Published November 20, 2014
The New Orleans Saints are a missed chip-shot field goal away from being 3-0 and having a two-game lead on NFC South rival Atlanta.
Instead, they are tied with the Falcons at 2-1 and facing more questions than whether they need a new kicker.
Garrett Hartley shanked a 29-yard field goal well left of the uprights in overtime on Sunday — his third miss in seven tries this season, but the defending Super Bowl champions have been shaky in other areas through three weeks.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday he had not decided if he would bring in anyone to compete with Hartley in practice.
"You've got to be careful to turn around the day after and make decisions that aren't well-thought out," Payton said. "There were more wide lefts than just the kicker."
However, Jack Mills, the agent for 46-year-old kicker John Carney, confirmed in an e-mail to The Associated Press that Carney has a workout with the Saints scheduled for Tuesday in New Orleans.
Atlanta rushed for 202 yards, converted 9-of-18 third downs and limited New Orleans 43 yards rushing, continuing three early season themes for the Saints.
New Orleans is last in the NFL in rushing, averaging 57.3 yards. The Saints are third-to-last in rushing defense, allowing 145 yards per game. Opponents have converted 47.5 percent of their third downs, the fourth-highest total in the league.
"It's an execution problem," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "I wouldn't say it's been mental breakdowns because that means you're not on the right guy or something else. We are calling the right plays. We're just not executing."
Atlanta scored a touchdown in the first half on a 19-play drive that featured two third-down and two fourth-down conversions.
"We know we're a good team," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "We just have to play like a good team. It's time to stop talking about it and start playing."
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez converted five third downs and one fourth down with his catches, another early season issue for the Saints. Gonzalez finished with a team-high 110 yards on eight receptions, following Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe (four catches, 76 yards) and San Francisco's Vernon Davis (four catches, 78 yards), who also had team highs for yards against New Orleans.
Gonzalez beat linebacker Scott Shanle, cornerback Tracy Porter and double coverage as the Saints threw a variety of looks at him. None worked.
"There's a reason Tony Gonzalez is going to be in the Hall of Fame some day," Shanle said. "He made some plays that only he can make, but at the same time, we have to do a better job."
While the Falcons churned out 25 first downs, the Saints went virtually nowhere on the ground. Pierre Thomas had nine carries for 30 yards before exiting with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. Rookie Chris Ivory, who missed the first two games with a knee injury, debuted with 13 yards on seven attempts and lost a fumble.
Reggie Bush is out three-to-five more weeks with a broken right leg from the Saints' win at San Francisco.
"We are going to need to be able to run the ball more efficiently to have the success we hope to have," Payton said. "We are going to need to defend the run more efficiently, too. Those are two important components to winning."
Despite those concerns, the Saints would be undefeated if Hartley had not blown the short field goal in OT. Entering the softest part of their schedule — Carolina, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Cleveland are up next — they could have been in position to repeat their 2009 run as wire-to-wire leaders in the NFC South.
"That's the most frustrating part," Shanle said. "We could have gotten some nice separation early in the season. There's not going to be any panic, but it's hard because this one got away from us."
For the second consecutive day Monday, Hartley answered every question about what went wrong and how secure he felt about his future.
"At this position, sometimes you're the hero and sometimes you're the goat," he said. "Last night I was wearing the horns. I'm still the starting kicker for this team and I'm going to prepare like that."
Notes: Payton said the Saints would not have an injury update until Wednesday. In addition to Thomas, Porter tweaked a hamstring in the first half but returned in overtime. Safety Roman Harper suffered a thigh bruise in the first half and did not return. ... Payton said he had not lost confidence in Ivory, adding Ivory would get seven to 10 carries a game while Bush was out.