When I saw the Saints/Bucs score Sunday morning, I was relieved–Saints 17, Tampa 0.  My first thought was that the loss to the Cowboys paid off.  The Saints have been struggling at the beginning of the last few games, and consequently, have fallen considerably behind.  With Drew Bress commanding that potent offense they have been able to surmount comebacks in most of those games.

But this week, they were able to put up 17 first half points, and I felt very confident about the outcome.  What did I need to be worried about?

But lo and behold, when I went to ESPN.com to see the carnage the Saints unleashed on the Bucs, I saw this headline instead: “Bucs Stun Saints in OT.”  They lost.  Again.  To another mediocre team.

I don’t like to disparage other teams–tends to come back to haunt me–but the Bucs are not a very good team this year.  How could the Saints lose?  That’s a rhetorical question of course, and I know the answer…

I don’t feel as devastated as I did last week.  I kind of accepted that despite what all the NFL experts were saying for the last few weeks, the Saints’ opponents had exposed some of their weaknesses.  I think the game against the Dolphins was the first that indicated there were some issues on defense.  Had it not been for a quick-strike offense, I think the Saints would have had a couple more losses this year (the Redskins’ game for sure).

Sean Peyton may want to consider shoring up the D a little before the playoffs.  I’m not too sure who is available, but they need to get more pressure up the middle.  The secondary has been getting a lot of blame for the Saints porous D, but I think the problem is deeper than poor secondary play.  QBs seem to be able to roam the pocket against the Saints’ D, and running backs have been having career games.  The D did get a few sacks this week, but in general the pressure isn’t consistent enough.

But it’s not just the defense that needs to make adjustments.  There are a couple of key areas where the Saints’ offense needs to improve: first, the running game, and two, 3rd. down conversions.

The lack of a running game has definitely hurt the overall offense.  Drew Bress had been looking godlike all year long, but since the first Falcons game, has been pressing a bit.  He hasn’t looked as efficient, and I believe he’s trying to make up for the struggling running game.  I’m not taking anything away from the running backs; I think Heath Evans, Pierre Thomas, and Mike Bell have done a particularly good job this year.  (And it is unfortunate that they have all gotten hurt at some point.)  However, in recent games, they haven’t been able to assert themselves quite as well as in the beginning of the season.  I think opposing D-lines are hedging a bit.  Have you noticed how many batted balls Bress has thrown recently?  Have you noticed that he’s given up more INTs?  Although the NFL has become a pass-happy league, you still need a running threat to keep defenses honest.

And these issues lead into my next point: 3rd. down conversions.  Because opposing Ds have been able to play the pass, the Saints have begun to struggle with 3rd. down conversions.  In fact, I have noticed an increase in 3-and-outs.  Again, a running game that would keep defenses home would help them considerably.

Now, I’ll admit; I’m not working from any kind of careful statistical analysis, and basing my opinions on what I personally witnessed.  I haven’t studied statistics and quite frankly, hope I’m completely wrong.  I hope that without a whole lot of tinkering, the Saints will march right into South Florida and take the Superbowl with a dominating performance.

The only thing I do know is that I’m nervous.  I’d feel much better if the Saints handily beat the Panthers this week.  And not in a shootout where both teams put up 300+ yards passing and score over 20 points.  But a game in which the Saints dominate on offense, both on the ground and through the air, and on D by holding the Panthers under 10 points.

The Saints really need to get going and regain some momentum going into the playoffs.  I know they are capable!  Go Saints….