|National Football League|
Saints' defense struggling after first 2 weeks
By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) As long as Drew Brees stays healthy, the New Orleans Saints' offense is going to be just fine.
The defense? Now that's a concern.
The Saints got pushed around for the second straight week, allowing 463 total yards in a 35-27 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. New Orleans fell to 0-2 for the first time since 2007 and finds itself alone in the NFC South cellar.
"We're just not playing as good as we want to yet," Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "We had high expectations and we've worked hard and prepared hard. We've got to jell and continue to do the things we need to do to get better. We just have to continue to chip away at this thing."
The Saints will welcome an opportunity to face a team that doesn't run the zone-read option quite as much next Sunday. They face another 0-2 team when they meet Matt Cassel and the Kansas City Chiefs.
"If you look at our defense, and you look at the two offenses we've played, we've played the most unconventional offenses in the National Football League," interim coach Aaron Kromer said. "So do we have to do better against those styles of offenses? Yeah, we do. One thing we need to get settled in on is on that style. But we've played two good offenses, and we just need to keep working at it and plugging away."
Quarterback Drew Brees, who had 325 yards passing and two interceptions, is confident the Saints can turn things around.
"Unfortunately, we've done some things in these past two games that have set us back," Brees said. "The important thing is recognizing what those things are. I feel like we have that. Now it's just a matter of getting the extra break, having things go your way, and getting on a win streak. We've done a great job of doing that here in the past."
Running back Pierre Thomas doesn't blame the slow start on the bounty scandal the Saints endured this past offseason, which resulted in the suspension of coach Sean Payton for the entire season.
"What happened in the offseason, any issues we had, that has nothing to do with this 0-2 start," said Thomas, who had 110 yards on nine carries.
The Saints' defense had fits with Newton, who threw for 253 yards and ran for a career-high 71 yards.
"Times change," wide receiver Steve Smith said of Carolina's first win over New Orleans since 2009.
The Panthers tied a club record last week with 10 yards rushing in a loss to Tampa Bay. They had no such problems moving the ball against the Saints. They got the running game going in the second quarter and rolled up 219 yards on the ground and 463 overall.
Newton kept the Saints off balance all day, running eight times for 66 yards in the first half as coordinator Rob Chudzinski used a variety of plays that allowed Carolina to take a 21-13 halftime lead.
"You do read option, read option, read option and then get them to play seven or eight in the box and you've got so many variations of plays and passes you can run off that," Newton said.
Added Tolbert: "The zone read was one of the plays that we saw on film that they was kind of vulnerable to. It was working, so we stuck with it. They weren't fitting the gaps right on that play."
When the Saints began to figure things out, Newton would find open receivers who beat one-on-one matchups on the outside.
On one second-half play, there was not a defender within 20 yards of Smith when he hauled in a pass from Newton along the right sideline and raced 66 yards before being dragged down.
"I was shocked just as much as anybody," Newton said. "Of all of the people on this field to be wide open, you would think Smitty would be the last person. But that is what type of pressure the zone read gives us."
Brees came in having won five straight starts against Carolina.
The Panthers only sacked Brees once, but pressured him into getting rid of the ball early several times. Brees was twice flagged for intentional grounding.
Brees briefly appeared to be hurt in the third quarter when defensive end Greg Hardy collapsed the pocket on came crashing down on his leg from behind. Brees hobbled off the field but returned for the next series, never missing a play.
"It's fine," Brees said. "It just got rolled up on in an awkward position."
The last time the Saints started 0-2 was five years ago when they finished 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs.
"The challenge now is keeping from that mentality of why it's happening, or pointing fingers and saying `this guy isn't doing what he's supposed to,'" Saints tackle Zach Strief said. "That's dangerous. That's poisonous to a locker room."
NOTES: The Panthers are 6-1 over the last two seasons in games in which Newton does not throw an interception. ... Smith was carted to the locker room at one point in the third quarter after reinjuring his knee, but returned to the game. He said afterward he's fine. ... Pierre Thomas had 110 yards rushing for the Saints, and Darren Sproles had 13 catches for 128 yards receiving. ... Charlotte Bobcats owner and former NBA great Michael Jordan took in the game from a luxury suite.
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Updated September 16, 2012