Payton, Saints confident they can fix red-zone failures
METAIRIE - Saints tight end Ben Watson grinned when former teammate Jimmy Gaham's name came up, saying he wasn't at all "sick" of hearing how much New Orleans' offense might miss the 6-foot-7 receiving target inside an opponent's 20-yard line.
"However much time Jimmy was here, he was a prominent red-zone threat," Watson said. "We threw fades to him all day. So if he was still here, we probably would be doing those same things. But would we be winning more games? I don't know. We didn't win that many games last year."
In a season-opening 31-19 loss at Arizona on Sunday, the revamped Saints were competitive until late in the fourth quarter, when they had the ball and trailed by less than a touchdown.
New Orleans gained more 400 yards from scrimmage, including 355 yards passing by Drew Brees.
Between the way they moved the ball in general and how close they were in the late stages of the game, the Saints were left wondering what might have been had they scored more than just one touchdown on four drives inside the Cardinals 20.
Last season, Graham's 10 receiving TDs were a team-high. Nine of those catches came on red-zone plays (from inside the 20) and the other was from 22-yards out. New Orleans converted 60 percent of red zone opportunities into touchdowns last season, which ranked sixth in the NFL, but missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
So they traded Graham for new center Max Unger and first-round draft choice used to select linebacker Stephone Anthony, who started in Week 1.
"When you lose someone like him, it's not one player that replaces the touches," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Graham. "Usually it's a handful of players."
And much of the Saints' receiving corps is now relatively inexperienced. Of the five wide receivers suiting up for New Orleans in Week 1, only Marques Colston had more than one season of experience. At tight end, Watson is a 12-year veteran, but Josh Hill, who was not targeted in Arizona, is in his third season.
"There's no magic wand. You've got to work on it," said Payton, whose Saints host Tampa Bay in Week 2. "When you play young players like we are, they're going to get acclimated to those areas of the field."
Payton said he was concerned about how much the Saints struggled to gain substantial yardage on first and second downs in general, resulting in 18 third-down plays. Third-and-long conversions, which are tough to convert anywhere on the field, are even harder in the red zone, where defenses have less ground to cover, Payton said.
A better running game could have helped.
"Our yards per carry in the run game wasn't what we had hoped for," Payton said. "We understood we were playing kind of a run-heavy front, but that's something that has to be better."
Right tackle Zach Strief agreed.
"If we ran the ball effectively in the red zone, it would certainly help," Strief said. "We'll find our identity down there. I've got a lot of faith in Drew and Sean figuring out what's going to work best for us."
Strief also suggested that the sample size, as it relates to red-zone efficiency, remains relatively small, given that New Orleans has some new or young players on offense - not to mention the Saints were on the road against an Arizona defense that ranked third in the NFL in stopping red-zone chances short of the end zone in 2014.
"When you're playing a good team - a good defense - on the road, in the red zone, you've got to execute. You've got to be on top of it. You've got to have a great attention to detail down there - and we just didn't," Strief said. "That's something I'm sure we'll talk about. ... But I think that stuff will come. It's unfortunate that it didn't come in the first week."