GLENDALE, Ariz. — Disaster often lurks around the corner for this New Orleans Saints team, waiting for the right moment to strike and dash the team’s hopes.
On Thursday night, disaster came late in the second quarter when – in the space of less than two minutes – the Saints went from leading the Arizona Cardinals on a touchdown to trailing 14 points.
It was clear the moment the Saints had just snuffed out their chances of securing a much-needed win.
The Cardinals beat New Orleans 42-34, a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreline indicated. With the loss, the Saints fell to 2-5 this season and, as has often been the case in those five losses, they were their own worst enemy.
“We have all the potential to win,” defensive end Cam Jordan said. “We have to put this together. You can’t take two steps forward in one game and three steps back in the next.
With 2:32 remaining in the second quarter, shortly after converting a fourth-and-one, the Cardinals called their final timeout of the half. The Saints had a 14-6 lead. It was the freeze frame of the team before the wheels came off and everything headed for the edge of the cliff.
On the first play after the timeout, Arizona running back Keaontay Ingram entered the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown. Arizona then had two chances to tie the game on a 2-point conversion — a defensive penalty nullifying an incomplete pass on first down — and the second held off after a replay.
The two-minute warning hit and the Saints were at their 35, more than enough time for an attack that moved the ball well. Saints quarterback Andy Dalton backed off and found wide receiver Marquez Callaway in the middle of the field on an incline.
A pass on target from Dalton bounced off his hands and into the air. Cardinals defensive back Marco Wilson ripped it off and sent it back 38 yards for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals the lead.
An unfortunate setback, but a monster game. Callaway was open and lost focus at the worst possible time. There was still time for the Saints to be aggressive with the advancing offense. The Saints did not want to settle down with almost two minutes remaining.
“We still had time to go play,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said.
Dalton connected on passes from 8 and 14 yards, pushing the Saints close to midfield. He nearly hit another big play on the sideline, but Callaway tripped and lost the ball landing out of bounds on the sideline. On the third and 10, just as Dalton saw Chris Olave break free in midfield, the pressure came from his blind side.
His pass went far from its target, and above all, very short. Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons threw it one-handed, then beat the Saints offense on a 56-yard run to the end zone.
There were 46 seconds left in the first half and the Cardinals, who trailed by a touchdown less than two minutes previously, now beat the Saints 28-14.
The two pick sixes capped a three-steel first half for Dalton, but he was far from the only one whose hands were dirty by the end of the game.
Callaway’s fall led to a defensive touchdown, and receiver Tre’Quan Smith had his own fall in the end zone on third down.
Defensively, New Orleans handed the Cardinals three first downs by penalty — including one that nullified a third sack and set the stage for Ingram’s even touchdown in the second quarter.
Days after Saints coaches insisted on missed tackles, the Saints racked them up again against Arizona. The Cardinals finished with a solid 4.7 yards per carry against a once-proud rush defense.
“Our tackle was poor quality again,” Allen said.
As the Arizona defense forced game-changing turnovers, the Saints once again couldn’t find a way to get their hands on the ball. New Orleans, in seven games, has forced just six turnovers.
And there was so much room for optimism early in the game.
Undrafted rookie receiver Rashid Shaheed has added another chapter to his growing legend. A week after making his first NFL touchdown 44 yards into the end zone on a throw sweep, Shaheed put an exclamation point on the game’s first drive when he hauled in a 53 touchdown pass. Dalton yards.
The precision hit gave the Saints their first opening touchdown of the season, and it gave Shaheed two touchdowns on his first two offensive touches.
Dalton threw his first interception of the game in the ensuing practice, a forced cover pass in the end zone, but the Saints managed to bounce back from that disappointment.
On a short, third play, Dalton hit veteran Kevin White on a short crossover pattern, and White showed the speed that made him a top-10 pick once. White, who was lifted from the practice squad on Thursday, tiptoed down the touchline and sprinted 64 yards, eventually getting knocked down inside the 5.
Two plays later, Dalton sent a pass to Taysom Hill at the line of scrimmage and let Hill do the rest. He rumbled for a 3-yard score and a 14-6 lead.
Unfortunately for the Saints, they couldn’t sense the disaster that awaited them just around the corner.
“We need to address some of these issues,” Allen said. “It’s my responsibility to fix them.”