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Back to their old ways, Saints struggle to stop big plays

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METAIRIE, La. -- Here we go again.

The New Orleans Saints, who have both gained more yards and allowed more yards than any team in the NFL since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006, are back to their old ways:

Lighting up scoreboards on both sides of the ball.

Sunday's 43-37 overtime win at Atlanta was exhilarating. And New Orleans has to feel good about sitting in a tie for first place in the NFC South at 2-1 overall despite a shaky start.

But the Saints have a big problem on defense that needs to get fixed in a big hurry. They're allowing "explosive" plays in the passing game at an alarming rate.

The Saints have been torched for six passing plays of 45-plus yards this season, including a pass interference penalty. That's twice as many as any other team.

This past Sunday, it was a 75-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Calvin Ridley, a 58-yard pass from Ryan to Julio Jones and a 45-yard pass interference penalty among several others that looked way too easy as Ryan threw for a career-best five TD passes.

"Look, that's gonna keep coming now. Those deep balls are gonna keep coming," Payton acknowledged. "Because if there's only two things that are happening -- a pass interference or completion -- and there's no interception opportunity, then teams are gonna take multiple shots more and more and more.

"I don't like the fact that we've had one takeaway after three games [an interception by safety Marcus Williams in Week 2]. I don't think we've caused a fumble one time. So there are a handful of things that need improvement fast."

It won't help that the Saints are facing another one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers, Odell Beckham Jr., when they play at the New York Giants on Sunday.

And it really won't help that the Saints just placed veteran nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson on injured reserve with a broken ankle that he suffered on Sunday. Robinson, who is expected to miss the rest of the season, was one of New Orleans' top free-agent signings this year and one of the most trusted members in their secondary. They signed him specifically because he is so good inside the slot, where they will now have to find a replacement in addition to shoring up their problems on the outside.

Yeah, we know, you feel like you've heard those quotes and read this story before, countless times over the past 12-plus years, right? The Saints have allowed 97 passes of 45-plus yards since 2006, to be exact -- the most in the NFL over that span despite burning through five different defensive coordinators.

The worst part this time around, though, is that it looked like the Saints had finally started to solve this familiar problem last season when rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, rookie free safety Williams and second-year cornerback Ken Crawley all had breakout years. The Saints actually ranked second in the NFL in pass defense from Weeks 2-15.

But there were signs of cracks in the foundation even late during the 2017 season. The Saints allowed at least one passing play of 37-plus yards in each of their final six games last season -- including the infamous "Minnesota Miracle" in their playoff loss.

And Payton rejected the word "surprise" when asked about the coaches' reaction to these early 2018 struggles.

"No, listen, we've gotta be able to stay on top of it. Nothing surprises you in this game. You've gotta identify what you're doing," Payton said. "There's a mental error on one of the coverage busts. We've gotta look closely at that. We gotta ask ourselves, 'Are we doing too much? Are we putting our guys in the best position?'"

The Saints were already having enough trouble finding cornerbacks they could trust even with a healthy Robinson in the lineup.

They benched Crawley in favor of veteran backup P.J. Williams this past Sunday. But Ryan targeted Williams relentlessly -- including touchdown passes of 18 yards and 75 yards to Ridley in the first half -- before the Saints switched back to Crawley.

Then Crawley struggled himself in the second half. He drew the deep PI penalty. And he was also in initial coverage on Jones' 58-yard catch, though it's unclear if he was expecting help from another defender.

Lattimore has done well the past two weeks after having the worst performance of his young career against Tampa Bay's Mike Evans in Week 1. But Ryan mostly avoided Lattimore this past Sunday (both when he started the game covering Jones and when he later switched to cover Ridley more).

It also appeared Marcus Williams was shadowing Jones on some of the big plays early before the Saints realized what an issue Ridley was giving them.

"Guys just gotta stay disciplined and stay over the top in some of our coverages. I know I gotta read the ball better," Crawley said. "We just gotta stay disciplined in coverage and in our zones and in our three-deeps. We just gotta know in the back of our head where we're supposed to be at. That includes safeties, linebackers and us."

It's unclear how much of the deep-ball problems fall on the Saints' safeties, since we don't know their assignments. But they certainly haven't helped much with so many receivers getting open deep behind cornerbacks. So either they need to make better decisions or the coaches need to put them in better positions.

The pass rush was part of the problem in Week 1, when the Saints got lit up by the Buccaneers in a 48-40 loss -- though they've gotten better in that department over the past two weeks.

Last but not least, Crawley suggested that some of the problems have been the result of communication issues as they have incorporated two new players into the secondary (Robinson and strong safety Kurt Coleman).

"A lot of guys are still learning," Crawley said. "Even guys like Coleman, these guys gotta keep learning and keep progressing in our defense. [Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen] does a good of disguising the coverages and doing different things. We just gotta be in tune when he changes up a coverage and the different looks he tries to give the offense.

"It's the little things in coverage we mess up, and we gotta find a way to stop those little mistakes."

That idea of continuous change with players, coordinators and schemes is perhaps the most constant theme throughout so many years of defensive struggles. Since the start of the 2014 season, 24 different defensive backs have started at least two games for the Saints -- the second-highest total in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

Both are the most in the NFL.

The good news, though, is that we saw the Saints get off to a similar start through two weeks last year, too. Once everyone got acclimated, things turned around in a big way.

There is still plenty of optimism that the same can happen this season. Heck, there's only one direction they can go at this point.

"I think it's a little bit of A, B and C," Coleman said when asked how many of the problems have been assignment or communication errors versus technique issues. "Some of the things we have to clean up is just a little more consistency with our playcalling as far as making sure everyone's on the same page. And obviously just staying on top. If you're on top, you gotta stay on top and you gotta make a play.

"But at the end of the day, they're all correctable, I'll say that. Every single instance that they were able to be successful on a deep play, it's all correctable. ... I'm a firm believer in this group of guys that we have, the men we have in this locker room. We're not gonna continue to go back and make the same mistakes over and over."