METAIRIE, La. — It’s one thing to be 0-2 for a fourth straight season.
It’s another to not even look competitive in a pair of double-digit losses, which is what the Saints have done heading into their first NFC South game at Carolina.
Lopsided losses to Minnesota and New England have the Saints at a tipping point. If they rally, they could become one of the NFL’s better comeback stories — particularly on the heels of three-year playoff drought. If they continue to stumble, however, it could signify the crumbling of Sean Payton’s nearly 12-year coaching regime.
This is hardly the scenario linebacker A.J. Klein envisioned when he left the Panthers for the Saints as a free agent this offseason.
“Am I surprised? Yes, I’m a little surprised. But at the same time, it’s self-inflicted wounds and we have to be able to respond,” Klein said. “These are very critical weeks for us. We’re ready to just get to work.”
The Saints have struggled most on defense , extending a trend that has dogged New Orleans the previous three seasons, when it has ranked 27th or worse in yards allowed. New Orleans has allowed its first two opposing QBs this season — Minnesota’s Sam Bradford and New England’s Tom Brady — to complete 80.3 percent of their passes for 793 yards and six touchdowns combined.
“It’s embarrassing, especially when you put in all this hard work,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “We’ve got to get it fixed. We’re already 0-2. It’s just going to be hard to come out of that hole. Everybody knows in this league, once you get yourself in a hole, it’s really, really hard to climb out.”
Saints players insisted Monday they’re not obsessing over the scores, which they say can be misleading. A few pivotal plays can turn an otherwise competitive affair into a blowout, they said.
Using New England’s first two possessions Sunday as examples, Klein said New Orleans’ defense forced third-and-6 or longer on each drive, only to have execution failures on passes to Gronkowski — one of which went 12 yards to extend a touchdown drive and one of which resulted in in a 53-yard TD.
“Does that change the momentum of the game if they don’t score those first two series? Yes, it does,” Klein said. “The score is the score. It just shows that we didn’t play well enough. It doesn’t matter if you lose 10-9. A loss is a loss.”
Vaccaro agreed, to some extent.
“How fast you can improve is probably the biggest factor on turning around this season,” Vaccaro said. “There’s certain facets of winning and losing that you analyze, and when you do some of the things — giving up explosive plays — yeah, it’s a little worrisome. But at the same time, you’ve got to move on.”
Vaccaro got benched for several series on Sunday, but remained unsure why on Monday.
“I’m just trying to be professional, take it day by day, just trying to be a good pro, a good teammate,” the 2013 first-round draft choice said. “There’s nothing really else I can do. You know, I’ve been here through it all, through a thousand different members in the secondary, I’m still here standing. And I’m staying here until they don’t want me.”
Payton described Vaccaro’s exit from the game not as punishment, but an attempt to see if changing formations — fielding two safeties instead of the three-safety alignment New Orleans routinely uses — might help. The Saints wanted to see how the tandem of Vonn Bell and rookie Marcus Williams looked, Payton said.
Offensively, the Saints got little production in the running game, which is under magnified scrutiny after the offseason addition of veteran Adrian Peterson and Payton’s assertions that improving on the ground would be an emphasis. Payton also noted that quarterback Drew Brees’ timing with new targets such as receiver Tedd Ginn Jr. and rookie running back Alvin Kamara was bound to be worse early in the season than it should eventually become.
But Payton doesn’t sound worried about his players’ confidence despite another shaky start to a season.
“These guys are grown men and they understand the sense of urgency we have to play with and we have to practice with now, starting off with two losses.” Payton said. “We can’t get back to the practice field quick enough.”