It was clear after their loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night that the New Orleans Saints' struggles on the road are back to plague them for another season.
Heading into their game in Arlington, the Saints’ record on the road was 1-7 while their home record was 8-0 over the past 16 games.
The last time New Orleans won in an away game during the regular season was in Week 12 of the 2013 season, when they edged the Atlanta Falcons 17-13.
Sunday night’s loss, in which the Saints were held scoreless until the third quarter, was their sixth straight road loss.
What’s the reason behind this tale of two teams? Is it an issue with mental toughness? An inability to deal with crowd noise on offense? Or something else altogether?
The Saints clearly couldn’t identify it this offseason, as the problem that they made light of heading into the playoffs in 2013—when, as ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett pointed out, they changed Gatorade flavors, in-flight meals and travel sweatsuits—has become harder to joke about after six straight road losses.
Making more serious adjustments this offseason, such as head coach Sean Payton pumping in crowd noise during OTAs for the first time and attempting to improve communication, as reported by Triplett, have also failed to correct the issue.
The emerging pattern is made even more perplexing by the fact that until recently, Payton’s Saints have done very well on the road, with a record of 33-26, including Sunday night’s loss. And last season, when they traveled to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, it was the first road playoff win in franchise history, per John DeShazier of NewOrleansSaints.com.
Whatever the myriad reasons behind it, a drop-off in play on both sides of the ball has been an eye-popping factor in the road losses as compared to the wins at home.
Just take a look at the home versus away from Week 13 of the 2013 season on.
A couple of patterns become clear when looking at the breakdown of New Orleans’ performance at home and away during this timeframe. The first is that the run game tends to stay somewhat consistent regardless of the venue.
While there have been outliers on both sides of the equation (for example, the Saints gained 242 yards on the ground last time they played the Cowboys, at home, in Week 10 of the 2013 season, and had 174 yards rushing in the loss to the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago), generally the location of the game hasn’t had as much of an effect on New Orleans’ rushing attack.
Where the difference really becomes significant, however, is in ball protection. The Saints have lost more than twice as many turnovers on the road as compared to at home. Crowd noise could certainly be a factor there, and perhaps improving ball protection could help bring New Orleans back from the precipice this season.
It hasn’t been an area of the game they’ve perfected through the first quarter of the 2014 season. The Saints have had multiple turnovers in all of the away games they’ve lost this season—two each against the Atlanta Falcons and the Browns and three against the Cowboys.
Of those seven turnovers, three have been Drew Brees interceptions and four have been fumbles. The only game this season in which Brees has not thrown an interception was at home versus Minnesota last week.
In 2013, Brees had just three interceptions at home, but nine on the road.
The Saints have five road games remaining this season, against the Detroit Lions, the Carolina Panthers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chicago Bears and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Until Sunday, many of the Saints’ losses on the road had come down to the wire: Their last four away losses prior to the loss against Dallas were all within three points.
The double-digit deficit Sunday night is a new development.
Working on protecting the ball is one immediate fix the team can try to make to turn its road performance around, but if New Orleans can’t do that, they may miss the playoffs for the second time since they won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
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