Saints defense continues to crumble on third-and-long

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints failed in just about every area Sunday. But the one that stood out above all others in their 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals was third-down defense.

“Hey, listen, our third-down defense was awful. It wasn’t good,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who correctly pointed out that the Saints have had persistent problems in third-and-long situations throughout the year.

The Bengals opened their rout Sunday with three third-and-8 conversions on their first touchdown drive. Then they drove the final nail in the coffin with a third-and-18 conversion early in the fourth quarter when New Orleans had closed the gap to 20-10.

New Orleans' problems ranged from the obvious secondary breakdowns to missed tackles in the middle of the field to the lack of a consistent pass rush – sometimes two or three of them working in conjunction. Just like last week’s colossal fourth-and-10 failure, when the Saints gave up a 51-yard pass to the San Francisco 49ers.

“It’s deflating, but it’s been happening all year. … It’s just one little guy gets out of a gap,” lamented Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who pointed out that it was the exact opposite last season when every unit worked together to make each other look good. “Last year, our pass rush was amazing. It didn’t matter if we blew a coverage. Man, they had two seconds to get that ball off. It’s just different.

“It just sucks that we put bad tape out there. That’s what I get down about. ‘That’s the Saints, undisciplined, don’t know what they’re doing.’ Even if we do, it looks like that. That’s what makes me get down. Everybody can watch that. It’s embarrassing.”

Vaccaro also theorized that the Saints’ secondary is having chemistry problems after losing so many veterans in the offseason.

Cincinnati started out 9-of-11 on third-down tries overall Sunday and finished 9-of-13 (one was a kneel-down). The Bengals converted six of its first 7 plays of third-and-8 or longer.

Not only did that keep the Bengals’ offense alive to score points – it kept the Saints’ offense off the field. The Saints wound up with just three offensive possessions in the first half – one that ended in a field goal, one that ended with a goal-line stand on the Bengals’ 1-yard line, and one that ended with a punt.

So what went wrong for the Saints on third-and-long? You name it.

On the opening drive: A tight sideline throw over hobbled Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis for 8 yards; a shovel pass to running back Jeremy Hill, who broke at least two tackles to gain 13 yards; then an epic finish when tight end Jermaine Gresham fought forward for the first down, fumbled, kicked the ball to himself and recovered in the end zone.

Later came a 15-yard pass from Andy Dalton to running back Rex Burkhead, when Dalton was on the run after being flushed from the pocket. Then a gorgeous 38-yard pass to A.J. Green over cornerback Brian Dixon on the third-and-18 play. And finally, an 11-yard run by Hill.

At least the Saints didn’t allow any 51-yard passes this week. But they did cough up a 62-yard run by Hill to set up a last-second field goal before halftime – on a play when it appeared that the Bengals were content to run out the clock.

“It’s poor football,” Payton said – again pulling no punches. “It’s situational football. It’s like stealing three points.”