The New Orleans Saints are 0-2 for the first time since dropping their first four games of 2007, due in large part to a defense that's surprisingly been the worst in the NFL.
A home matchup Sunday with the winless Kansas City Chiefs, who also have struggled to stop opponents, could be just what New Orleans needs to get things turned around.
There seemed little doubt that the Saints would struggle at times with coach Sean Payton suspended for the year for his role in the team's bounty scandal, but most observers figured they would suffer more on offense considering that's his specialty. Instead, a defense led by highly regarded coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been the biggest culprit in the slow start.
The Saints' 75 points allowed are tied - with Kansas City - for the highest total through two weeks. New Orleans was victimized for 320 yards passing and two touchdowns by Washington's Robert Griffin in his NFL debut in Week 1, then gave up 486 yards to Carolina in a 35-27 loss last Sunday.
Spagnuolo, the former St. Louis head coach and architect of the New York Giants defense that tormented Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, insisted that New Orleans' defense is bound to improve.
"The growing pains will pay off in the end," said Spagnuolo, who joined the team in January. "I believe in our players and our coaches, and I believe in the scheme. And unless something out of the sky falls, I'm not going to change in that regard."
The Saints are last in the league in overall defense at 461.0 yards per game and rushing defense at 186.0. New Orleans had trouble with the mobility of Griffin and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who combined to rush for 113 yards.
This week's matchup won't provide nearly the same challenge in that regard, as Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel doesn't boast that level of athleticism.
The gameplan for Cassel and the Chiefs could be heavy on running plays. Kansas City is averaging 151.0 yards on the ground, fifth in the league, and seems likely to try to take advantage of New Orleans' problems with stopping the run.
The Chiefs averaged 6.3 yards per carry in Week 2 - tops in the league - in last Sunday's 35-17 defeat to Buffalo. Jamaal Charles dinged up his reconstructed left knee and had only six carries for three yards, but he's expected to play Sunday.
The Saints offense, meanwhile, will surely continue to rely on Drew Brees and the passing game. They've had 101 pass attempts compared to 37 rushing, though Pierre Thomas did run for 110 yards on nine carries last week.
"Unfortunately, we've done some things in these past two games that have set us back," said Brees, who has passed for 664 yards but thrown four interceptions to go with four touchdowns. "The important thing is recognizing what those things are. I feel like we have that.
"Now it's just a matter of getting the extra break, having things go your way, and getting on a win streak. We've done a great job of doing that here in the past."
While New Orleans has lost its games by eight points apiece, the Chiefs have been outscored by 34 overall. They didn't manage a touchdown last week until 6:26 remained in falling to 0-2 for the sixth time in seven years.
"I don't know if it's a must-win, but we'll look at it as a must-win because we want to win it," coach Romeo Crennel said of Sunday's matchup. "We won't fall off the Earth if we lose, but I won't tell them that because I want there to be a sense of urgency."
Cassel threw for 301 yards against Buffalo, but a good chunk of that came with Kansas City behind by a big margin.
"The good thing, if there is a good thing, is that there are 14 games left," Cassel said. "We're going to do everything that we can to be critical of ourselves, evaluate ourselves and get better as we move forward."
New Orleans has won the last two meetings in the series, taking the most recent one 30-20 at Kansas City on Nov. 16, 2008. The Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe had two touchdown receptions, but Brees passed for 266 yards and Thomas ran for 88 and a score.
- New Orleans Saints
- Kansas City Chiefs
- New Orleans
- Kansas City
- Steve Spagnuolo