METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have admitted that their struggles on the road are a serious concern. And they seemed genuinely surprised by their lack of energy and execution last week in an ugly 27-16 loss at St. Louis.
But this week, players and coach Sean Payton have insisted that their confidence hasn't been shaken as they head into their most important road game -- at the Carolina Panthers.
“If anything, I think it lights up the urgency for this game,” Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We're obviously well aware of our performances on the road and what we've done poorly in those performances. So the urgency to fix those problems and to change that is at a premium, going on the road, with this much on the line.
“So I don't think it hurts our confidence. I don't think it scares us at all. We can pinpoint exactly what we can do to get better.”
Quarterback Drew Brees was one of many who echoed that same sentiment this week, saying, “Obviously we're not very satisfied or happy with our performance on the road as of late.” But Brees said the team's confidence will come from preparation in practice and the attitude they carry into Carolina.
“If you know that you have prepared yourself as well as you could possibly prepare yourself, then you go out and good things happen,” Brees said. “At times are you going to maybe have a tough stretch? Yes. I think every team does, in some regard, throughout the course of their season. And ours just happens to be the way that we've played on the road the past couple of games.
“Certainly it's motivation to go out and play extremely well.”
Earlier this season, the Saints (10-4, 3-4 on the road) were almost defiant when discussing some of their inconsistent performances on the road. They pointed to their overall road record since 2009, which is still the best in the NFL at 24-15.
But lately, Payton and leaders like Brees and offensive tackle Zach Strief have admitted that they can't just rely on what's worked in the past, because this has evolved into a very young team. Only 10 veterans still remain on the active roster from the 2009 Super Bowl run. Almost exactly half of the roster is new from the last playoff season in 2011.
“No matter what we (veterans) feel -- like, do I feel no matter what the situation in the game, with Drew Brees behind me, can we come back? I absolutely 100 percent believe that. But there's a lot of guys that haven't been here for three years,” Strief said. “It's just as easy if you're a guy that came from somewhere else to be like, ‘Oh, here we go.' ...
“And that's on us to teach them that. You know what I mean? And I think if anything, as we've kind of sat down as a team and said, ‘Where has it failed?' that leadership has failed a little bit here in the locker room. To understand that it's not just gonna happen. ... That's not something you just turn on and off on game days. That's not something you can just be told. That's something you have to really live and experience.”
Strief said it has even been important to stress how vital it is to lock up the No. 2 seed instead of a wild-card berth, since the veteran Saints players have experienced both ends of that spectrum multiple times.
“So if anything I think it's good that all of a sudden there's a huge focus on it,” Strief said. “And we've spent a good amount of time this week explaining the importance of some of this stuff.”
The Saints have also spent a good amount of time focusing on the specific areas that are getting them beat -- such as turnovers and run defense, among other deficiencies.
Really, we're talking about three ugly performances that have turned this road trend into an epidemic -- 26-20 at the New York Jets in Week 9, 34-7 at Seattle in Week 13 and at St. Louis in Week 15. In all three of those games, the Saints scuttled themselves with first-half turnovers. And in all three games they had a handful of blown assignments or missed tackles on defense that led to huge gains -- which has been uncharacteristic of the defense overall this year.
“I think, more than anything else, it forces you as coaches and players to look closely at, ‘What can I do to improve how we play when we travel?'” Payton said. “We look at every element -- it appears the weather is going to be pretty good there, with a chance of rain. So it's going in handling the noise, handling the challenges of playing in a tough environment and having that wherewithal to understand there's going to be an ebb and flow to games, and that momentum swings like a pendulum oftentimes.”
Indeed, the weather report for Charlotte on Sunday isn't too daunting -- a projected temperature in the low 70s, with a 50 percent chance of rain and possibly some wind.
So the physical impediments shouldn't be too much to overcome.
And the Saints insist the mental hurdles won't either.
“I think we have the confidence to do it. We know what we have,” Jenkins said. “We see it every time we play at home. We see the fire. And we've just gotta take that same thing and bring it on the road. I think when you prepare well during the week and get our minds and emotions ready to go, we'll be fine.”
When asked if they have a little extra incentive to win on the road and prove people wrong, Jenkins said yes and no.
“I think as men, when you keep hearing the questions and you have to answer the questions about what you can't do, what you don't do well, you know, you want to prove people wrong, you want to show that you can. Any prideful person's gonna want to change people's minds,” Jenkins said. “(But) I don't think we're going out there to necessarily prove people wrong. There's enough riding on this game already.”