METAIRIE — Not only did the Saints lose their last game at Dallas, 13-10, on Thursday, Nov. 29, after 10 straight wins. Then they had basically five days off to think about it.
“It’s been very different,” said Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who did not catch a pass in the loss and had a drop at the goal line. “We were rolling going into that game. Then, a long time before we play again.”
The Saints (10-2) play again at noon Sunday at Tampa Bay (5-7), which is the only other team to beat New Orleans, 48-40, in the season opener.
“A lot more guys have been on their P’s and Q’s this week,” Smith said. “Guys are listening more and studying more. I know I had a drop. We had too many drops. I don’t know what it was. We weren’t ready. We weren’t clicking. Our defense played great, but we didn’t. And their defense played a helluva game.”
MORE: Saints’ defense did not get off to a good start in 2018
Since shredding the Saints’ defense for 417 passing yards on Sept. 9 as backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes for four touchdowns, Tampa Bay changed defensive coordinators from Mike Smith to Mark Duffner on Oct. 15 after three straight losses. And Jameis Winston, who was suspended for the first three games this season for violating the personal conduct policy, gradually got his starting job back.
But the Saints are far more concerned about themselves — particularly on offense as New Orleans’ 176 total net yards at Dallas was the worst of the era of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, which started in 2006. Brees threw for just 127 yards on 18-of-28 passing as he was sacked twice and harassed throughout the game by the Cowboys’ inside rush. He had been sacked just twice in the Saints’ previous six games.
“They had a good rush plan, a combination of really good rushers,” Saints center Max Unger said. “We just have to (get) better in protection and that really just boils it down. They had a good blitz package and they were able to get pressure on Drew.”
MORE: Saints had it going on against defending Super Bowl champions
Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara managed just 27 yards on seven carries and 36 yards on 11 rushes, respectively, at Dallas.
“We’re just getting back to what we’re doing, getting back to our roots,” Ingram said as the Saints returned to full practices on Wednesday. “I’ve always said it’s on us, and I think that still applies. I don’t think we played our best football last time we were on the field. And so we’re grinding and working our butts off to put together a better performance on Sunday. It starts with us here just paying attention to our details so everybody can go play their best football on Sunday.”
And much is at stake.
The defending NFC South champion Saints can clinch the NFC South with a victory, and New Orleans has never won back-to-back division crowns in their history. The Saints are also fighting with the Los Angeles Rams (11-1) for the No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the playoffs.
MORE: 2018 looking eerily similar to 2009
“I think they all understand at the beginning of the week, ‘OK, here is what the playoff system means,’” Payton said. “But I think the most important thing is this team in front of us, this game in front of us, and finding a way to get to 11 wins period. Let’s get to 11.
“And they’re all smart enough to know that, ‘Hey you’re chasing other things that can enhance your possible opportunities down the road.’ And so it’s that simple. And so the focus is really getting to 11 this week, and how do we do that?”
The Saints will try to match where they were the 10 weeks before Dallas.
“We were rolling,” Unger said. “We were in a really good rhythm, and we just for whatever reason fell out of that. It’s up to us to look back and see what we had done well in the previous wins and kind of recover that momentum if you will. But that was a tough loss. It’s back to work and like Sean said that after the game, ‘Just examine everything. Get back to what we’re doing and kind of reload for the start of the fourth quarter of the season.'”
After Tampa Bay, the Saints play at Carolina (6-6) on Monday, Dec. 17, before hosting AFC North leading Pittsburgh (7-4) on Dec. 23 and Carolina on Dec. 30 to end the regular season.
“Dallas played well, but I’m more worried about our execution,” Brees said. “Our execution was certainly not up to our standards. There was a lot to be desired there. So it’s back to work, back to the details, back to our routine. Finally, we get a normal week. I think that will settle a lot of guys.”
Perhaps the abnormality of a loss will lead to a return of normalcy.
“Sometimes, you have to lose a battle to win the war,” Brees said. “You learn a lot from something like that. I think we honestly just had a bad day. You turn on the film, and it’s glaringly obvious where we failed. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
INGRAM UP FOR MAN OF THE YEAR: The Saints have nominated running back Mark Ingram for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award as Ingram’s Foundation has given gifts to children with parents who are incarcerated.
“It would be a tremendous honor — one of my greatest awards,” Ingram said. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2009.
INJURY REPORT: Saints receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) practiced fully Thursday as did defensive tackle David Onyemata (hip). The only Saints who practiced on a limited basis were offensive tackles Terron Armstead (pectoral) and Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder).
WEATHER REPORT: There is a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms for the Saints game at Tampa, Florida, Sunday afternoon.
“Well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, it’s going to rain,” Payton said. “It’s a 95 percent chance of rain. There’ll be some wind, 10 to 12 miles an hour. We know the direction it will head from — their locker room towards the pirate ship. I think the footing is going to be important relative to the shoes that we’re wearing. We were outside today – wet ball drills, the whole nine yards. We’re understanding ball security, the conditions.”