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Saints fall short in red zone in first game without Jimmy Graham

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One game is a small sample size, but the New Orleans Saints sure seemed to miss tight end Jimmy Graham in their season-opening 31-19 loss Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals.

The Saints went 1-of-4 inside the red zone, where Graham mattered most.

"We're 1-of-4. That's not good enough. On the flip side, they were 3-of-3. That's obviously the difference in the game," said quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for 355 yards but only one touchdown -- one that required a fantastic effort from second-year receiver Brandon Coleman to spin out of a tackle and dive in for a 12-yard score in the second quarter.

"Overall, we played that game the way we wanted to. ... [But] we kicked field goals instead of touchdowns."

Graham, who scored a red-zone TD in his debut with the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, was never mentioned by name in the Saints' postgame interviews. But Brees admitted it will take the Saints time to get a feel for all of their new options in the passing game.

Brees pointed out that Nos. 3 and 4 receivers, Coleman and Willie Snead, were making their NFL debuts Sunday, while top receiver Brandin Cooks was playing just his 10th career game.

"So I think there's a rhythm and a groove that you kind of find once you have the opportunity to be out there at times and get a feel for where guys fit in, how they can fit in, how they substitute," Brees said. "All these guys can do some things, and let's find ways to kind of utilize them all. It's something you just discover as you go along."

The series that nagged at both Brees and coach Sean Payton the most came midway through the fourth quarter.

They had a chance to steal the momentum away and tie the score after a beautifully executed 59-yard pass to Mark Ingram got them to Arizona's 15-yard line, down 24-16 with 8 minutes, 50 seconds remaining. But Brees was sacked, Ingram was stuffed, then Brees had to settle for a short pass to Ingram that went for no yards.

"A big opportunity for us, and we go 1-2-3 with nothing," Brees said. "That was disappointing, and I think it was a turning point in the game."

Perhaps the Saints wouldn't have fared any better with Graham. But what stood out most was that the Saints barely challenged the Cardinals' defense in the end zone. None of those classic jump-ball throws that used to go to the big target.

Brees attempted only one pass into the end zone -- a 19-yarder to Cooks, who was unable to get separation from standout cornerback Patrick Peterson. On another series inside the 10-yard line, Brees settled for two short check-down passes.

"The two sequences [inside the 10-yard line] were, 'Shoot, I have to do a better job,'" Payton said of himself as a play-caller. "We have to be better when we get in that area of the field."

The blame for this loss hardly falls on the offense's shoulders alone, though.

The defense was every bit as shaky as last season. Though they tightened up during the middle of the game, they saved their worst for last when rookie Cardinals running back David Johnson busted loose for a 55-yard touchdown on a short catch with less than two minutes remaining.

It's no secret that this young defense will experience some growing pains. But the Saints need their offense to bail them out on days like this. They're going to have to figure out how to score more points in a hurry.