NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints entered their season opener against Tampa Bay on Sunday looking to accomplish a few things.
They wanted to find a running back that could adequately complement Alvin Kamara while Mark Ingram II serves a four-game suspension.
They wanted to see a defense that’s improved enough to be top 10-caliber as the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle.
And they wanted to end a string of four consecutive losses in season openers.
They failed in all three areas and the result was a 48-40 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“We have been here before,” Saints defensive tackle Shledon Rankins said. “Nothing brings guys together like adversity. It is not new territory. It’s not something that we want to deal with this early in the season, but the great thing about this game is that you get another week to go out and try to prove yourself again.”
After a week of roster maneuvering the Saints wound up with former Patriot Mike Gillislee and Jonathan Williams as backups to Kamara. Gillislee lost a fumble that the Buccaneers returned for a touchdown and a 14-point lead in the second quarter.
“I think that was (a turning point),” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.
The Saints finished with just 13 rushing attempts (for 43 yards), due in part to playing from behind for most of the game and desperately so for much of the second half.
The defense couldn’t slow down backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, starting in place of suspended Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick had 417 passing yards and Mike Evans (147) and DeSean Jackson (146) both had 100-yard days, Jackson scoring twice and Evans once.
“Tampa Bay came ready and they put it to us,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They put it to us good.”
In the previous four seasons, New Orleans has gone on to lose its second game each season and third game twice (in 2015 and 2016).
The Saints did some good things statistically as Drew Brees passed for 439 yards (completing 37-of-45) and three touchdowns and Michael Thomas set a franchise record with 16 receptions as he gained 180 yards and scored a touchdown.
But he also lost a fumble as New Orleans finished minus-2 in turnovers.
“We gave them a touchdown with (Gillislee’s) turnover,” Brees said, “and we turned the ball over another time when we were in a position to get points, a minimum of three points, potentially more.
“That is a 10-point swing, so despite all the other stuff, a 10-point swing in this game is a huge deal. That wins the game for us.”
Brees drove New Orleans to two fourth-quarter runs by Kamara, both of which were followed by two-point conversions that cut a 24-point deficit to eight points with more than three minutes to play. But the Saints used their final timeout to select the second two-point conversion play and when Fitzpatrick scrambled for 12 yards on third and 11 with two minutes left, the Bucs had clinched the victory.
“(A big deficit) really doesn’t change our mentality at all,” Brees said. “We still go out there with the same intent, that is, great execution, great poise, tempo, mixing the run and the pass. We expect to score on every drive.
“Regardless of what is happening on the other side of the ball, we are always focused on scoring points and if we don’t, then let’s put our defense in the best position with punting them down deep into their territory and making that a challenging thing.”
Now that New Orleans failed to stop its losing streak in openers, it will next try to end its streak of seasons that have begun with consecutive losses.
That opportunity comes next Sunday when the Saints host the Cleveland Browns, who tied the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, ended a streak of 17 consecutive losses.
“We don’t want to start out like this,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. “We know we have the firepower on offense and defense to turn it around. We have to get it together. We can’t lose if our offense is going to score 40 points.”