NEW ORLEANS -- At some point, it has to get better for the New Orleans Saints ' defense. Right?
Or maybe not.
Because I spent the entire offseason believing it couldn’t possibly get worse for a Saints defense that was one of the worst in NFL history last year. And then Sunday’s fourth quarter happened.
Not only did the Saints give up three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 35-34 loss to the Oakland Raiders, they found a new level of rock-bottom when the Raiders felt so confident against them that they decided to go for the game-winning two-point conversion while trailing by one point with 47 seconds remaining.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees called it a “ballsy move.” But Saints coach Sean Payton conceded the obvious: “Looking closely at that fourth quarter, we were having trouble stopping anything. And I felt like on the road, in a game like this, I probably would’ve done the exact same thing.”
Now comes the news that the Saints’ best cornerback, Delvin Breaux -- arguably the guy they can least afford to lose on defense -- could be sidelined by a broken fibula for a couple months. This comes on the heels of summer injuries to Hau’oli Kikaha, Keenan Lewis and Sheldon Rankins.
The Saints’ young defense is bound to have better days. It has to get better, right?
But if they can’t pull out a game in which Brees throws for 423 yards and four touchdowns and gives them a 14-point lead in the second half inside their home stadium well, how on earth are they going to end their skid of back-to-back 7-9 seasons?
“That’s the heartbreaking thing is that we had a lead. They rallied back on way too many explosive plays,” said new Saints middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who was brought in to help the Saints try and clean up the missed assignment and misalignments that plagued them over the past two years.
“We had preached all offseason -- so many of these games come down to two-minute situations, and wanting to be in that situation defensively and practicing it so much,” Laurinaitis said. “We’ve gotta find a way to rise up and win the game.”
Laurinaitis said the Saints also placed a huge emphasis on not giving up the explosive plays that the Raiders rely on so much.
The Saints didn’t practice what they preached in either of those two crucial areas.
Oakland chipped away at its deficit in two blinks of an eye -- thanks to a 43-yard pass from Derek Carr to Amari Cooper with 13:12 remaining that set up one touchdown and a 75-yard run by undrafted rookie Jalen Richard that scored another with 8:38 remaining.
Cornerback P.J. Williams was the victim on the long pass, though the Saints got zero pass rush on the play, allowing Carr way too much time in the pocket.
As Payton lamented, the Saints had zero sacks and forced zero turnovers Sunday.
As for the 75-yard run, the Raiders dominated each of their one-one-blocks at the line and the second level, as center Rodney Hudson and left guard Kelechi Osemele swallowed up Laurinaitis and linebacker Craig Robertson, respectively. Receivers took out defensive backs and safety Jairus Byrd guessed wrong on which way to run around blocked safety Kenny Vaccaro.
“That long run really gets under my skin, because I felt like they weren’t getting much at all explosive-wise,” Laurinaitis said. “And then, boom, that one hurt.”
The Raiders’ final touchdown came courtesy of a questionable pass interference call on Robertson on fourth-and-5, then a 10-yard TD pass to Seth Roberts, then the two-point conversion throw to Michael Crabtree against decent coverage by undrafted rookie cornerback Ken Crawley.
The funny thing about Sunday’s implosion is that about two hours into the game, I thought I would be writing about how the defense rose up under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen against the team that fired him as head coach two years ago.
Sunday’s game wasn’t a total disaster. On the contrary -- the defense had only one bad drive in the first 40 minutes while holding Oakland to 10 points.
But eventually, young cornerbacks like Williams, Crawley and De’Vante Harris will learn on the fly. And next week the Saints will likely activate veteran Sterling Moore, who was just signed earlier this week, to help them out.
Eventually it will get better for the Saints’ defense -- because it can't get any worse.
But will it get better than 7-9? That’s hard to see right now.