NEW ORLEANS -- Maybe the New Orleans Saints' stunning loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday was just a one-off.
Sometimes duds happen in the NFL -- even though this one was more historic than most.
But the Saints’ sluggish start was no anomaly. That was part of a more disturbing season-long trend that they’re going to have to shake if they want to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.
The Saints (7-2) have scored a total of just 25 points in first quarters this season, which ranks 28th in the NFL. They have scored only one offensive touchdown in the first quarter, which is tied for last in the league with the Bears, Bengals and Rams.
“I'd say that's one of the bigger things that we're lacking right now offensively is that fast start,” Drew Brees said after the Saints scored on an opening drive for the first time all season on Sunday against Atlanta.
Unfortunately, they settled for a field goal after squandering a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
The Saints are also tied for last in the NFL with just three points on opening drives this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They’re joined by the Bengals, Steelers and Texans in that dismal category.
“I can't think this season of really anytime where, man, we've just come out like gangbusters and just score, score, score,” said Brees, who hasn’t fared any better in his four starts than backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did in his five starts.
They each have thrown an interception on opening drives this season. Bridgewater threw the only first-quarter TD pass, in Week 7 at Chicago to tight end Josh Hill.
“It's been kind of a slow start and then we kind of find ourselves and then maybe we break it open in the second half,” Brees said. “But I'd say that that's definitely an area where we can improve, and we'll need to improve if we want to get to where we want to go.”
Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t pin Sunday’s loss on New Orleans’ latest slow start.
"Look, you come away from yesterday's game … I think this was first quarter through fourth quarter,” Payton said Monday.
Obviously a faster start could have helped set a better tone, though. As offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said last week, a fast start leads to “a little bit of a confidence boost” for the team, and “it gets the crowd into the game, gets them going.”
There are plenty of reasons for the Saints’ early-game flops.
Red zone stalls have been a huge one, as offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk pointed out after Sunday’s game. The Saints are now 1 of 7 in the red zone during the first quarter this season (14.3%). Only the Redskins (0 for 6) are worse.
Penalties have been another costly culprit, as Carmichael pointed out. The Saints rank second in the NFL with 14 offensive penalties called and 11 offensive penalties accepted in the first quarters of games this year.
They actually didn’t commit any during their only first-quarter drive on Sunday. But then they got flagged three times on offense in the second quarter to make up for it.
Running the ball has been another issue. The Saints are averaging just 20 rushing yards per game in first quarters this year, which ranks 25th in the NFL.
But pointing out all the problem areas doesn’t quite explain why New Orleans has suddenly forgotten how to come flying out of the tunnel -- which used to be one of this team’s great strengths.
As the New Orleans Advocate | Times-Picayune’s Luke Johnson pointed out, the Saints had actually scored opening-drive touchdowns in seven of their first 11 games in 2018 before they suddenly went frigid in a Week 13 loss at Dallas.
Since then, the Saints have scored a total of six points on opening drives in their past 16 games, including the playoffs.
“I wasn't aware it was the last 13 or 15, but certainly each Friday or Saturday when I'm in here putting [game plans] together, I've felt a cold streak,” Payton said last week. “Because that's something that's been a strength of ours.”
Payton has always scripted the first 15 offensive plays before games -- partly so he can mix personnel groupings and formations to gather information about how a defense will defend them. But not only for that reason, he stressed.
“Listen, there is a concern, because you’re not just trying to see how you’re being defended. You want to go down the field and score a touchdown or kick a field goal,” Payton said. “Now you are hoping to gather some information. Like right away on the first play [in Week 8], I saw [cornerback Patrick] Peterson in the middle of the defensive huddle and I knew right away he was going to [shadow] Mike Thomas, and we felt that would be the case.
“But the overall goal or the objective would certainly be to score points, and we've got to be better. I've got to be better in that area.”