Saints’ opening possessions have been puzzling

New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (9) looks to pass as Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn (41) reaches in in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees (9) looks to pass as Carolina Panthers' Captain Munnerlyn (41) reaches in in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

Points are down for the playoff-minded New Orleans Saints, and questions are up.

What’s wrong with that virtual scoring machine, orchestrated by quarterback Drew Brees and choreographed by play-caller Sean Payton? Why has this prolific unit averaged 15 fewer points per game on the road than at home? Why do the Saints rack up yards between the 20-yard lines and dominate time of possession but struggle to put points on the board?

Through 15 games, the Saints rank 13th in the NFL at 24.8 points per game, better than half the teams league-wide. But the scoring output pales in comparison to past seasons under Payton and Brees.

Consider:

In 2011, the Saints averaged 34.2 points, second only to the Green Bay Packers at 35.0.

In the Super Bowl season of 2009, the Saints led the league in scoring at 31.9 ppg. A year earlier, they led the NFL at 28.9. Even during the bountygate season of 2012 without Payton in the mix, the offense finished third in the NFL at 28.8.

One possible explanation for the point disparity is the Saints’ inability to score on their first possession of each half since starting the season 5-0.

Of the 30 first-time possessions in each half through the first 15 games, the Saints have scored just eight times (three touchdowns, five field goals), and all of those scores came in the first six games. They have failed to score on the first possession of either half in the past nine games — a run of 18 drives and counting going into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Tampa Bay at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The first-possession drought is puzzling for players and coaches alike because Payton and his staff script the first 15 plays of each game and make adjustments at halftime and throughout the game.

“We certainly preach (fast starts),” Brees said. “We have our first 15 plays going into games like most teams do, so that way you’re well-versed. We always talk about a fast start. Anytime you can go down and get points right away, or at least feel like finding your rhythm, those are good things.”

Veteran right tackle Zach Strief had no logical explanation.

“It’s hard to say why that is,” he said. “Someone smarter than me in this building might know the answer to that, but I don’t know why it’s been a struggle.”

By comparison, in 2009 when they won Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints scored on 16 of 30 first possessions in each half under Brees (12 touchdowns and four field goals). He did not play in the regular-season finale.

“You can’t compare the two teams,” receiver Robert Meachem said. “In ’09, it was our destiny. We also had a lot of turnovers in ’09 and scored a ton of touchdowns off those turnovers, too. So you can’t compare the two offenses because of the turnover ratio.”

In ’09, the Saints had 39 takeaways and scored seven touchdowns on interceptions and fumble returns, with another eight takeaways and a touchdown coming in the postseason. Through 15 games, the Saints have 18 takeaways (only three in the past seven games) and no touchdowns.

“Scoring early is important because it takes a lot of pressure off our defense,” Meachem said. “Our defense has been playing well this season. Everybody has been getting mad at our defense at the end of the games. But we need to score (more) points. In ’09, we had times where we had to come back and win games, but there were also a lot of games where we (produced) big leads on offense.”

Meachem even acknowledged that Payton might be frustrated as a play-caller trying to jump-start the offense.

“I think he may be struggling and he just doesn’t realize it,” Meachem said. “Sean is a great play-caller. But even Sean as a coach has to re-establish himself in the league after being away from the game for a year. That said, it’s our job to make him right, and we haven’t been doing that.”

Right guard Jahri Evans said the offense can always benefit from productive kick and punt returns and takeaways on the opponent’s side of the 50. That, in turn, can create more favorable field position.

“We have started a few games slow,” he said. “But each game takes on a life of its own. Sometimes you don’t get what you expect from the defense early on, and you make adjustments. But it’s always our goal to go out there and get an early lead.”

Strief agreed.

“It would be ignoring the fact that we haven’t scored as much as we have in the past,” he said, “and something has got to be fixed.”