MINNEAPOLIS -- Adrian Peterson was silenced in his return to Minnesota on Monday night, playing third fiddle among New Orleans' running backs as the Saints wound up passing the ball more than they would have liked.
Whether or not Peterson was miffed about his role (he and coach Sean Payton both denied having a heated exchange on the sideline), A.D.'s quiet night was the least of the Saints' problems. Their pass defense repeatedly broke down, and their offense repeatedly flopped inside the opposition's 10-yard line in a 29-19 loss to the Vikings.
"Look, it's a tough one to start off the season with. I don't know where to begin," Payton said. "First off, obviously we settled for too many field goals offensively, and then all of a sudden we got into catch-up mode. I thought early on, defensively, we did some good things, and then there was a series that breaks it open in the second quarter. Then I felt like when we got into the second half, we were having trouble stopping much of anything."
New Orleans' defense, which looked so improved throughout the preseason, was plagued by all of the same old, familiar problems: inability to get off the field on third down and allowing way too many deep balls against broken coverage.
The Vikings were 9-of-14 on third downs, while Sam Bradford completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He was sacked only once.
New Orleans' top draft pick, Marshon Lattimore, seemed to hold up OK. But then again, some Vikings receivers were so wide open at times that it was impossible to tell who was to blame. Second-year cornerback De'Vante Harris was victimized by Stefon Diggs a couple of times, even when he had tight coverage.
Diggs finished with seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Vikings receiver Adam Thielen had nine catches for 157 yards.
“I knew there was gonna be growing pains. That’s why I told you all not to get too excited after preseason shutouts,” said Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, though he admitted that “what hurt me the most” was all of the deep balls New Orleans allowed.
“That’s ridiculous because they don’t throw the deep ball,” said Vaccaro, who said the scouting report on Bradford was that he likes to check down. “For him to drive the field throwing the ball downfield is just unacceptable to me.”
Vaccaro said the problems spread from zone coverage to man coverage, from technique errors to communication errors, from young players to veterans.
The Saints' offense didn't fare much better than their defense, with 344 total yards and 4-of-11 on third-down conversions.
The offense's biggest problem was a complete failure to finish the job in the red zone. The first three times the Saints traveled inside the Vikings' 10-yard line, they settled for a field goal, until Drew Brees finally hit Coby Fleener for a touchdown pass with 1:56 remaining in the game.
"The big difference and reason for the lack of points ... was that we only had eight possessions in the game," Brees said. "Five of them went inside of their red zone or inside of the 10-yard line. That's good, efficient football. [But] you've got to score. And that was the real difference in this game for us offensively, when we walk away with a touchdown one out of five times.
"Points are good. But seven points are a lot better than three. ... I think there were a couple other plays to be had out there."
All three of the Saints' running backs got shut down at least once inside the red zone.
Peterson got the first carry of the night on the first play of the game and took the ball 9 yards. But that turned out to be his high point. Peterson finished with six carries for 18 yards and no catches.
Veteran Mark Ingram (New Orleans' best pass-protector and most experienced pass-catcher) led the Saints' running backs in touches, with six carries for 17 yards and five catches for 54 yards.
Rookie Alvin Kamara also played a big role -- sometimes lining up on the field at the same time as Ingram. Kamara had seven carries for 18 yards and four catches for 20 yards.
Perhaps Peterson would have seen more action if the game had played out differently, but it's possible he will remain third among the trio in touches because New Orleans is a pass-first offense, especially if the Saints' defense keeps forcing the team to play from behind.
New Orleans (0-1) is now battling one other problem that has plagued this team the past three seasons: slow starts. The Saints started 1-3, 0-3 and 0-3 the past three seasons and finished 7-9 each time.
The schedule doesn't get any easier, with the home date against New England followed by a road trip to Carolina in Week 3.