Saints need to ‘punch back’ after getting knocked down

ARLINGTON, Texas — But when they were bad, they were horrid.

It’s hard to make sense of what we saw from the New Orleans Saints‘ offense during Thursday night’s flop at Dallas, because it was such a drastic departure from what we’ve seen throughout this season.

No one expected them to keep scoring 44 points per game, as they had done over the previous four weeks. But just 176 yards in a 13-10 loss? The lowest yardage output in the entire Sean Payton-Drew Brees era? And Brees throwing an interception when the game was still within reach in the final minutes?

Man, oh man, did they go overboard when it came to proving they were all human.

“We won 10 in a row. We felt like we were rolling. So now it’s time to get that mojo back,” Brees said in the aftermath. “Get back to work when we get back and get ready to roll.”

The Saints (10-2) will probably bounce back just fine after an extended break before their Week 14 trip to Tampa Bay. And it’s probably fair to chalk this up as one of those “any given Sunday — or Thursday” games, as Alvin Kamara called it.

Because if anyone has earned some benefit of the doubt, it’s this Saints’ offense, which entered the game as the fifth-highest scoring team in NFL history through 11 games, and Brees, who is still on pace for the league’s best passer rating of all time at 123.2.

But they just went from becoming the league’s biggest bullies to getting punched in the mouth. And now they have to prove it didn’t faze them.

The Saints now trail the Los Angeles Rams (10-1) in the NFC standings. And after their trip to Tampa, they’ll finish the regular season with three games against playoff contenders (at Carolina on Monday Night Football, versus Pittsburgh on a short week, then home against Carolina again).

“We would love to be perfect. But that wasn’t the plan. And that’s OK,” veteran offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod said. “Our goals are still in front of us. We’ve got four more weeks to do what we need to do. [But] it’s not gonna be easy.

“Nobody’s gonna sit back and wait for us to punch ’em in the mouth. They’re gonna punch us, and we gotta punch back. That’s just what it is. When you’re 10-1, they’re gonna play you like a playoff game. Their intensity’s gonna be high, and we need to match that. And we didn’t get it done. So we have to realize that going forward. Because it’s December. This is when the season gets made.”

Bushrod’s comments actually echoed those of Cowboys defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence from earlier in the week:

“They’re going to have to match our intensity,” Lawrence said, specifically referring to New Orleans’ offensive line. “S—, for 60 minutes straight. If you hit a m—–f—– in the mouth and then they ain’t doing what they’re regularly doing, putting up 50 points, they start to get a little distressed. Now you got them where you want them at, and then you f—ing choke their ass out.”

Lawrence said his comments made more waves than he expected. But what he said made sense: It was up to the Cowboys’ defense to stop letting things come so easy for a Saints offense that was practically on cruise control and see how New Orleans would react.

The answer? Not well.

The Saints’ receivers didn’t get much separation from Dallas’ physical defensive backs all night. Michael Thomas chalked a lot of that up to being held throughout the game (he drew at least two flags for it). But that physical play was a big reason why Brees started 0-for-4 for the first time in his career.

And really for the first time all season, the Saints’ lack of proven depth at receiver appeared to be a significant hurdle — though undrafted rookie Keith Kirkwood did catch a 30-yard touchdown pass on New Orleans’ one big play of the night.

Brees was sacked twice Thursday after being sacked just twice in the previous six games combined. And he was under duress during his interception, when he said he was just trying to throw the ball away but it sailed on him.

New Orleans’ run game didn’t fare any better against Dallas’ stellar young linebackers. Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for 63 yards on 18 carries (an average of 3.5 yards).

The Saints were 3 of 11 on third-down attempts, most of which were third-and-long situations.

“[The Cowboys] played a heck of a game, deserved to win the game,” Payton said. “It starts with us as coaches, the plan going in. There will be a lot we watch on tape, and regret certain plays. But before we get into any of that, you really gotta tip your hat to the way they played.”

Brees also said the Saints “left a lot out there.” But he said it wasn’t a matter of lacking any focus.

“We just came out and didn’t play with the tempo and rhythm, I think, that we’re used to,” Brees said. “When we get back, I know it’s gonna be time to get back to work. I know everybody’s gonna be ready to get back to work. We will have a couple extra days to get our bodies back, and we’ll be ready to go.”

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, for one, wished he didn’t have to wait those extra days.

“There’s already more juice in the locker room,” Jordan said. “I wish we could open up the facility right when we land, get this film over with and move on to this next week. I want to practice tomorrow.”

The Saints’ defense wasn’t perfect — they couldn’t get off the field while Dallas opened a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and possessed the ball for nearly 22 minutes in the first half. And cornerback Eli Apple was picked on several times. But the defense did more than enough to give New Orleans a chance to win.

The Saints sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott seven times — including Jordan’s sack and forced fumble in the final minutes that was wasted by Brees’ interception.

Jordan said he wishes the defense had done even more. And he sounded like a bully when he suggested he wants another shot at this Dallas team in the playoffs.

“Kudos to Dallas. I wish them the best. I hope that they do well,” Jordan said. “I wish them nothing but the greatest of success, and then they come into our house later down the road. I hope that somehow that path works out, if you really want to know the truth.

“I feel that in our house, in our way, we see them again, that’s something we can put our hats on.”

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