Not the norm: Saints rank last in red zone

METAIRIE, La. -- One of the more head-scratching statistics in the NFL through two weeks has to be the New Orleans Saints ranking dead last in red zone touchdown percentage at 14.29 percent (1-for-7). For one thing, the statistic does not mesh with the fact that the Saints are 2-0. For another, that’s an area where the Saints have excelled throughout the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

The Saints ranked second in the league in red zone success last year (68.42 percent). They’ve ranked in the top 6 in five of the past six years. And they have never finished below 50 percent since Payton and Brees arrived.

That’s why the Saints are concerned, but still confident that they can get the problem fixed.

“We pride ourselves on being able to sustain drives and convert third downs and obviously punch it in the end zone in the red zone,” Brees said. “We have always been top in the league in that regard. … It’s great when you get the big plays, but you can’t bank on it. You have to be ready to sustain drives and be patient and all of those things. It is definitely an area we are focused on and need to clean up.

“Eventually that will bite us if we don’t get it fixed. So that is what we’re working on.”

Brees said the primary problem for the Saints has been “just execution.” He correctly pointed out that two of the Saints’ red zone drives stalled because of penalties (back-to-back holding calls against guard Jahri Evans in Week 1 against Atlanta and another holding call against Evans last week). Obviously that’s not the norm for the perennial All-Pro guard.

The other big problem for the Saints in the red zone has been their biggest problem everywhere on the field -- their lack of a consistent run game.

Almost every time the Saints have tried to run the ball inside the red zone this year, they’ve sputtered. That was the case most notably during their goal-line failure at Tampa Bay last week, when they got stuffed three straight times inside the 2-yard line (twice with Mark Ingram and once with Pierre Thomas).

Those run failures have been a combined effort from the play designs to the blocking to the runners themselves. And the Saints are well aware that they need to make drastic improvements across the board in the run game. That was already a top priority this offseason when they decided to institute more of an outside zone blocking scheme that remains a work in progress.

In general, though, there’s no reason to push the panic button after the Saints’ slow start in the red zone. Their offense has a long track record of proving it can get the job done anywhere on the field. As Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said this week, he believes the Saints’ slow offensive start is just “smoke and mirrors.”

“It’s not acceptable. It’s not OK, and fortunately our defense has really come up big now in two games for us. I guarantee you it’s something that we can fix, and I know we’ll spend a lot of time on fixing it,” said offensive tackle Zach Strief, who recalled a similar red zone issue in the 2010 season. “I know Coach Payton will spend a lot of time on that in the next few weeks. Even if we come in this week and play well in the red zone, it will be something that, for the rest of the year, we are spending extra time on.”