Saints can't rely on past road success

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints acknowledged for the first time after Sunday's ugly 27-16 loss at St. Louis that their road performances this year have become a serious problem.

Even more than that, Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have described a greater realization that they still don't quite know the identity of this year's team.

“I think that you can't take for granted that it's the same team as you had in years past. It's a different team for the most part if you look at the overall roster,” Payton said Monday.

He's right. Only 24 players on the current 53-man roster were around the last time the Saints made the playoffs in 2011. Only 11 were around for their Super Bowl season in 2009. That's why Payton corrected a reporter after Sunday's game who suggested that this year's road results have been surprising from such a “veteran team.”

“I don't necessarily agree that this is a veteran team,” Payton said. “We have some veterans on this team, but we are still trying to find out a little about our leadership.”

And Brees made a similar point when asked to try and pinpoint why the Saints (10-4) have struggled so much on the road this year -- now 3-4 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“It's a bit of a mentality,” Brees said. “These last couple trips on the road we've gotten down by a lot in a short amount of time in the first half and haven't overcome that -- or haven't kind of had that resurgence or that resiliency like maybe we have in the past. ...

“I think that that's part of the learning and growing process with this team. And maybe even some of the young guys, too. It's just establishing that feeling that when we do get down, we're never out. We are built to be able to overcome any scenario or situation like that. But we've got to go out and do it. And a lot of that is a mentality, and we've got to establish that with this team.”

Payton said that was a big theme the coaching staff addressed on Monday morning.

He said that resiliency and confidence is something the team has shown at times earlier this season -- specifically during last month's Thursday night road win at Atlanta, when the Saints got down 7-0 early but quickly responded before winning 17-13.

“I do think it's a younger team and it's not any one specific player, but I think momentum or us being able to answer the call when that momentum shifts (is important), because in our league that's pretty common when momentum goes back and forth,” Payton said. “Obviously when you're home, you have that other element with the crowd noise and the other things working to your advantage.”

Sunday's loss at St. Louis was the opposite extreme.

Payton made no secret of his disappointment in how flat his team was to start the game -- blaming himself as much as the players.

That was also the area that linebacker Curtis Lofton pointed to, first and foremost, when asked if he can explain the Saints' road struggles this year.

“When you're playing on the road, you have to be focused and you have to have energy from play 1,” Lofton said. “You can't play catch-up ball, and I feel like that's what we've been doing on the road, so we've got to come out and we got to start fast.”

Brees also suggested the Saints might want to simplify their approach after maybe over-complicating things leading up to some of their recent road games, trying to account for all the hurdles they'll encounter.

And Payton made it clear that all options will be on the table to get things fixed before a huge showdown on the road this coming Sunday at Carolina (10-4) -- including personnel changes.

Payton declined to say if he's planning to make any specific changes to the lineup, but he was non-committal when asked specifically about kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown.

However, even with a handful of theories as to what hasn't worked on the road this year, it's not that easy to pinpoint one or two specific areas where the Saints can solve their problems after such a complete team failure on Sunday.

“I'd like to be able to pinpoint one specific thing and say we're going to change this one element and all of a sudden play better,” Payton said. “Historically during our years here we have been a very good road team. Obviously we're currently 3-4 on the road this season. That's something that is below average. It is what it is.

“The challenges Carolina presents, they're a real good football team. We played them just a week ago and both teams have a lot at stake. I think it's important that we have a good plan going in and are able to handle the challenges of noise, weather ... Whatever it is, we're going to be tested with it.”

When asked specifically if Brown's response to being benched at St. Louis will be revealing this week, Payton said, “I think it will be very revealing for a lot of us, not just one position.”

Although Payton's quotes were a bit ominous on Monday, I certainly didn't take his tone as defeated.

It was just matter of fact.

I believe the Saints still have the confidence among their leaders -- new and old -- to respond to this latest setback. They just don't have the margin for error anymore.

“The sky has not fallen,” Lofton insisted. “We know we have a good team. ... We've (just) got to play better on the road. We've got to get rid of that stigma that we can't play on the road, because right now we're proving everybody right.”