Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer 25d

Jameis Winston vows he and Saints will be 'resilient' after up-and-down start

FORT WORTH, Texas – Two weeks into the New Orleans Saints' season, and the full spectrum of quarterback Jameis Winston has been on full display – for better and for worse.

Five touchdown passes in a 38-3 win over the Green Bay Packers in Week 1. A career-low passer rating of 26.9 and two interceptions in a 26-7 loss at the Carolina Panthers in Week 2.

That’s an extreme level of variance, even for a notoriously up-and-down quarterback who frequently led NFL analysts to discuss the virtues of “good Jameis and bad Jameis.”

But neither Winston nor Saints coach Sean Payton spent this week worrying about which version is closer to the real thing as they prepare to face another tough defense when they visit the New England Patriots on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, FOX).

Instead, they’re focused on fixing the most glaring problems that prevented New Orleans from getting anything off the ground this past Sunday when they gained just 128 total yards and six first downs – by far the lowest totals since Payton arrived in 2006.

Obviously it’s way too early to reach any long-term conclusions about which performance is closer to the real thing – other than expecting some level of variance on a weekly basis.

But Winston and Payton have both reacted to last week’s flop by addressing the areas that need to be cleaned up first.

“This team’s a winning team, we know how to win and we’re resilient,” Winston said Wednesday. “We just have to execute a little bit better, communicate a little bit better and get the job done.”

The No. 1 issue everyone is pinpointing this week is New Orleans’ total failure when it came to pass protection and communication against Carolina.

The Panthers deserve a lot of credit for that. They rank No. 1 in the NFL through two weeks in yards allowed (190 per game), points allowed (10.5 per game) and total sacks (10). And they did a brilliant job of recognizing the Saints might have some communication issues up front, considering retired quarterback Drew Brees used to handle the Saints’ protection calls before center Erik McCoy took them over this season.

And McCoy was sidelined last week because of a calf injury.

It also didn’t help that offensive line coach Brendan Nugent missed the entire week of practices with COVID before being cleared to return Saturday. The Saints wound up missing a total of five offensive assistants, two defensive assistants and one special teams assistant on game day.

Winston was sacked four times and pressured on 18 of 28 dropbacks (64%) – the third-highest rate for any defense since ESPN Stats and Information began tracking pressure in 2009.

“It’s the group in its entirety,” Payton said. “It’s our offensive line, our quarterback. It’s also us (coaches) relative to a game plan. And quite honestly, once we struggled to handle a look or two, we got more of it. We need to┬áhave a better plan, and that starts with me.”

Second-year guard/center Cesar Ruiz will have to be a part of the solution. The first-round draft pick was a center at Michigan before being moved to right guard as a rookie and being thrust back into his old position because of McCoy’s injury.

But Winston said he will also have to be more vocal.

“Just have a little bit more command, make sure everyone is hearing me clearly and clean so we can play a little bit faster,” Winston said. “Making sure everyone is getting the right call and I’m back there (conducting) everything, getting everybody lined up.

“But I’m confident, one, in our offensive line because we have the best offensive line in the NFL. And, two, in me being able to handle that process and communicate to those guys effectively so we can get the protection where it should be.”

As for the interceptions, there’s no getting around the fact they were ugly and reckless. If they were shown on a highlight reel without any context, people watching would immediately think Winston hasn’t changed from his infamous 2019 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season.

However, if you’re the forgiving type, both picks could be excused based on situation. The first was an up-for-grabs heave on third-and-10 from Carolina’s 37-yard line with less than 30 seconds left in the first half when New Orleans was trailing 17-0 and in questionable field-goal range.

The second came with less than three minutes left in the game when New Orleans was down 26-7.

“I think the biggest thing is being in better first-down and second-down efficiency,” said Winston, who was asked how he felt about his decision-making after he had made that the No. 1 focus of his attempt to revive his career over the past two years. “Not putting yourself in a position to make plays at the end of the game where you have to push the ball down the field.”

Despite the constant pressure and early deficit, it would still be fair to criticize Winston for missing some potential checkdowns to running back Alvin Kamara or opportunities to scramble on the few occasions when he did have a few seconds in the pocket.

“Understanding just because you’re capable of making the (big) play doesn’t necessarily mean you should make it,” Winston said, repeating the lesson he has repeatedly said he learned from Brees as his backup last year. “I think it starts with just the overall rhythm of the game, as the offense, as myself, and just going out there and executing.”

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