New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton talks with an official during a game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 9, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Photo by AJ Sisco/UPI | License Photo
METAIRIE, La. - The New Orleans Saints gave up 30 fewer points in their second game of the season than they did in their first.
The improvement from a 48-41 loss to Tampa Bay to a 21-18 victory against Cleveland was significant, but a couple of lapses that could have altered the outcome tainted the performance.
"Defensively, I thought we were real good until the final two drives," Saints head coach Sean Payton said Monday.
New Orleans took its first lead of the game (18-12) with 2:40 left. The defense had a chance to virtually seal the victory with a stop, but on fourth-and-5 it allowed a 47-yard touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to Antonio Callaway.
Fortunately for the Saints, Zane Gonzalez missed the extra point and left the score tied.
New Orleans regained the lead on Wil Lutz's 44-yard field goal with just 21 seconds left, but the defense allowed completions of 25 yards and 16 yards, the second at the sideline in field-goal range after the Browns had exhausted their timeouts.
Gonzalez missed from 52 yards and New Orleans escaped with the victory.
Payton called those two late defensive series "poor," but otherwise the Saints did a much better job of containing Taylor and the Cleveland passing game than they did against Tampa Bay's passing game and Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 417 yards and four touchdowns.
Taylor completed 22-of-30 passes for 246 yards with one touchdown and one interception. New Orleans didn't sack Fitzpatrick on 28 attempts but sacked Taylor, who is a more athletic scrambler than Fitzpatrick, three times.
"Rushing [Taylor] was different in that you had to be careful of his escape outside or his escape up through [the middle] and fortunately we were able to at least control his rushing numbers [four rushes, 26 yards]," Payton said.
"Guys played, I think, with really good get-off and we were able to get some pressure on the player. I think our technique was better. Now from a coverage standpoint, we played a little bit more zone. I think that brought us another step relative to the quarterback holding on to the football."
The offense didn't perform nearly as well as it did in the opener, though Drew Brees and Michael Thomas combined on fourth-quarter touchdown passes of two and five yards to help produce the victory.
New Orleans finished with 275 yards after gaining 475 in the opener.
"Offensively, we weren't very good," Payton said. "We were sloppy in the beginning -- too many mental errors, missed opportunities, and then the two turnovers. That's twice now, last week and this week, where ball security has been an issue."
The Saints have turned the ball over twice in each of the first two games.
They haven't run the ball well, failing to gain 100 yards on the ground in either game. They have averaged 3.1 yards per carry and ran 27 times for 93 yards against the Browns. Playing from behind for most of both games has impacted the running game.
"We're not talking about a crisis," Payton said. "We just didn't run as effectively against this team [Sunday] as we would have liked. It's one of those teams that's going to give you some tough run looks."
Payton praised the Saints special teams, saying, "We came close to blocking a handful of their field goals and even one punt."
WR Michael Thomas has had a record-setting start to the season, catching 28 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns. The previous record for receptions after two games was 26 by Atlanta's Andre Rison in 1994. But Thomas' performance has been marred by a lost fumble in each game. "Mike's played well," Payton said, "and yet I don't like the fact the ball's on the ground again for two weeks in a row."
DE Cameron Jordan had two sacks for 11 yards after he and his teammates went without a sack in the season opener.
RB Alvin Kamara has been even busier than usual while Mark Ingram II serves a four-game suspension to start the season. Kamara, who averaged 12.5 touches per game last season, has averaged 18 in the first two games this year. Payton said he worries "about the workload relative to the running back position." Kamara was pressed into punt-return duty when WR Tommylee Lewis was injured Sunday, but the only punt he was back to receive went out of bounds.
QB Taysom Hill was the Saints' lone kickoff returner Sunday, making his NFL debut in that role. He took one back 47 yards after fielding the ball seven yards into the end zone. The other four kickoffs were touchbacks.
WR Tre'Quan Smith made his first NFL catch for 18 yards in his second NFL game. The third-round draft choice was a standout performer in training camp and the preseason, but was targeted just once in the opener.