 yards per attempt is 15th in the league. Fourteenth: Josh Freeman, the second-year quarterback he'll duel Sunday.

So after the 30-20 loss to Arizona and first-time starter Max Hall last Sunday, Payton did some psyche rehab Wednesday as his team gathered to start preparations for Tampa Bay. "You guys might look at me cross-eyed,'' Payton said, addressing his team. "But here are the things we're actually doing better than last year.''

Defending the run is significantly better -- 0.4 yards better. The Saints are surrendering 51 yards per game fewer than a year ago. In some big-play categories, they're improved.

But in terms of opportunity, they're not better. The Saints had 38 takeaways last year. This year they have eight. They gave the ball twice to Arizona deep in the red zone last week. Some fluky things killed them -- like Hall fumbling at the Saints 2-yard-line and it bouncing fortuitously into the hands of an offensive lineman for a Cardinals touchdown -- and stats show that there's no rhyme or reason to fumble recoveries. But it's just one way now that 2010 is different than 2009.

Parcells used to say in New York the atmosphere around the team "is euphoria or disaster,'' depending on the scoreboard. Payton sounded like Parcells on that too.

"When you win the Super Bowl,'' Payton said, "the next year it's either crisis or a carnival. We're taking on a little water right now. But I like this team -- not a little, a lot. I have to do a better job as a playcaller. We've got to do a better job protecting Drew, and we've got to give him a consistent pocket. The two greatest allies for a quarterback are a good defense and a running game, and we've obviously got to run it better with who we have.

"Hey, things can change quickly in this league. Look at the Giants. Weren't they running Tom Coughlin out of town a couple of weeks ago? One of the biggest challenges that has come into the game in the last five years or so is all the outside influences on trying to do this job well -- the media, the influence of the agents and the families. But like I say, I really like this team. We'll be fine.''

Payton said all the right things, and he said it's early. But he has to wonder deep down whether defenses have found a way, without the threat of Bush in space and in motion, and without the interior presence of a strong back like Thomas, to win more than they lose now against the artful Brees. All you have to do to wonder the same thing is to watch the Saints for a few series. They haven't been the same as last year all season -- even when Thomas and Bush were together in the lineup in the first two games.

The Saints can't afford to fall behind Atlanta much further, particularly with the tough late schedule. They've got four of five on the road starting Thanksgiving (at Dallas, then at Cincinnati, vs. St. Louis, at Baltimore, at Atlanta), and that's the kind of stretch that can be merciless to a team struggling on offense.

Under Pressure

Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator, Dallas.

I remember in training camp seeing the Cowboys and hearing how they were so high on Felix Jones, and how they could see a sharing of the duties with Marion Barber that would get them to be a more dominant part of the Dallas offense. Through four games, Jones has 45 touches. The Cowboys are putting way too much on Tony Romo to be Mr. Everything. Garrett has to integrate the run into the Dallas offense more in a playoff-type game Sunday at Minnesota. Both teams are 1-3. Even in a mediocre NFC, it's a longshot to think a 1-4 team can make the playoffs, never mind the Super Bowl. Garrett's got to make the run-pass closer to 40-60 than the current 34-66.

Stat Line of the Weekend That May Surprise You

Ryan Torain's projected rushing line against the Indianapolis Colts, whose 4.84 yards-per-opponents-rush is 31st in the league:

Att. Yards Avg. TD
24 122 5.1 1

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