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Jekyll & Hyde Saints embark on key four-game stretch

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NEW ORLEANS — Thanks to a Thursday night game against the Atlanta Falcons last week, the New Orleans Saints had some extra time to take a breath to try to figure out the identity of their team.

Are they as good as the team that beat the Dallas Cowboys (26-20) and Falcons (31-21) in two of their last three outings, or are they as bad as they looked in a 39-17 blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles between the two much-needed victories?

They’ll have a much better idea in the next four-week stretch leading into their bye week. Starting with Sunday’s matchup against the Indianapolis Colts (3-3), the Saints (2-4) play four games that appear to be winnable — if they play the way they did in turning back the Cowboys and Falcons.

But there’s a big if there, and no one has to tell them it won’t be easy even if they took a huge step in their confidence-building 31-21 win over the previously-undefeated Falcons.

“One of the challenges as a coach in tough losses is there are some positive things you have to look at closely,” coach Sean Payton noted. “And sometimes, in a big win, you have to pay close attention to the mistakes made.

“There were a lot of positive things in the game, and there were a handful of things that we have to be better at.”

There’s no question about that with running the ball and stopping the run easily topping their to-do list going into the final 10 games of the season. They rank 31st in rushing at 84.7 yards per game and are 30th defensively in allowing 138.2 rushing yards per game.

Even though they wound up beating the Falcons handily, the Saints rushed for only 81 yards on 32 carries against the league’s top-ranked run defense. On the other side, the Falcons averaged 7.1 yards per carry in racking up 150 yards on 21 attempts.

“Our run defense and our run offense, we have to improve on,” Payton said.

Thanks to a game-opening touchdown drive and a blocked punt that resulted in another first-quarter touchdown, the Saints were able to survive. But they know that they’ll be going nowhere if it doesn’t get better.

But that’s not all, not by a long shot. The Saints are averaging just 22.3 points per game, about six points less per game than they usually average since Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006.

“I still think we can do some things better,” Brees said. “I think we can be a bit more efficient in the passing game. I think that we can rush the ball better.

“I think that we can continue to be better on first and second down, so that we aren’t in so many third-down situations. There are areas where I know that we can become better, and I know that we can become more efficient.”

“At 2-4, no one is happy with where you sit right now,” Payton said. “There is only one way to approach that. That, each week, is to look closely at the next game, but pay attention to the things you have to improve on. (We’ll) keep working at it.”

SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Saints lead series, 6-5. In the last two matchups in the regular season, the home team has prevailed by a wide margin. The Colts claimed the 2007 season opener, 41-10, in the old RCA Dome and the Saints returned the favor with a 62-7 blowout in 2011 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints were 2-1 in their last two visits to Indianapolis, winning both games in the RCA Dome. The Saints, of course, won their only postseason meeting with a 31-17 defeat of the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7, 2010.

GAME PLAN: The Saints have played pretty well on offense in two of their last three games; now they have to see if they can be more consistent as they attempt to get their season on track. They rank second in passing with 302.3 yards per game and could have an eye on doing some business against a Colts defense that ranks 28th with 289.2 passing yards allowed.

The question is, can the Saints get their 31st-ranked running game going to at least provide some help for their passing game? They ran up against stout run defenses the last two weeks in games with Philadelphia and Atlanta, so maybe the Colts’ 20th-ranked run defense will be more to their liking.

Defensively, the Saints rank dead last in allowing 409.7 total yards per game. But they have shown signs of improvement at times, especially in the second half of wins over Dallas and Atlanta. The victory over the Falcons last Thursday night was most encouraging with the Saints recording a season-high five sacks, while collecting three takeaways. Some better coverage in the back end has been a key in helping the front seven generate more pressure up front.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

–Saints secondary vs. Colts QB Andrew Luck. The Saints got to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan five times last week and had eight more hits on him. A lot of that had to do with the coverage the secondary had on wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, holding them to a combined nine catches for 116 yards — which allowed the front seven the time to get to Ryan.

–Saints offensive line vs. Colts front seven. After giving up 14 sacks in their first five games, the Saints’ injury-riddled front allowed just two in the last outing against the Falcons in doing a commendable job. Giving Drew Brees enough time to set and throw, which is huge considering they haven’t been able to run the ball effectively, is vitally important to make the passing game as productive as it has been recently.


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