Defensive woes doomed Saints

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers eluded the Saints defense for 399 yards and 42 points. Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The New Orleans Saints spent most of the preseason talking about how they wanted to get their defense back to its 2009 form.

It looked like they punched the wrong code into their time machine in Thursday’s 42-34 season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Instead of the opportunistic defense that helped the 2009 team win the Super Bowl, what we saw against the Packers was the same defense we saw in last season’s playoff loss to Seattle, the 2008 defense or the 2007 defense. That’s not nearly good enough if you want to get back to the Super Bowl or be an elite team.

Sure, it’s only one loss and it came on a night when one of the league’s strongest fan bases was out in force to watch as the Packers unveiled their Super Bowl banner from last season. The Saints weathered an early storm and the game came down to one play -- rookie running back Mark Ingram getting stuffed at the goal line after the clock had run out.

“You play this game six months later, and it may end up with a different result,’’ New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.

That’s entirely possible, but only if the Saints start playing better defense. They can’t go on like they did against the Packers.

“When you have Drew Brees as your quarterback, you always have a chance,’’ safety Malcolm Jenkins said.

Yeah, but that's not an attitude you want your defense falling back on. You can’t afford to put everything on Brees’ shoulders all the time and expect to be mediocre. That’s what happened in 2007 when the Saints went 7-9 and in 2008 when they went 8-8. It’s also what happened in the playoff loss to Seattle.

Three first-quarter touchdown passes by Aaron Rodgers, all sorts of blown assignments and missed tackles helped the Packers make history. They scored the second-highest point total in a season opener in franchise history. The first was 53 in 1919, the first year the Green Bay franchise existed.

I have no idea what the 1919 Green Bay offense looked like, but I have no doubt it could have scored some points against this New Orleans defense. Second-year pro Patrick Robinson struggled as the nickelback, Roman Harper looked like he never left Seattle’s Qwest Field and the pass rush wasn’t all that much of a factor.

“The progress we make from Week 1 to Week 2 will be very important,’’ Payton said.

There’s no doubt about that. The Saints face another tough NFC North team Sept. 18 when they play host to the Chicago Bears. If there aren’t improvements by then, the Saints could be in bad shape. The Texans, who have some offensive weapons, are third on the schedule. The Falcons and Buccaneers, who have some offensive talent of their own, each are on the schedule twice, and there’s no doubt those NFC South opponents got some film from this game that could come in handy down the road.

“There will be a lot of things we see on tape we’ve got to clean up,’’ Payton said.

Some of it will have to do with fundamentals and some of it with the scheme. With top pass-rusher Will Smith serving a two-game suspension to start the season, the front four weren't able to generate a lot of pressure. The Saints, who blitzed more frequently than any other team in the league last season, did throw some blitzes at Rodgers, who has a history of being successful against the blitz. Rodgers completed 27 of 35 passes for 312 yards and was sacked twice.

“It’s a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game,’’ Payton said. “He’s got a quick release and a lot of targets. You recognize that you want to throw him off balance to some degree, and it’s a lot more challenging than it sounds.’’

Not every opposing quarterback is going to be as good as Rodgers, and not every offense is going to be as good as Green Bay’s.

“He’s as good a quarterback as we’ve gone against in a while,’’ linebacker Scott Shanle said.

But the Saints, who failed to produce a turnover, are starting off in dangerous territory.

They can’t afford to wait for Smith’s suspension to end to get their defense on track. That process has to start immediately, or the Saints run the risk of another 2007 or 2008.

In those days, Brees would put up big numbers every week, but the defense didn’t do much. That led to the firing of defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs after the 2008 season and the hiring of Gregg Williams to replace him in 2009. That first season, Williams brought a new attitude to the defense.

The championship team didn’t have a dominating defense that could shut down a team. What it had was an opportunistic defense that created a bunch of turnovers. That’s the form the Saints need to get back to quickly, or their season could slip away.

It could slip back to the point where Brees needs to be perfect every week for the Saints to even have a chance to win. He wasn’t perfect against the Packers. Instead, Brees was merely very good. He completed 32 of 49 passes for 419 yards and three touchdowns.

When you’re getting that kind of production from your quarterback and scoring 34 points, you should be able to win a lot of games. The Saints don’t have to be perfect on defense. They just have to do something they didn’t do against the Packers. They need to shut down a drive or two and make a few big plays. If they do that, they won’t have to rely on Brees to pull out miracles at the end.

If they can stop an offense every now and then, the Saints can get back to 2009. If not, they’ll go straight back to 2007 or ’08.