Saints are missing the points

METAIRIE, La. -- One thing has stood out above all else during the New Orleans Saints' recent slide: They're missing the points.

The Saints have averaged less than 17 points per game over the past five weeks (going 2-3 in the process). In their three losses, they scored 7, 16 and 13 points. They haven't had a stretch like this since their 0-4 start to the 2007 season and 0-3 finish to the 2009 season.

All three of those losses have come on the road, which is a greater over-arching problem this year for the Saints (10-5 overall, 3-5 on the road). But the offensive inconsistency has been a source of frustration -- especially since it's so unfamiliar around here.

When asked what he thinks about the way the offense has been playing, veteran receiver Lance Moore responded bluntly: "Not the way that we should be playing."

"Our best teams here have been extremely balanced, we've made a lot of big plays, tried to limit the turnovers, protected the quarterback. I think this offense is kind of hot and cold," Moore said. "Some weeks we come out and we are exceptional, we come out and we throw the ball all over the field and score a lot of points. Some weeks we come out like the Seattle game we had (188) yards of offense. It's kind of the way the season has been for us.

"We are becoming one of those colder teams that can potentially be limping into the playoffs. We've got to find a way to make sure that this offense gets back to the days we were great and we were extremely successful like the Super Bowl season (2009)."

That balance has certainly been missing for the Saints this year. They rank second in the NFL in passing yards (303.2 per game) and 25th in rushing yards (91.7 per game). That's the second-lowest rushing total in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, which dates back to 2006.

But that being said, the pass-run balance isn't really that different from most years. And it has never kept the Saints from putting up points.

In fact, a closer examination of every offensive statistical category doesn't show any glaring areas where the Saints are struggling overall this season compared to their recent history.

Their sack totals are definitely up -- 36 allowed so far this year, which is 10 more than the previous high. But Brees' passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage all rank among the best of his career.

Everything else has just been inconsistency in a variety of categories across the board.

And some of the lower point totals are by design. The Saints have won some low-scoring games this year by playing smart, patient football. And their defense is better than it has ever been in the Payton-Brees era, which means less shootouts and more chess matches. The Saints' time of possession is the highest it's been in that stretch, and their turnovers are among the lowest.

"We talk about this all the time, you don't just go in every game with the idea that it's going to be 'X, Y and Z.' You pay attention to how (a game is) being played out," Payton explained, specifically discussing the way he didn't mind fighting a field-position battle against the Carolina Panthers last week that the Saints were winning until the fateful final minute of a 17-13 loss.

Obviously, though, as offensive tackle Zach Strief said, the Saints certainly aren't ignoring the recent scoring trend, and it's something they know they need to fix.

It's just hard to identify one specific reason. When asked what ha's been the biggest problem area, Strief said simply, "Scoring points. And it's the most important thing."

Strief did bring up two areas where the Saints have noticeably been struggling more than others in recent weeks. They're not forcing many turnovers, which obviously affects scoring opportunities. And they're not hitting on many big plays down the field.

Brees was 3-of-6 on passes thrown 15 yards or more down the field at Carolina. He was 2-of-7 in a loss at St. Louis a week earlier and 0-for-8 in a loss at Seattle in Week 13.

Brees' overall numbers on deep throws aren't significantly down from years past. But the home-road split is pretty eye-popping. According to ESPN Stats & Information, on passes thrown 15 yards down the field or more, Brees has completed 58.7 percent at home with 10 touchdowns, and 40.9 percent on the road with four touchdowns.

Of course, a lot of that has to do with the opponents, some of whom did an excellent job of playing physical in pass coverage (namely Seattle, Carolina and New England). Teams that can disrupt the Saints' pass routes down the field have always been the most successful against New Orleans' high-powered offense.

"I feel like we haven't had maybe enough of those ('shot plays') lately," Brees said. "They come and go in spurts at times, but certainly it's stuff we're always looking for."

"The yards per completion, the big plays, are something that we still make an emphasis on, and it is still an important part of what we do," Payton said. "And yet, that should be something that you feel comfortable with, and you feel like the defense you are seeing gives you an opportunity at that play."

The Saints have made up the difference with a heavy dose of underneath throws to tight end Jimmy Graham and more throws than ever to running backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. But Payton said it's still a balance he'd like to improve.

"I think probably as a coach you're never happy," Payton said. "You are always looking to find ways to get the ball down the field."