MIAMI Just five weeks into the NFL season the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints are not just looking vulnerable, they are downright struggling.
A defeat on Sunday to an Arizona team featuring an undrafted rookie at quarterback, and coming into the game on the back of a 41-10 hammering from San Diego, left the Saints in third place in the NFC South.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who threw three interceptions in an error-strewn Saints display, did not mince his words after the game.
"It was terrible, terrible," he told reporters in the locker room.
The Atlanta Falcons (4-1) lead the division having beaten the Saints in week three and now Sean Payton's team heads to Tampa on Sunday to face a 3-1 Buccaneers team on a high after their impressive win over the host Cincinnati Bengals.
A loss on Sunday would leave the Saints at 3-3 and trailing the Bucs at 4-1 - not an insurmountable situation but nonetheless one which few would have predicted and one that reflects the way in which the Saints, toast of the country in February, have lost their swagger.
But Payton, lauded for his motivational skills and his play-calling last season, is not about to press the panic button.
"This is a veteran team. If you put the tape on, our players in the locker room clearly understand the things that kept us from winning," he told reporters on Monday.
"It's not time for any chair throwing. I think more importantly than anything else, it's teaching, all the things that we feel when we win we do very well -- our workweek, our preparation, the fundamental values that we've held onto that have made us successful these past few years," he said.
NFL coaches hate to blame injuries for their disappointing performances or poor results - rightly or wrongly they believe that to acknowledge the importance of absentees undermines those who are substituting them.
But as much as Payton may want to protect his stand-in players there is no doubt that the Saints have missed injured running back Reggie Bush.
"You always want your starters, but I've mentioned before that we've played long periods of time without him. I don't think the turnovers are a result of him not being involved; I don't think the penalties are a result of him not being active. Those are the specific things that beat us on Sunday," said Payton.
The other starting running back, Pierre Thomas, was absent on Sunday, third back Lynell Hamilton was ruled out before the season began along with P.J. Hill, meaning that 31-year-old free agent Ladell Betts, who the Saints initially cut in August, and rookie Chris Ivory, did the running duties on Sunday.
The defense has been weakened by the absence of defensive end Darren Sharper and starting cornerback Tracy Porter but perhaps the biggest worry is the loss of Brees's impressive consistency from last season.
The man who threw just 11 interceptions all last year has tossed five already this season and while he is still averaging 282 yards per game, the numbers do not show the loss of that cool and confident manner that was so impressive a year ago.
"There's an expectation level that we get accustomed to when we perform at a high level. That's the bar and the bar he sets for himself and it's the bar that I would say that I set for myself as we go into a game, to be efficient, to play well, to score in the red zone," said Payton.
"So when you don't meet those expectations, certainly there's disappointment. There are things that I look at and want to improve on myself. I'm sure he feels the same way. But more importantly than anything else, the one thing about him is that clearly despite any type of numbers, he's interested in doing one thing and that's winning.
"He wants everyone on the offense to play their best and operate most efficiently and he can recognize, as we all can, that we're not doing that right now and we have to improve," added the Saints coach.
That improvement has to start at Tampa on Sunday - or that Saints swagger could start to become a stagger.
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Steve Ginsburg)