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Saints: 2014 a season of missed opportunity

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METAIRIE, La. — When the New Orleans Saints reflect back on their 7-9 season, they will shake their heads about a lost opportunity to win a division title. It was right there for the taking with two games to play.

Yet, it won’t be a big mystery trying to figuring out where it all went wrong, allowing the Carolina Panthers to claim the NFC South crown with a 7-8-1 mark.

The Saints know they did it to themselves with uneven play on offense at times and key breakdowns against the run and pass that led their defense to rank next-to-last in the league in total yards allowed.

But the one thing that will eat at coach Sean Payton for the entire offseason, one which he’ll be trying to fix until they play their next game that counts in September, is a minus-13 turnover differential that put his team 31st in the NFL.

While the Saints’ offense led the league in total yards for the fifth time in the nine seasons since Payton has been on the job, they had 30 giveaways on 17 interceptions and 13 fumbles. Only four teams had more than their total.

On the other side of the ball, the Saints ranked 31st in total yards allowed — finishing 29th against the run and 25th against the pass. While that wasn’t good, the Saints had just 17 takeaways with only four teams having fewer.

All told, the Saints were 2-5 when they were minus-2 or worse on the giveaway-takeaway chart.

“You really just keep yourself from having an opportunity to win a game,” Payton said going into their season finale with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “That’s something, obviously, I have to look closely at.

“In our games we’ve won this year, it’s been a positive,” he added. “But it’s something that has really hurt us, and it’s still the No. 1 statistic with regards to winning and losing.”

There was no word Monday from Saints coach Sean Payton on the fate of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but it appears that he might lose secondary coach Wesley McGriff.

Late Sunday night, after the Saints’ season-ending 23-20 win over the Tampa Bay Bucs, footballscoop.com reported that McGriff will become the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.

Payton acknowledged Monday that he heard the report, but was unaware that McGriff might be leaving. He said McGriff was still on his staff, but that they would talk.

McGriff, who has been with the Saints since 2013, was an assistant coach at Vanderbilt in 2011 and at Ole Miss in 2012 before switching to the pro ranks.

The Saints ranked fourth in the NFL against the pass in McGriff’s first season, but they finished 29th this season while the team slumped to 31st in total yards after allowing the fourth-fewest yards a year ago.

In his final news conference of the season, Payton declined to comment on potential personnel changes within his coaching staff or with his players after the team’s second 7-9 finish in three seasons.

Payton opened his news conference by declaring any personnel and staff questions off-limits because speculation at this time would be inappropriate just one day after the season ended.

“Anything we do from a personnel standpoint involving players, or from a coaching standpoint involving coaches, will be announced and talked about at the appropriate time,” Payton said. “Today will not be the day to do that.”

Payton reiterated that when he was asked later about Ryan, who came under fire this season when the Saints were 31st in total yards allowed after finishing fourth a year ago in his first season with the team.

“You just heard what I said in the beginning,” Payton said. “I didn’t mention anything about Rob Ryan or any specific coach. Now is not the time for us to discuss a player, a coach or his future.”

REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS

–PASSING OFFENSE: C — It would be hard to tell that the Saints defeated the Bucs just by looking at some of the passing numbers. Drew Brees completed 24 of 38 passes for 281 yards and a 36-yard touchdown to Marques Colston that proved to be the game-winning score. But the rest of the numbers were awful. Brees threw three interceptions on three possessions in a row (not counting a kneel-down to end the first half), was sacked twice and had a passer rating of just 61.4 — his lowest since 2012. Colston caught two passes for 51 yards, while tight end Jimmy Graham had 54 yards on six receptions. Kenny Stills had a 44-yard reception among his five catches for 82 yards.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: D — The Saints averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, marking the third week in a row that they failed to get more than 3.2 yards per attempt in gaining just 70 yards on 23 carries. Mark Ingram, who had a chance at a 1,000-yard rushing season, came up 36 yards short when he netted 57 yards and a 4.1 averaged on 14 carries with a 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter that cut a 20-7 halftime deficit to 20-14. Ingram had a long gain of 18 yards. Khiry Robinson added 15 yards and a 1-yard TD in the second quarter on seven attempts.

–PASS DEFENSE: B — Like Brees, Bucs quarterback Josh McCown had a rough day — especially in the second half after coach Lovie Smith decided to take a look at some young backups. After completing 12 of 20 attempts for 100 yards and a touchdown in the first half, McCown was just 2 of 3 for 9 yards in the second half to finish 14-for-23 for 115 yards and one score. He threw one interception and was sacked three times. Mike Evans had a 6-yard TD catch among his five receptions for 54 yards. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis had a fourth-quarter interception that set up Drew Brees and his offense for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Also, one of the Saints’ sacks by linebacker Junior Galette went for a safety when the Bucs were attempting to get in range for a game-winning field-goal try.

–RUSH DEFENSE: D-plus — Once again, the Saints couldn’t stop the run and the Bucs finished the game with 183 yards and a 4.7 average on 39 carries. Doug Martin picked up 108 yards on 19 attempts, setting up a touchdown with a 45-yard burst early in the second quarter. The Saints did a much better job on him in the second half, limiting him to 16 yards on seven attempts. Rookie Charles Sims added 69 yards on 18 carries with a long gain of 20 yards and also had an 8-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: C — Thomas Morstead averaged 52.0 gross yards and 40.7 net yards on three punts with a long of 57 yards, but that was about it for the Saints. They had one punt return for 3 yards and a kickoff return for 19 yards, while their coverage teams allowed the Bucs to average 11.3 yards on three punt returns and 28.3 yards on three kickoff returns with a long of 33.

–COACHING: A — An assist should go to Bucs coach Lovie Smith for resting some of his starters late in the game that helped them secure the No. 1 pick in the draft, but Sean Payton did a commendable job making sure his team didn’t get too down after being eliminated from postseason contention a week earlier. The Saints didn’t get off to the best start and trailed 20-7 at halftime and after three quarters, but Payton made sure they finished strong.


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