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NEW ORLEANS — It wasn’t supposed to look like this. Not again. Not with a young defense that had finally turned things around so impressively last season.

But somehow the New Orleans Saints kicked off the 2018 season with a defensive flop as dreadful as anything they posted in some of those historically bad seasons between 2012 and 2016.

They allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw for 417 yards and four touchdowns and run for a fifth Sunday in a 48-40 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs had more TD passes of 50-plus yards (two) than punts (one).

It was one of the biggest Week 1 surprises in the NFL — a stunning performance from a team that was anointed as one of this season’s popular Super Bowl picks.

And it’s yet another slow start for the Saints, who haven’t won a season opener since 2013.

“We needed this, we needed to get slapped in our face one good time to see that we’re not on the level we think we’re on. But we’re gonna get better,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore insisted.

The second-year cornerback — the NFL’s 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year — allowed Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans to have a big day (seven catches for 147 yards and a 50-yard TD) after Lattimore had stifled Evans in both meetings last season.

It was that kind of day for the Saints’ defense.
Cornerback Ken Crawley and the the rest of the Saints’ defense spent a frustrating day chasing DeSean Jackson and the surprising Buccaneers in Week 1. Derick E. Hingle/USA Today Sports
The unit also had a breakdown in zone coverage on Tampa’s fourth play of the game that allowed DeSean Jackson to spring wide open for a 58-yard touchdown catch. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s now two 50-yard plays against a Saints defense that gave up only one play of 50-plus all season in 2017.

Fellow defensive backs such as Ken Crawley, Marcus Williams, Patrick Robinson and Vonn Bell were also victimized in what is expected to be the most talented unit on New Orleans’ defense.

But it wasn’t just the back end that failed to do its job. Coach Sean Payton lamented that Fitzpatrick was “pressure-free” for the most part Sunday.

“Take your pick,” Payton said when he was asked what didn’t work on defense. “We didn’t hurry the passer. Guys were open. Third downs were awful. They had [529] yards. We didn’t disrupt the timing of any element of the passing game. And too many penalties.

“I can’t think of any positives.”

When a reporter started asking Payton a question by saying, “Obviously anything can happen in this league at any time …” Payton cut him off.

“That’s true. And you just saw it happen. So there’s no ‘buts’ after it. You have to come ready to play in this league, period,” Payton said — though he repeatedly credited Tampa Bay and Fitzpatrick, in particular, for doing just that Sunday.

The defensive struggles wasted a dynamic performance by the offense — Drew Brees threw for 439 yards and three TDs, Alvin Kamara scored three times and Michael Thomas caught a franchise-record 16 passes for 180 yards and a TD. The offense also made two costly errors, though, with lost fumbles by Thomas and Mike Gillislee.

No one specifically suggested the Saints came out flat or lackadaisical or overconfident for their season opener: “I don’t think anybody went out there with the mindset that [the Buccaneers] were just gonna roll over because we won the division last year,” Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. “They beat us at the end of the year last year, so I’m sure they had all the confidence in the world they could beat us. And they did.”

But the result was exactly the type of “hangover” performance the Saints tried to guard against all summer.

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Payton tackled those Super Bowl expectations head-on in the first team meeting of training camp, using the message “Prove Them Right” as a way to capture the same mentality of teams who are determined to prove critics wrong. The Saints had a poster with that message hanging outside their team facility throughout training camp.

And they talked all week about avoiding the slow starts that led them to records of 0-2, 0-3, 0-3 and 0-2 over the past four seasons.

But as Lattimore acknowledged, no amount of talk can do the job that they needed to actually do on the field Sunday.

“I mean, we like to do what we say, of course. But it’s not always gonna end up like that. It takes time to be a great team,” he said. “You know, there’s a lot of new guys on the team, and we’re still trying to jell together and get right.

“It’s the first game. Don’t panic. We went 0-2 last year and went on an eight-game winning streak. … We’re still together. We’re gonna get it right.”
The good news about that trend of slow starts is that the Saints have been here before. All too many times. Last season, their defense got torched for a total of 1,025 yards in the first two games of the season against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, respectively, before that epic turnaround that led to an 11-5 season and the NFC South title.

“It’s not a death sentence,” Rankins said. “You take it on the chin, you learn from it and you play better next week.”

“Hopefully the Super Bowl isn’t won Week 1,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “We’ve got a lot of things we have to address, and I’m my toughest critic. And I guess my dad would be my second-toughest critic — so I’m looking forward to that phone call.

“[But] we have a 24-hour rule. We have to wipe our mind clean of this catastrophe that just happened. You can’t be proud of 41 points on the board (by the Bucs offense). But we have to push forward.”

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METAIRIE, La. — New Orleans Saints fans — and Michael Thomas’ fantasy owners — can relax. The standout receiver was back on the practice field for the portion open to the media Thursday after being held out of drills Wednesday with a knee injury.

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead (shoulder) also participated Thursday after being held out Wednesday.

(UPDATE: Both Thomas and Armstead were listed as limited in full-team drills on the Saints’ official injury report Thursday evening.)

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Obviously, both are huge factors for the Saints. Thomas has become as much of a true No. 1 receiver as the Saints have ever had in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era (and draws that type of No. 1 attention from opposing defenses). And Armstead has played at a Pro Bowl level when healthy in his career, though he has been plagued by injuries over the past three seasons.

Thomas remains a must-start player for fantasy leagues, even though Sunday’s opponents, the Chicago Bears, have been playing great defense. Thomas still leads the Saints with 35 catches and 403 receiving yards despite all the attention he has been receiving from defenses — though his total of two touchdowns is surprisingly low for such a dangerous red zone target.

As for the rest of the Saints’ injury report, receiver Willie Snead (hamstring) practiced fully for the second straight day, but guard Larry Warford (abdomen) remained out and is not expected to play Sunday.

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Plenty of talented running backs have sported the fleur de lis of the New Orleans Saints. Chuck Muncie, George Rogers, Dalton Hilliard, Ricky Williams, Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles spent time in New Orleans. So did Jim Taylor and Earl Campbell, Hall of Famers who played out the string with the Saints. But New Orleans has never assembled a stable of backs like this one. “I’ve been a part of a lot of great rooms here in New Orleans but, just from top to bottom, this is probably the best group,” running back Mark Ingram said. Ingram is the incumbent, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner who overcame a slow start with the Saints to become a devastating all-around back, a man who will finish high on the team’s career rushing lists and is coming off his best season. Adrian Peterson is the legend, the 2012 NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer with the violent, powerful running style who believes he still has something left after nearly 2,500 carries in the NFL. And then there’s Alvin Kamara, the rookie who spent his first preseason displaying an eye-popping skill set and a silky smooth quickness that belies his surprising power. A team with those three backs seems set up to run, to pound the ball down the defense’s throat and throw only when absolutely necessary. But this is still the Saints offense, Drew Brees is still the quarterback and he still has a talented group of receivers at his disposal, led by Michael Thomas and Willie Snead. The 38-year-old is coming off his third straight season — and his fifth in the past six — of leading the NFL in passing yards. Brees has always been able to carve teams up through the air under coach Sean Payton, but the ground game hasn’t often been able to match that dominance. New Orleans is hoping it has built an offense that can beat teams both ways. “There are some weeks where, if a team’s stacking up and playing the run better, then we have to be smart enough to understand how to handle that team, versus a team where we might feel like it’d be more difficult throwing the football,” Payton said. “Week to week, we really try to study who we’re playing and what’s the best way to score.” New Orleans has only finished higher than 19th in the NFL in rushing attempts twice during the Brees era: The Saints were 12th during the magical 2006 season and ranked seventh in 2009, the year the franchise won its only Super Bowl. During that time, the Saints’ efficiency in the running game has fluctuated, finishing in the top six three times (in 2009, 2011 and 2014) and adding a few other top-15 finishes. This offense might be capable of giving the Saints the kind of balance and flexibility that has marked its best versions. “We’ve got the guys to do it,” Ingram said. “I ain’t going to take the ball out of (Brees’) hands too much, but we need to run that thing, for sure.” A better running game makes life easier on Brees, who faces far fewer third-and-longs, reaps the benefit of play action and largely gets to avoid the pass rush. “I’ve been feeling the energy,” Peterson said. “You look on social media, and you see how people feel about me getting out there and being the two-headed monster with Mark Ingram and being behind Drew Brees.” If this Saints’ backfield lives up to its billing, the possibilities seem endless.