AFC South: Lance Moore
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:
Nickel and dime: The Saints fared great when they spread the field and emptied the backfield in their furious comeback against the Texans last week. It really took advantage of Houston’s lack of cornerback depth. Jacksonville will face the same test. Drew Colemanwas signed as a free agent to upgrade the nickel, and he’ll need to play well against a receiving corps that gets Marcus Colston back. Fourth corner William Middleton will be on the field more too, especially if starting corner Derek Cox (doubtful, groin) is out. And linebackers will be tested in coverage against a team with a lot of weapons that likes to throw to running back Darren Sproles.
Steelers blitzes: Pittsburgh’s been great on defense without blitzing. The Steelers are allowing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt when sending four or fewer rushers, third-best in the league. But last year and so far this year, Matt Schaubis connecting on 71.4 percent of his passes when he’s not blitzed, hitting for 8.2 yards per pass attempt. I’d expect Pittsburgh to bring more pressure to try to get Schaub out of rhythm. The Steelers have forced just one turnover this season.
First quarter points: Three teams in the NFL have yet to score a first-quarter point this season. In Tennessee-at-Cleveland, we’ll see two of them. If the Titans or Browns can find some early offensive rhythm, they’ll get a big advantage. The Titans need to show some early intent, I think. While showing a determination to get Chris Johnson running, they would also be well served to call some plays that include tight end Jared Cookin the early part of the progression. He’s got the potential to be a dynamic downfield matchup problem. With Kenny Britt out, it’s time to start seeing it.
Ah, the memories: The Saints’ last trip to Jacksonville, for the last game of the 2003 regular season, was a memorable one. They trailed 20-13 when they completed a 75-yard miracle touchdown with no time left. The play featured a pass from Aaron Brooks and three laterals before Jerome Pathon scored. But John Carney’s extra point went wide right, leaving the Saints with a 20-19 defeat and eliminating them from playoff contention. The Colts' last trip to Tampa Bay was Oct. 6, 2003. Indianapolis scored 21 points in the final 3:37 of the regulation to tie that game 35-35 before winning it on a Mike Vanderjagt field goal in OT.
- New Orleans dropped more passes than you’d expect from a defending Super Bowl champ, which made life easier on rookie corner Kareem Jackson in seven-on-seven work than it should have been.
- In a team period I saw Jackson break well on a ball aimed for Lance Moore and he made it difficult for the receiver to pull in the 12-yard pass which wound up on the turf.
- The other most notable pass play I saw exposed an area that I see as a great concern -- depth at free safety. Dominique Barber went for a sideline pick against tight end Tory Humphrey, whiffed and allowed the reception and significant yards after the catch.
- Trindon Holliday’s had some issues, but looked very comfortable to me fielding punts. His lateral movement and ability to skip and hop into space can be hard to believe. I hope he can earn the role so we can see some of this in a meaningful setting.
- Joel Dreessen made a great leaping catch of a John David Booty throw in a seam between four defenders, but it probably wasn’t as good as it looked since Chip Vaughn fell down.
I talked with Andre Johnson, Matt Schaub, Steve Slaton as well as Jacoby Jones for a project you’ll see down the road. They’ll practice again Wednesday afternoon. Stay tuned for more from Metairie.
All the talk about Peyton Manning's failures in the clutch, all the comparisons of the Indianapolis Colts to the Atlanta Braves.
Boy, the Colts sure are good in the regular season, but when it comes to collecting rings …
A team that made a season out of fourth-quarter comebacks couldn’t find one Sunday night, and when it came to explaining Tracy Porter's game-sealing 74-yard interception return with 3:12 left, the Colts didn’t have a lot to say.
"Porter made a great play on the ball," Manning said not long after New Orleans’ 31-17 Super Bowl XLIV was in the books and red and silver confetti littered the Sun Life Stadium floor. "He made a good break on it. And he just made a heck of a play.”
"He jumped the route," said Reggie Wayne, the intended receiver. “He did a good job jumping the route.”
The quarterback and receiver both treaded lightly, not wanting to cast blame about what went wrong on a play Manning said they’ve run quite a bit. The throw was a bit off, or the route was, or both. And while we want to dissect it precisely, they weren’t interested parties.
Brett Favre threw an interception that hurt the Vikings' shot in the NFC title game in New Orleans. Like Manning, he owns a 1-1 record in the Super Bowl. I expect, though, that while Favre keeps people’s attention cast as a rugged gunslinger, Manning will get a new round of holes punched in his résumé for being a cerebral signal-caller with just a .500 playoff record.
A win would have done a lot for those wanting to crown him the best of all time. A loss led to a classification in much more terrestrial terms.
“I don’t think it dents him,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “He’s one of the top three quarterbacks in the league right now. Would he like to have that throw back? Of course. But every quarterback would like to have his interceptions back.
“I don’t think it really does anything to his legacy. He’s still going to be a Hall of Fame quarterback. And if he wins another, he’ll probably be the best quarterback to ever play the game.”
Indianapolis’ Jim Caldwell, the rookie coach who guided an improbably successful season, shared the sentiment.
“I don’t think it will have any bearing on his legacy,” he said. “Obviously, he’s a great player. It never comes down to just one single play in a game. There are a lot of different things that could have happened in that game that could have put us in a different position. He’s still a great player, and outstanding performer, a great competitor. And that doesn’t diminish it at all.”
Even the most confident Saints had to think that Manning could tie the score quickly after Jeremy Shockey caught a 2-yard touchdown pass and Lance Moore added a two-point conversion to put the Saints up 24-17 with 5:42 on the clock: That’s a lot of time for that quarterback and that offense.
Manning and the Colts regularly march the field in less. Their 11-play, 96-yard drive in the first quarter matched the 1985 Bears for the longest touchdown drive in Super Bowl history, and that one took just 4:36.
The way they played in a 14-2 season made them believe they would simply do it again. The worst that could happen was overtime.
With no huddle and out of the shotgun, Manning moved them 39 yards before the fateful third-and-5, which followed a timeout.
Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said Porter trusted the play, knew the rush up the middle wouldn’t allow Manning the time to beat him deep, allowing him to make the read and jump the pass.
“I felt that was the route they were going to run,” Williams said. “Tracy knew that was the route they were going to run.”
And so with a chance to bolster his legacy, Manning and his Colts instead watched Drew Brees build his. Instead of joining Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger as multiple Super Bowl winners, Manning was joined by Brees in a club of quarterbacks with one.
Brees posted the second-best completion percentage in Super Bowl history as the Saints’ 10-point comeback matched the largest deficit overcome to win the ultimate game.
“Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are two of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League, and the people tonight got their money’s worth watching two great warrior quarterbacks play,” Williams said. “We were able to come up with a play, but he made plays also.
“We were able to hit him, we were able to hurry him, we were able to move him off his spot. He was still making plays. We made one play right there that was the difference in the ballgame. I’m sure he’d like to have that one back. But I’m happy we made it.”
|AP Photo/Dave Einsel|
|The final joint practice held by the Texans and Saints got chippy Friday with several fights breaking out, including one between Jeremy Shockey and DeMeco Ryans.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
HOUSTON -- Wherever I wasn't, there was a fight at Thursday morning's Texans-Saints practice. When I was watching the Texans' offense, the fights were on defense. When I changed up, so did they.
John McClain says the fight total was six and that the highlights were a Jeremy Shockey versus DeMeco Ryans bout and a Vonta Leach-Rod Coleman battle. Another observer told me that Shockey threw at least one punch and that another of the fights was Ryan Moats against Saints fullback Troy Evans. (Here's McClain's story.)
The crowd erupted in response to each fight, and the teams swarmed to defend their guys, with order restored relatively quickly.
Leach said afterward that "we are not going to get pushed around, we are not going to get bullied" and Gary Kubiak said he liked the way guys stood up for teammates, but he likes composure even more.
It made for a more entertaining show for a large crowd that included the football teams from both Houston and Rice.
On to some notes about the football I saw:
- Tried to get a read on the rookie defensive backs, but one-on-ones were kind of sloppy and Drew Brees, who rejoined the team after attending to family matters in the wake of his mother's death, seemed rusty, at least early.
Glover Quin lost Lance Moore as the receiver cut hard across the middle on one play. In red zone work he covered Marques Colston well but the throw wasn't anything Colston had a chance to go get. Quin had a very nice pass breakup in the back left corner of the end zone on a throw from Mark Brunell aimed for Rod Harper. Quin also got a nice jam on Devery Henderson and stayed tight on him, but Henderson maintained focus and managed to make the catch despite the coverage. That was all in one-on-ones. Later, in a team period, Brees fit a nice mid-range pass between Quin and Dominique Barber to Colston.
- Brice McCain either didn't work a lot in the one-on-one period or I had a hard time finding him in the crowd. I saw one play where he didn't stay particularly close to his receiver. Deltha O'Neal, the veteran who was brought in when injuries mounted, didn't look great to me.
- Special-teams periods in the heat can be excruciating, but I noticed one play of note: New Orleans' Adrian Arrington was lined up as a gunner and Quin and Eugene Wilson absolutely handled him, getting their hands on him repeatedly as they prevented him from having any chance to influence the return.
- Dan Orlovsky had some uncomfortable moments. I don't think he's Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford, but he might have a degree of clumsiness to him. He fell down back out from under center on one play. On another, backpedalling furiously with two defenders bearing down, he threw an ill-advised dump off over the middle that hit an O-lineman and had no chance at success.
- Steve Slaton had some very nice moments. The best one I saw was he pulled in a short pass, and spun off the first defender to gain some extra yards. Will Smith likely would have had a sack on the play, however. Chris Brown looks very good and can be just the sort of complement to Slaton that the team is looking for. Insert your obligatory line about his issues staying healthy here.
- Matt Schaub was crisp but had a few bad moments. He threw a bad pick in the red zone intended for David Anderson on the left side that Tracy Porter jumped and would have taken back for a touchdown in a game setting. And for the second day in a row a pump or a pull down turned into a lost ball for an incompletion. There are far worse ways to end a play, but is he having some sort of grip issue?
- Kubiak said linebacker Cato June suffered a broken forearm.
- The practice started at 8:30 and was short, breaking up at 9:53 by my cell phone clock.
|Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky
The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.
After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.
The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?
In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.
|Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.|
THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR
Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.
Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.
Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.
Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.|
Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.
Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.
THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS
Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.
Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.
|Matt Stamey/US Presswire|
|The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.|
Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton
is widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.
Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.
Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.
Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.
Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.
Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.