METAIRIE, La. -- What exactly has been holding the New Orleans Saints back the past few weeks?
Holding, for starters. And a lot of other penalties, too.
The Saints (9-2) have been the NFL’s most penalized team the past three weeks. That was a big reason for their stunning Week 10 loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons and a big reason that they almost blew a 14-point lead against the Carolina Panthers in a 34-31 victory on Sunday.
Including penalties that were declined or offsetting, the Saints were flagged a whopping 17 times against Carolina. With 107 penalties in 11 games, they are on pace to draw their most flags in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.
“It’s gonna cost us in a bigger game,” said Payton, who didn’t let himself or his team off the hook, despite his complaints about the NFL’s replay review system after the game.
“It’s concerning. It’s troubling,” Payton said. “There’s a handful of them I would disagree with, but that’s gonna be the case each week. And yet … we’ve gotta work on that, and that starts certainly with me and our staff. That’s something that we definitely need to improve on.”
Brees agreed, stressing, “If we want to be as good as we know we can be, we gotta clean that stuff up.”
It isn't easy to pinpoint one specific problem, as the Saints’ penalties have spanned the entire roster. But rookie center Erik McCoy volunteered himself as a leading culprit.
“Blame it on me,” said McCoy, who is aware that he leads the Saints with eight penalties this season (five holdings, two false starts and one tripping penalty).
“I’ve gotta be better,” said McCoy, who said it comes down to being mentally prepared for what he’s going to face on each play and “trusting your technique” instead of reacting.
He is hardly alone on the offensive line. With 26 holding penalties, the Saints are on pace to surpass the most in the Payton-Brees era: 32 set in 2012. Since Week 2, the Saints have drawn a total of 51 flags on offense, which ties them for second in the NFL behind only the Buffalo Bills.
“I don’t know exactly what those stats are or what those penalties are. But I certainly know the way it feels,” Brees said. “The way it feels at times is that there’s a lot of unforced errors. A lot of things where we’re just beating ourselves.
“Listen, from time to time, are you gonna get a holding call? Yeah. Or a penalty caused on something the defense did to force it. But, man, we have to understand that, 'No. 1, let’s eliminate the unforced errors. And then let’s also understand the situations where it’s just at a premium that you can’t have negative plays.'
“It just sets you back, it puts you in really tough positions, it stops drives, it prevents you from getting touchdowns. Instead, you’re kicking field goals. Those are difference-makers.”
Right tackle Ryan Ramczyk called them “drive killers.”
The defense is hardly innocent, though. In fact, defensive end Cameron Jordan’s personal foul Sunday, when he took a swing at Carolina quarterback Kyle Allen after the whistle, was almost the costliest penalty of the season. Instead of punting, the Panthers finished the first half with a touchdown drive that got them back in the game.
“I feel like I heard the whistle late after I was trying to go for the ball,” Jordan said. “But you can never hurt your team, so that’s on me.”
Saints cornerback Eli Apple, who has drawn seven flags this season (three declined), mentioned a lot of the same issues as McCoy: “Fundamentals, not panicking, trusting your technique."
Apple said cutting down penalties is “definitely” something on which teams pride themselves.
“The best teams are the ones that don’t beat themselves,” Apple said.