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Slow and steady doesn't work for Saints' offense

NEW ORLEANS -- What kind of a day was it for the New Orleans Saints' offense?

They ran 17 plays on a first-half drive that resulted in zero points, thanks to a goal-line stand by the Cincinnati Bengals.

It was a shockingly-uncharacteristic performance from a Saints offense that suddenly seemed to go from too risky to too conservative in a 27-10 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints managed only 330 yards and 10 points (their lowest output at home since 2006). Remarkably, it had nothing to do with the turnovers that had been haunting them all season.

New Orleans’ only turnover was a fumble by Travaris Cadet in the final minutes when the game was well out of reach. The Saints also had zero three-and-outs, and they converted 8 of 13 third-down attempts.

What killed them was that inability to finish drives and an inability to hit on big plays (they had zero plays of longer than 17 yards).

“We sustained drives. We were almost as good on third down as they were; we were 8-of-13, they were 9-of-13. So we were on the field, but we just weren’t getting touchdowns when we should’ve been getting touchdowns,” lamented Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 33 of 41 passes but only netted 255 yards and one touchdown.

However, both Brees and coach Sean Payton shot down the notion that the game plan was too conservative – even though the Saints did rely even more heavily than usual on the run game early (15 carries for 38 yards in the first half).

“It didn’t feel any different than what we normally do,” insisted Brees, who overshot receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Josh Hill on two early deep throws but didn’t attempt many others throughout the game. “We pick our spots. The times we took shots, they were in good position.”

Another oddity about Sunday’s performance was it came against a Bengals defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in yards allowed and 31st in rushing yards allowed before Sunday.

In theory, the Saints’ heavy dose of running back Mark Ingram should have worked. He should have had his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game instead of a total of 67 yards on 23 carries (a 2.9-yard average).

But the Bengals' defense stepped up, and the Saints admittedly struggled early when Cincinnati showed some different looks up front, including more movement along the line of scrimmage. New Orleans’ run game was better in the second half, when it became too little, too late.

“I don’t think we went in with a conservative game plan,” Payton said. “They play a lot of zone to begin with. We had a few shot opportunities, and yet they did a real good job of trying to stay on top. We were obviously going to have to move the ball underneath and do it with some balance.

“I thought in the first half, with (only three) possessions, the time of possession seemed pretty good. Then it becomes one-dimensional at some point when you’re looking up and trying to figure out how you’re going to get 17 points.”

The Saints’ biggest offensive failure came at the end of that 17-play drive, when they had a first-and-goal from the Bengals’ 3-yard line in the second quarter.

A pass attempt to Marques Colston was broken up on first down. Ingram was stuffed on second-and-3 and third-and-1. Then a play-action pass to fullback Erik Lorig lost a yard on fourth-and-1.

“Anytime you’re that close and you can’t punch it in, there’s definitely a loss of momentum,” Ingram said. “But we had chances to bounce back from it and we just couldn’t capitalize. We just couldn’t make enough plays to get back in the game.”