New Orleans Saints: brandin cooks
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints have proved they’re willing to trade just about everyone as they aggressively reshape their roster. But there’s a difference between “considering all options” and “actively trying to dump players.” Some players are still vital to the cause going forward.
This is the first in a five-part series attempting to rank the value of players who remain on the current roster.
I’m not going to guarantee anyone is safe -- especially since the Saints still have to shave at least a few million dollars more from their salary cap. In my eyes, there are only four players left from last year’s roster that would still rank as shockers if they get traded. (Then again, Jimmy Graham probably would have been in that category a week ago.)
SHOCKING IF THEY GET TRADED:
QB Drew Brees -- He won’t get traded for the same reason the Saints haven’t demanded he take a pay cut: It would be too hard to replace him. Yes, Brees had a disappointing season in 2014 compared to his usual standards, with too many turnovers. But even at age 36, he should still be a top-five to top-10 quarterback in the NFL for another year or two (or five). The Saints can't be eager to dive into the QB market right now when you look at what's available in free agency and the draft.
Brees' job won't get much easier without Graham and Kenny Stills to throw to. But the Saints appear to be shoring up their offensive line, run game and defense around Brees, all of which could help cut down on his need to force things.
OT Terron Armstead -- The Saints’ third-year left tackle isn’t elite yet, but he’s shown great athleticism and potential to become a Pro Bowler. And he, too, would be hard to replace.
WR Brandin Cooks -- Last year’s first-round draft pick has the potential to be a dynamic playmaker and the kind of matchup nightmare coach Sean Payton loves to exploit. And Cooks may become the centerpiece of New Orleans’ passing game now that Graham is gone.
RB Mark Ingram -- This one’s cheating since the Saints just re-signed Ingram to a four-year, $16 million deal before he became a free agent. But that shows how committed the Saints are to making him part of the future.
@MikeTriplett why do the saints seem so content with the less than stellar linebacker play?— Count On Cal (@MakkDaddy3) January 30, 2015
@MikeTriplett Why do Saints suck at drafting/developing LBs?— Ryan (@datboywolf) January 30, 2015
@MikeTriplett: My most popular question this week, in various forms. If you've been reading my posts over the past two years, you know I completely agree with the notion that the Saints badly need a young, athletic linebacker who can cover open space from sideline to sideline and cover tight ends. I like Curtis Lofton a lot as a thumper in the middle and think guys such as David Hawthorne, Parys Haralson and Ramon Humber are serviceable. But there's not enough variety there. They all pretty much have the same strengths and weaknesses.
As for why the Saints haven't been good at drafting and developing them, that's tougher to pinpoint. But it's a question they're no doubt asking themselves after getting so little out of mid-round picks Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell again this past season. General manager Mickey Loomis acknowledged the Saints will look at how they're scouting defensive talent, among other things while going through a detailed critical self-scouting process.
They'll also look at how they're coaching guys and "what they're asking them to do" as Sean Payton often likes to say. But I don't know if you can make any sweeping indictments on how the Saints have coached and developed the position, because they simply haven't drafted many linebackers with high picks during the Payton-Loomis era.
The only three linebackers the Saints have drafted in the first four rounds are Martez Wilson (third round, 2011), Stanley Arnoux (fourth round, 2009) and Fortt (fourth round, 2014) -- all of whom went bust. They had decent success with undrafted guys Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas. But it has mostly been a position where they've preferred veterans acquired through free agency or trade (Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle, Mark Simoneau, Lofton, Hawthorne, Haralson, etc.)
The Saints haven't completely opposed to the idea of using a first-round pick on a linebacker. Brian Cushing was next on their list after Malcolm Jenkins in 2009. They considered A.J. Hawk before Reggie Bush fell in their laps in 2006. But they've never made it a "must" priority high in the draft. Maybe that needs to change.
@MikeTriplett how can the admitted lack of leadership in the lockerroom be addressed in one off season? Should '15 expectations be cautious?— Brotha Fred (@BrothaFred0128) January 29, 2015
@MikeTriplett: Yes, expectations should obviously be cautious after what we just witnessed. The 2014 Saints were a prime example of why talent alone doesn't win games. But I do believe it's OK to be cautiously optimistic that they can improve those intangible things like attitude and focus and work ethic.
First and foremost, everyone got humbled last season. If players were feeling too good about themselves or thought they could just show up on the field and succeed, that's out the window now. If anyone's "reading their press clippings," they won't get a big head from doing so.
Secondly, if anyone is incapable of improving their attitude or work ethic, they'll be gone. Everyone from Payton to Loomis to veteran leaders on the team have made it an urgent priority to change the culture around the team. Brees has made several comments this offseason like what he said this week on the Jim Rome Show:
"Bottom line, we need to get back to the elements that helped establish our program back when we all first got there in 2006. I think we have lost a little bit of that," Brees said. "That's in part because of the departure of a lot of guys that have been mainstays within our team for a very long time. There's always turnover from year to year, and yet I feel we had the biggest amount of turnover last year in regards to some of the core players and leaders.
"We have talented young guys and yet I don't think we have done a good enough job of communicating exactly how we do things and how we are going to work. It's about getting back to building our organization and framework from the ground up again and make sure we are on the same page."
@MikeTriplett what about an explosive x-factor back like a sproles or bush the offence just seemed more explosive with a weapon like that— james percy reid II (@reid_percy) January 29, 2015
@MikeTriplett: I agree to an extent -- but then again, the Saints' offense lost some of that explosion even with Darren Sproles on the field in both 2012 and 2013. It's definitely something they need to regain, with versatile receiver Brandin Cooks offering their best bet to find it.
I don't think Sproles was as badly missed as people think in 2014, since the Saints' run game and short-range passing game were two of their strengths. They actually led the NFL in first downs, third-down conversion percentage and completion percentage. And while Sproles had some explosive games in the first month with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was mostly quiet over the past three months.
The area where Sproles may have been missed most, though, is how his presence affected defenses. Perhaps teams used to dedicate an extra defensive back or linebacker to shadowing Sproles more often in the past and felt more free to devote those players to deeper pass coverage in 2014.
Current depth chart:
Kenny Stills. Age 22, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $633,613.
Brandin Cooks. Age 21, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $801,066. 2015 salary-cap number: $1.9 million.
Nick Toon. Age 26, signed through 2015. 2015 salary and bonuses: $660,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $761,903.
Robert Meachem. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.
Seantavius Jones. Age 22, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $510,000.
Brandon Coleman. Age 22, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $435,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $435,000.
Andy Tanner. Age 26, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $510,000.
Willie Snead. Age 22, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $435,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $435,000.
The Saints' receiver position is hard to evaluate because they have decent depth and a lot of young guys with arrows pointing up (Cooks, Stills, Toon, Jones, Coleman and kick returner Saunders). But it's become a collection of No. 2 and No. 3 receivers with no one consistently emerging as a No. 1. And it feels like something is missing since the Saints' downfield passing game has steadily regressed over the past two years.
Maybe this group is good enough, especially if Cooks continues to develop after showing some dynamic speed and quickness during a rookie season that was cut too short by a Week 10 thumb injury. He was finally starting to hit his stride as a deep threat before the injury. And this group can also be good enough if the Saints can figure out how to consistently get that "No. 1 receiver" production out of pass-catching tight end Jimmy Graham again.
But it wouldn't be out of the question for the Saints to look for an upgrade in free agency or the draft -- especially if they decide to part ways with Colston because of his high salary. My guess is Colston will agree to a pay cut and come back, but it feels like a 50-50 proposition at this point. And even if Colston stays, he'll need to be replaced soon. Are Toon, Coleman or Jones ready to step up and fill that void?
ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson's take:
(on whether Saints need a true No. 1 receiver): "Well, I don't think Graham's a No. 2 when right. I think he's a true No. 1 ... so I think they're OK."
(on the receiving corps): "I've heard some evaluators say that when you're building your receiving corps, you want to build it like a basketball team. Mike Lombardi always used to say that when he was in the media. You want your center, which is Jimmy Graham. You want your point guard, which is Cooks. Colston's your power forward. Stills is your 3 guy. You know, you have a wide variety there, and none of them look alike. And they always have that, different body types, skill sets. You know, they used to have Devery Henderson. And I think Stills is kind of that guy, just not as blazing fast and a much better player overall. I'm a big fan of Stills.
"I'm super-excited about Cooks. I would have loved to see a full rookie season from him. I think Toon could be the Colston, though. Or maybe the big kid from Rutgers [Coleman] who spent a lot of time on the practice squad. Maybe one of those two will be your Colston in a lesser role with fewer targets."
No. 12: Specialists
No. 11: Quarterback
No. 10: Tight end
No. 9: Running back
No. 8: Safety
No. 7: Offensive tackle
But he didn’t dwell on them.
“It’s hard, though, to get too excited about that when you’re 7-9. That doesn’t feel very good. That’s the thing that we’re all focused on. We have to do better than that.”
Cooks, the Saints’ first-round draft pick in 2014, is absolutely near the top of the list of things to be excited about going forward. The rookie receiver was leading New Orleans with 53 receptions (for 550 yards and three touchdowns) when he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in Week 10. And the dynamic speedster was just starting to come on strong as a deep threat in addition to a short-yardage weapon.
Ingram’s success, however, is more of a Catch-22 because he’s due to be an unrestricted free agent. Ingram emerged as a bona fide No. 1 tailback around midseason after injuries to teammates Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas. Ingram finished with career-highs of 964 yards, nine TD runs and four 100-yard games.
The Saints probably love to see that kind of progress from a player that they developed after trading up to get him in the first round of the 2011 draft. But they rarely invest heavily in any one running back, and other teams might value him more on the open market. Or Ingram himself might prefer more of a permanent, every-down back role.
As for Loomis’ disinterest in dwelling on the positives, he insisted he would have felt similarly even if the Saints had won one more game to win the NFC South and make the playoffs.
Loomis said he’s both proud and jealous of the Carolina Panthers for winning their first-round playoff game. But he said the Saints don’t want to just be 8-8 and they would take look at their team with the same “critical eye” this offseason to figure out why that happened.
“We want to be the No. 1 seed and get into the playoffs and have a great chance, an increased chance at getting to the Super Bowl,” Loomis said. “So 8-8 is not going to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.”
Quarterback: Drew Brees 1,094
Running back: Mark Ingram 458, Pierre Thomas 284, Travaris Cadet 195, Khiry Robinson 148, Edwin Baker 3, Brian Leonard 1
Fullback: Erik Lorig 152, Austin Johnson 104
Receiver: Marques Colston 841, Kenny Stills 598, Brandin Cooks 506, Robert Meachem 240, Nick Toon 232, Joe Morgan 132, Jalen Saunders 1
Tight end: Jimmy Graham 744, Benjamin Watson 545, Josh Hill 274
Offensive tackle: Zach Strief 1,018, Terron Armstead 798, Bryce Harris 375
Guard: Jahri Evans 1,094, Ben Grubbs 1,087, Senio Kelemete 7
Center: Jonathan Goodwin 821, Tim Lelito 274
- Brees didn’t miss a snap, despite the oblique strain that sidelined him for two weeks during training camp, and he has still never missed a game due to injury in his 14-year career. … Evans was the only other player to play every snap this season, though fellow guard Ben Grubbs came awfully close.
- Seeing rookie receiver Brandin Cooks’ name on this list was a reminder of what a loss he was when he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in Week 10 -- just as he was starting to come on strong as a deep receiver. His return will be among the top reasons for excitement this offseason.
- Robinson’s season was also derailed by his arm injury, which prevented him from making a strong case to replace free agent Mark Ingram as the Saints’ leading man in 2015. Robinson has shown great glimpses in small doses. It will be interesting to see if the Saints feel the need to invest in Ingram's return or let Robinson be a leading part of a committee approach.
- Goodwin wasn’t showing his age early in the season, but his consistency dipped after he battled a variety of nagging injuries. He’s an unrestricted free agent, so it will be interesting to see if he or the Saints are ready to move on -- especially since Lelito seemed to play well when he started in Goodwin’s place. The Saints need to start developing more young talent throughout the offensive line.
- Speaking of which, losing Armstead to a neck injury in Week 15 proved very costly as replacement Bryce Harris struggled in his place. Armstead’s continued development is yet another reason for optimism going forward.
- Fullback Austin Johnson took over for injured veteran Erik Lorig during the preseason. Then Lorig took the job back when Johnson was injured in Week 7. That should be a wide-open battle this summer.
But breaking them down individually, it's still hard to slam a single one of them.
Here's a look at all the major moves the Saints made, and how they've impacted this 5-8 season:
Clearly, losing all these guys has had some intangible effect. But there's not a single player in that group whom anyone expected the Saints to keep. Greer is the one they miss most on the field, but he had to retire because of a knee injury. Jenkins is the only one still playing at a high level, but he wasn't playing at that level in recent years.
Would some of those veterans have provided a calming influence during the early turmoil? Perhaps. Then again, they were all around in 2012, when the Saints' defense went through a similar implosion.
The biggest issue with the Saints' new roster makeup is that they were counting on a lot of young, breakout players to continue to grow and develop as stars and leaders -- and they haven't.
We're seeing one of those "sophomore slump" or "Super Bowl hangover" type of seasons with the defense. Something like what veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief was alluding to when he said this team needs to learn it can't just show up and expect to win.
They all work hard and care about improving. But one of those young underachievers, safety Kenny Vaccaro, has been honest about wondering why he has regressed, saying he needs to "get that dog back" and admitting he felt like there were a "lot of individual goals" in the secondary early in the season before they started to develop better together.
I still like the core leadership going forward with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton, Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Jairus Byrd, Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks. But as I wrote when I broke down the Saints' salary-cap constraints, they absolutely need more from some of those guys -- because they're all-in on them.
Signing Byrd: New Orleans' megadeal for the free-agent safety was their biggest, boldest move -- and it has been a colossal disappointment so far. Byrd played poorly along with the rest of the defense for four weeks, then he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.
Byrd seemed to be exactly what a young, rising defense was missing -- a proven playmaker with a knack for forcing turnovers and forcing quarterbacks to throw elsewhere. His biggest struggle during the first four weeks was missing open-field tackles -- partly because there were too many opponents running free in the open field in the first place.
If the entire defense can get its act together, Byrd can still wind up being a building block for the future at age 28. He'd better.
Sproles isn't what the Saints' offense is missing this season. The run game and the short passing game are the only things actually working for New Orleans on a consistent basis. Entering this week, they led the NFL in first downs, completion percentage and third-down conversion rate.
One other thing worth noting: As explosive as Sproles was for Philadelphia early in the season, he has gone quiet. He's averaging just 35 yards from scrimmage per game since Week 2.
Trading up for Brandin Cooks: What the Saints' offense has lacked is a dynamic downfield passing game. Receivers such as Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are showing signs of significant decline. So I applaud the decision to trade up for Cooks in the draft's first round, even more than I did at the time. It's a shame his season ended early because of a thumb injury, but I like his chances to be a big part of the offense going forward.
Other draft picks: This has been an obvious flop so far. Second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has barely seen the field. It's too early to judge that pick since he was always painted as a raw, long-term project. But his inactivity has stood out since the Saints have had such a desperate need for help at corner this season.
Fourth-round linebacker Khairi Fortt has already been cut -- reportedly after missing two team meetings. And the jury's still out on the later-round picks and free-agent class. An aging team with salary-cap constraints needs better out of its draft class.
Re-signing Jimmy Graham: This was the biggest no-brainer of all. I considered four years and $40 million a bargain for one of the game's most productive playmakers. The Saints would have been nuts to let him go.
However, they clearly need even more than they've gotten out of him this season. Graham has had a few great moments, a few bad moments (especially last week) and a lot of in-between. His season has been a lot like Drew Brees' season -- good, but the Saints need greatness every week.
Releasing Lance Moore: Maybe the Saints could use Moore since their downfield passing game has been shaky, and he was so reliable for so long. But they have decent depth, so he would have been more like a fourth receiver -- just as he is in Pittsburgh.
Signing Champ Bailey/cutting Champ Bailey: I don't blame the Saints for signing the future Hall of Famer, since they invested extremely little on him. The bigger surprise in hindsight is that they decided they were better off without him. With Bailey, Patrick Robinson and Corey White all disappointing this season, perhaps the Saints should have invested more at cornerback instead of going all-in at safety.
Fortunately for the Saints, they have more than a half-dozen options to help pick up the slack. Especially now that pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas and deep-threat receiver Robert Meachem are on the mend from lingering injuries.
“This has happened with us before with regards to a number of different players,” Saints coach Sean Payton added. “And it falls on the rest of the group picking up his touches. It’s the receivers, the running backs -- candidates that would be doing some of the same things.”
Mostly, I think we’ll see a slight uptick in targets for all of the Saints’ usual suspects – tight end Jimmy Graham, receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills and Thomas, who can provide a similar threat to Cooks in the screen game.
But as I wrote the other day, the area of the Saints’ offense that most concerns me is the deep passing game. That was a problem even before Cooks’ injury. But he had definitely started to emerge as their most dynamic downfield threat.
The Saints could turn to Meachem, Joe Morgan or even Stills on those routes. All have thrived in that role in the past -- we just haven't seen it consistently from any of them this year.
“Everybody kind of has the ability to be in there during those [shot plays], just depending on when they are called,” Brees said. “Did I think Brandin was doing a nice job with that stuff? Yes, I do. I also believe that the guys that we have can do a nice job as well.”
Brees and Payton were both asked if they think the loss of Cooks will hurt Graham, because defenses can now focus even more attention on the All-Pro tight end. But they both kind of shot down that notion because Graham already receives so much attention as it is.
“I would imagine everybody who we play looks at Jimmy and says, 'We've got to have a plan for this guy.' So I don't think it's really gonna change a whole lot," Brees said.
Regardless, I believe the Saints must find a way to keep Graham heavily involved in their passing game, even if Brees has to risk interceptions while force-feeding him. Brees and Graham are the two players who most make the Saints special. And they lost that special quality last week while losing a 27-10 dud to the Cincinnati Bengals. Graham had just three catches for 29 yards and no touchdowns.
Colston is another player the Saints need to resurrect after he has been so inconsistent this year, both with dropped passes and just plain lack of involvement.
I think Brees gave the best answer of all when asked specifically about Colston. Essentially Brees suggested that the biggest key to success for everyone is simply cleaning up a passing game that hasn't lived up to its usual standard all year -- even when Cooks was healthy.
"I think [Colston] is as involved as he’s ever been. I would say we haven't been hitting on all cylinders," Brees said. "We haven't been hitting all of the plays necessarily that we want to hit on."
Saunders is already on his fourth team since being drafted in the fourth round by the New York Jets this year. The 5-foot-9, 165-pounder from Oklahoma began the year as the Jets’ punt returner. But he was released after he muffed two punt returns. He then spent time on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad before landing in Seattle.
It’s unclear if the Saints envision Saunders as an immediate punt-return candidate -- a job that became vacant when Cooks was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. Chances are even slimmer that they would use Saunders on offense right away.
Coming out of college, Saunders was expected to be a poor man’s version of Cooks -- a speedy and elusive slot receiver/punt returner. But ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini reported that sources said he wasn’t as explosive as draft reports indicated. Maybe another change of scenery will serve him well.
Saunders, who transferred to Oklahoma from Fresno State, caught a total of 123 passes for 1,558 yards and 11 touchdowns during his two seasons with the Sooners. He returned a total of 25 punts for 396 yards and three touchdowns.
To make room on the roster, the Saints released running back Brian Leonard -- a good sign that they must be expecting either Pierre Thomas and/or Khiry Robinson back from lingering injuries this week.
Thomas also tweeted out a picture and message to his fans Wednesday insisting he’s working his way back from shoulder and rib injuries.
The Saints’ first practice (and injury report) is Thursday this week since they’re not playing until Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
METAIRIE, La. -- I've probably written it two dozen times over the past nine years: The New Orleans Saints' offense is deep enough to absorb the loss of any one player. I've even written that about tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.
But for some reason, I'm less confident than ever in making that statement now with the loss of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks for the season with a broken thumb.
The Saints' fastest offensive weapon, Cooks had finally started to emerge as a threat on deep passes in recent weeks (catches of 50, 40 and 31 yards). He was also a pseudo-replacement for Sproles on screen passes and end-around runs designed to make defenders miss in the open field.
Last week in a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints (4-6) didn't complete a pass of longer than 17 yards.
They were surprisingly efficient in the game when it came to things like completion percentage, third-down conversions and avoiding turnovers. But they were downright toothless -- a word I've never used to describe New Orleans' offense.
It put the home crowd to sleep. And worse yet, it put no fear into an opponent that had been limping into Sunday's game.
That's not the Saints' personality. And they can't afford for that to be the case going forward -- starting at home this Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints' offense has always been at its peak in such prime-time home games, winning 14 straight by nearly 20 points per game.
Most likely, the Saints will rely even more heavily on Graham and receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills going forward. Colston has been more inconsistent this year than ever before with too many dropped passes. But the Saints haven't lost faith in him. He's continued to lead them in snaps each week, and he led them with eight targets and 56 receiving yards against the Bengals.
From a fantasy standpoint, I might stubbornly give a slight nod to Colston over Stills for that reason -- though it's close, and both should see slight increases in production.
It will be interesting to see if this also opens the door for deep-threat receiver Joe Morgan, who has only caught one pass all season while being mostly inactive (and suspended for two weeks for an unspecified team issue). Morgan flashed his dazzling big-play potential with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. But then he missed all of 2013 with a major knee injury.
It also wouldn't hurt for the Saints to get veteran deep threat Robert Meachem and pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas back from lingering injuries. Both are expected back at some point, but the specific timetables are unknown.
METAIRIE, La. -- Brandin Cooks is tied for the NFL lead for receptions among rookie receivers this season with 48. But the New Orleans Saints' first-round draft choice is going to have to be even better over the final seven weeks if he wants to have any shot at the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first season in NFL history where more than three first-year receivers had five touchdown catches through 10 weeks. And seven rookies have done it this year.
It's also the first season in NFL history where four rookie receivers had 40 receptions through 10 weeks. The previous high was two.
And it's the first season in NFL history where five rookie receivers had 500 yards through 10 weeks. The previous high was three.
And it’s not even the same guys in each category.
“I noticed that so far this season that the rookie receivers -- the rookie class, period -- is doing well,” said Cooks, who said he got to know a lot of the other guys during the pre-draft process.
But Cooks said he’s not taking any pride in the overall group accomplishments.
“Nah, I just continue to do my job and I’m not too worried about what everybody else is doing,” Cooks said.
Here’s the lengthy list of rookie receivers making the biggest impact in this historic class through Week 10 (NOTE: stats don’t include Thursday night’s game, which also put Miami Dolphins rookie Jarvis Landry over the 40-catch threshold).
That was especially the case for quarterback Drew Brees, who had some terrific throws and three of his costliest turnovers to date. But the offensive line was similarly up and down in both pass protection and run blocking. Brees was under pressure on 17 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which is well above his average of less than 10 per game.
There were also three dropped passes -- including an egregious drop by Marques Colston on a deep ball that could have changed the complexion of the game in the second quarter.
Here are the highs and lows after watching the tape:
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks beat left tackle Terron Armstead on a four-man rush to hit Brees from behind and strip the ball. Armstead didn’t get torched -- he made Brooks go wide -- but Brooks slipped off the initial block quickly to hit Brees sooner than he expected.
The interceptions: Brees’ second interception was the one that drew a shower of boos inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome right before halftime, when Brees tried to throw to tight end Jimmy Graham in triple coverage and cornerback Chris Culliver easily jumped up from behind to undercut the throw. It’s hard to understand what Brees was thinking since he wasn’t under any pressure, and he admitted later he would have booed himself.
Brees also tried for a little too much on his first pick when he threw deeper into traffic for Colston on a third-and-8 play on the opening series. Brees tried to drop the ball into a tight spot about 25 yards away and slightly underthrew it. It’s possible the throw was also partially affected by pressure coming from 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who came around on a twist and got a good push against Saints right tackle Zach Strief.
One more underrated poor decision by Brees that should be noted was his incomplete pass toward Kenny Stills in traffic on third-and-1 in overtime. Not sure why Brees chose that throw when he was under zero pressure at the time.
Brees at his best: Brees had maybe his best play of the season in the third quarter when he sidestepped one blitzing linebacker, then spun out of a sure sack from blitzing safety Eric Reid and delivered an 11-yard TD strike to Graham on third-and-6. Brees barely even looked up before making the throw, knowing he had Graham in single coverage against the smaller Culliver. That’s why Brees tries for improbable plays so often -- because he knows he’s capable of them.
Brees’ 31-yard TD pass to Brandin Cooks in the second quarter was also a perfect strike 40 yards through the air (and included great protection from the line -- especially Strief). Brees’ 2-yard TD pass to Graham in the fourth quarter came against another smaller corner, Perrish Cox, just before pressure arrived from a six-man blitz.
Brees also delivered a 40-yard pass to Cooks on a third-and-12 play in the first quarter just as he was absorbing a big hit from 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith. (Cooks deserves great credit for leaping up to snag it.) And Brees had three other big-time throws on third and fourth down late in the game.
Plus, it should be noted that Brees’ Hail Mary pass to Graham was a perfect throw about 50 yards down the field, even though the touchdown was nullified by Graham’s push-off penalty (which was a tough call but probably the right one, as has been well-dissected this week).
My favorite run call was the one in the middle, though -- a draw play out of a passing formation on third-and-3. Ingram had a big hole, thanks in large part to guard Ben Grubbs, who did a great job picking up Borland, who was a tackling machine on Sunday.
Line issues: The line did a great job on many of the above highlights, but I feel like I jotted down more negative moments than any other game this season. Grubbs had a rough time with Smith, especially in run blocking. Armstead and guard Jahri Evans gave up at least two costly pressures each. Strief, center Jonathan Goodwin, tight end Josh Hill, receiver Nick Toon and fullback Erik Lorig had at least one bad beat each on passes or runs.
The best block of the day goes to Cadet, whose last-second blitz pickup on an incomplete pass in the third quarter saved Brees from taking a hellacious shot.
Dropping the ball: Colston continued his season-long issue with dropped passes. He dropped a perfectly placed, over-the-shoulder pass that was right in his hands about 30 yards down the field on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter. Stills and Graham each had a drop as well.
The Saints are the hotter team. They just played their best game of the season four nights ago in a 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers, and Carolina has lost two straight. But the Saints are 0-4 on the road this season and 2-10 over their past 12 road games, including the playoffs.
That stretch includes a gut-wrenching last-minute 17-13 loss at Carolina in Week 16 of last season, which ultimately decided the NFC South title.
Here’s What 2 Watch 4 in the rematch:
Benjamin immediately emerged as Carolina's most dynamic weapon and might have had his best catch to date last week against Seattle. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder has 38 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Coach Sean Payton said the thing that stands out most is Benjamin’s "catch radius."
Cornerback Keenan Lewis said, "He’s 6-forever. I call him 6-forever. He looks like he keeps growing by the week. He can go up and get the high ball, an extremely gifted athlete who runs good routes."
Cooks’ production has been a little more sporadic since he is playing in a deeper offense. But he just had his biggest performance yet against Green Bay, with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and a 4-yard touchdown run. The blazing-fast, 5-10, 189-pounder has added a dimension to the offense, whether he’s running deep routes, screen passes or end-around runs. He has 40 catches for 372 yards and two TDs, plus six carries for 68 yards and a score.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is known as a tough sack because of his combination of size and athleticism. But he’s not impossible to bring down, as the Saints proved by sacking him a total of nine times in the two meetings last season.
There is no reason for them to stop feeding Ingram against a Carolina defense that ranks last in the NFL by a wide margin this season, allowing 5.2 yards per rush. But that doesn’t mean the Saints will take the ball out of Brees’ hands.
Brees is still by far the Saints’ biggest asset. After completing 27 of 32 passes against Green Bay, he is once again leading the NFL in completion percentage at 69.5 percent. He just needs to cut down on the costly interceptions that have crept up too often on the road dating to last season. Since the start of last season, Brees has thrown 34 TD passes and 6 interceptions at home, with a 21-15 split on the road.
On the fans.
Payton was surprisingly dismissive when asked for his reaction to the crowd noise inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after the Saints’ 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.
Ironically, Payton wound up holding Saints fans to the same standard to which many of them have been holding quarterback Drew Brees this year. Very good is no longer acceptable since they’ve set such a high bar for themselves over the years.
So maybe this wasn’t an all-time great performance for the home fans (that’s a hard list to crack) -- and I’ll defer to Payton, whose attention to detail is probably more intense than my own. But I certainly noted several times in the first half when the Dome crowd lived up to its reputation. And the crowd noise clearly had an impact on the field.
During the first half alone, Green Bay drew a delay-of-game penalty, a false-start penalty and had to burn two timeouts. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked once after feverishly trying to signal for a receiver to change his alignment before the ball had to be snapped at the last second.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham brought up the crowd when asked about the Saints’ uncanny dominance in home prime-time games (14 straight wins, including the playoffs).
“We really pride ourselves on these big games. But more than that, this city, what they do for prime-time games is special,” said Graham who noted that he lives a couple of blocks away from the Dome and noticed how even on a pre-Halloween weekend, the city was still draped in black and gold.
“Even black and gold clowns. Our city is all in, and that’s so big for us,” Graham said. “To be here at home and have them screaming, as you can tell with the defense, they really caused a lot of mishaps.”
Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks also noted that his first prime-time game in the Dome lived up to its reputation.
“It was something different,” Cooks said. “To get a firsthand experience of what they say the Superdome can be on a Sunday night was just special.”
“That just showed we have a bright, young corps,” said Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks, who had a quiet game at Detroit but has quickly emerged as a big part of New Orleans’ offense. “It’s getting close to where they really start having to pick their poison because Kenny went off, Colston went off, and I’ve had a couple of good games. Jimmy [Graham] has done his thing.
“I feel like it’s getting close to us just busting out.”
Although Colston struggled early this season with a fumble, dropped passes and even a rare game where he wasn’t targeted once, there was little doubt that the Saints would continue to rely on him.
Colston once again emerged as Brees’ go-to guy at Detroit -- on a day when Graham was limited by a shoulder injury and the Saints’ run game was limited by Detroit’s stingy defensive front.
Colston caught six passes for 111 yards, his first 100-yard game since Week 1.
“He’s one of the most consistent guys I’ve ever played with, continues to be,” Brees said. “I don’t know his statistics this year, I know he’s coming off a 100-yard game. I know that I’m always looking for him. And so there may be those times where, hey, he’s not getting it as much as he has in the past or on a consistent basis as he has in the past, but it’s by no means an indication of anything.
“I can just tell you right now I look to him as much or more than I always have.”
Stills also had a big game, catching five passes for 103 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown.
The Saints would still like to hit on a few more of those “shot” plays they’ve missed on to Stills, Robert Meachem and others.
Cooks could become a factor in that department, too. Despite his blazing speed, most of his touches have come on shorter routes and run plays so far. But he showed that ability in training camp, and coach Sean Payton said some of it has just been circumstance this year.
“He’s been on some that weren’t thrown that way,” Payton said. “He’s someone that we certainly feel like has deep speed, and we can get the ball too down the field.”
The Saints are averaging just 2.0 yards per punt return, with a total of 10 yards on five returns by rookie receiver Brandin Cooks. The Saints also have 13 fair catches.
“I don’t know that it’s the returner,” Payton said. “I think when I look at it – and you try to look at it closely – I think the returner’s ready. The other 10 need to be.”
Cooks, meanwhile, said he personally takes the responsibility on himself. He said he should be able to do better, “being that athlete I am.”
“I have to just trust it. Trust the scheme, trust myself,” Cooks said. “Hit it hard and make something happen.”
The Saints’ punt return average wasn’t much better the past two years with Darren Sproles, either – ranking 30th in 2013 at 6.1 yards per return and 26th in 2012 at 7.6 yards per return.
When asked if he believes the return game is one of those things where it’s hard to put a finger on the specific problems – if big returns sometimes come in bunches like turnovers – Payton said no.
“No, you can put your finger on it. It’s like defense or offensive football. It’s not just, ‘Well, it’ll come,’” Payton said. “There are things you have to do in regards to staying on your blocks, fitting, understanding the return, the scheme that’s being run and then looking closely at, ‘Hey, the scheme itself, does it fit what we’re trying to do?’ The holdup players …
“I haven’t been disappointed with the effort, but the technique and obviously the results, the production hasn’t been good.”