COLUMNS

Plenty of blame to go around

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Weekly Citizen Sports Editor Kyle Riviere.

It doesn't matter if the Saints win the rest of their games. It doesn't matter if the embarrassing mediocrity of the NFC South allows them to back into the playoffs. This season has been an utter disaster.

Boy, have things changed in just a year's time. Last season, New Orleans went 11-5 and was competing with the Seahawks for the right to claim homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

After their postseason run ended in Seattle in the conference semifinals, the 2014 expectations already began to heighten.

We all thought the team would be even better this year. We thought we could get homefield advantage this time around and ride the raucous Superdome environment all the way to the Super Bowl.

As it turns out, we were all wrong. At no point this season have the Saints resembled a Super Bowl team. In fact, at certain times, they've looked more like a team competing for the top pick in this year's draft.

With such alarming disarray, there have been many overreactions throughout the year.

There have been grumblings that Drew Brees may be on the downturn of his Hall of Fame career. Some have even started to ask if Sean Payton should still be the head coach but most notably, many have wondered if this is the end for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

I think all three are knee-jerk reactions.

Payton is not the problem. The man brought the Saints out of the toilet and into serious Super Bowl contention.

He brought the city its first title and just last season, they went 11-5. He didn't inexplicably become a bad coach in a year's time.

I understand Brees is getting older, and I understand he might not be as good as he was back in 2009.

However, he's still one of the best quarterbacks in the game. The only guys you could legitimately put ahead of him are Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers.

I just think it's a case of him trying to do too much. Much of that is due to the inconsistency of the run game and the utter futility of the defense.

Yes, he has thrown 12 interception, but he has also thrown 31 touchdown passes.

It's easy to point the finger at Ryan because of the major defensive woes. After all, it is his unit, but their struggles shouldn't be placed squarely on his shoulders.

Like Payton, he didn't metamorphosize into a bad coach in a year's time. At this time last year, the Saints had the fourth-ranked defensive unit in the league.

They only gave up 20 or more points four times in 18 games. Through week 15 of this year, they gave up more than 20 in 11 games. They gave up at least 30 six times.

The Saints rank 29th against the run and also 26th against the pass. They rank 31st in total defense.

That disturbingly-rapid descent is not because of Ryan. It's because of the Saints' personnel.

During the offseason, New Orleans parted ways with one of their most consistent players in safety Malcolm Jenkins. It didn't seem like a big deal at first because they brought in Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd to replace him.

But Jenkins has been sorely missed. Byrd got off to a slow start and then sustained a season-ending knee injury after the fourth game of the season.

To make the situation worse, safety Rafael Bush went down with an injury, and second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro has experienced a little bit of a sophomore slump.

But the biggest hurdle for New Orleans has been at cornerback. Keenan Lewis has proven to be one of the best cover-corners in the league. But when it comes to that position, it's Lewis or bust.

Last season, Jabari Greer was a solid No. 2 corner for the Saints. That combo helped their secondary rank as one of the best in the league.

Unfortunately, Greer suffered what turned out to be a career-ending knee injury at the end of last season. New Orleans never tried to replace him.

Instead, they have depended on Corey White and Patrick Robinson to be their No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks. That has been a recipe for disaster.

With the liabilities in the secondary, it has hampered what the Saints can do defensively.

They can't blitz from all directions like Ryan wants because their corners aren't good enough to cover wideouts man to man. But if they play coverage, it leaves them very susceptible to the run.

When it comes to the offense, the offensive line has been inconsistent in their run blocking all season, and they've even struggled at times to protect Brees.

Explosive rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Pierre Thomas have been injured for much of the year, and the Saints have not been able to replace Darren Sproles.

Sproles was so versatile and was such a huge boost to the passing game. He was lethal with screens, and he was a matchup nightmare for linebackers. They could always look to him on third and short situations and many times, he got them out of jams.

Whether it's Payton, Brees, Ryan or whichever other player you want to name, I think the Saints' problems are not so much about who is there, but it's more about who isn't.