METAIRIE, La. – Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said he had not slept at all after getting back to New Orleans early Monday morning. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said he got only a few hours of rest.
They know they have loads of hard work ahead of them after the Saints' most lopsided loss in four years, 34-14 to Denver on Sunday night.
A year after tying a franchise record with 13 wins in the regular season, New Orleans fell to 2-5 in Vitt's return from his six-game, bounty-related suspension.
"Understand this, it hurts," Vitt said. "But you have to swallow it. It's got to go down."
The one-dimensional Saints learned exactly how bad they were after the Broncos stifled Drew Brees and the passing game. Last in the NFL in rushing, New Orleans is the first team to give up 400 or more yards in seven consecutive games since 1950.
The Saints had nothing to fall back on when Brees struggled, going 22 of 42 for 213 yards. He connected on fewer than half of his passes until three straight completions on a meaningless late touchdown drive.
"This is a team effort," Vitt said. "When the passing game doesn't flourish the way we expect it to around here, we still are going to be held accountable to win games and compete."
They did not even come close in Denver.
Taking advantage of what Vitt said were poor tackling techniques and bad angles, the Broncos ran for 225 yards while Peyton Manning threw for 305. Coming off a bye, Denver surprised the Saints by using two tight ends and two wide receivers on most downs instead of the three-wide receiver look they expected.
Spagnuolo, in his first year with New Orleans, blamed himself for not making a quicker adjustment.
"This is uncharted territory," he said. "I'm not used to this. I've been blessed to be in places where we played pretty good defense. We're not doing that right now, and yet I really can't put my finger on it."
Offensive tackle Zach Strief said he would need more than one finger to identify the reasons for the Saints' rushing problems. New Orleans ran for 51 yards on 17 carries, lowering its NFL-worst average to 72.6 yards. The longest run was an 8-yard gain by Pierre Thomas.
"It's not one thing, it's a lot of things," Strief said. "On plays where the offensive line is blocking well, we might miss a block on the edge or we might miss a hole. On the plays where the edge is blocking well and the running back is hitting the right hole, we're missing a block. There's just a lack of consistency."
The Saints did not even try to run on third down. Brees went 2 of 11 with a sack on third-down passes and converted only one first down, throwing incomplete on third-and-1, third-and-2 and third-and-3.
That inability to move the chains left the Saints vulnerable defense on the field. Jonathan Vilma, in his second game back while appealing his season-long suspension in the Saints bounty scandal, showed his rustiness. He started at an unfamiliar position alongside middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, his replacement.
The Saints' modest two-game winning streak after an 0-4 start ended in emphatic fashion.
"There's a lot of football left," Lofton said. "We've won two games. We just have to get back on that winning streak again. This is tough. None of us have been in this situation. We are just going to keep fighting and keep grinding."
As poorly as they played in Denver, the Saints have not given up on contending for a playoff spot.
"The perception is the more you get beat, the worse you feel about it," Strief said. "We didn't play well on either side of the ball, and it's embarrassing to have a game like that, but having a chance to win a game and having it slip through your fingers is harder to deal with mentally."
Vitt blamed himself for several decisions he made in his first game back from his suspension. He regretted wasting a timeout before a failed fourth-and-2 pass in the first half because the Saints already knew what play they were going to call. He regretted not calling a timeout as Manning ran the clock down for a last-second field goal at the end of the first half. He regretted punting instead of going for it on fourth-and-1 with a 31-7 deficit in the fourth quarter.
"This sport, this industry that we're in, is not like riding a bike," he said. "Listen, I had to learn how to put my headset on last night, how to turn it on and communicate with both sides of the ball and get my feet grounded. So I've got to get better as a coach to give our football team a better chance to win."
NOTES: Vitt said the players would be off until Thursday before having their first practice in preparation for next Monday night's home game with Philadelphia. . Vitt said cornerback Patrick Robinson would start against the Eagles, adding Robinson did not play much in the second half because he got tired.
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