New Orleans Saints: David Hawthorne
OFFENSE (70 snaps)
Quarterback: Drew Brees 70
Running back: Pierre Thomas 26, Mark Ingram 20, Khiry Robinson 14, Travaris Cadet 11
Fullback: Austin Johnson 22
Receiver: Brandin Cooks 55, Marques Colston 41, Robert Meachem 29, Kenny Stills 29
Tight end: Jimmy Graham 56, Benjamin Watson 34, Josh Hill 13
Offensive tackle: Terron Armstead 70, Zach Strief 70
Guard: Jahri Evans 70, Ben Grubbs 70
Center: Jonathan Goodwin 70
Thoughts: The one player that stands out on this list is Colston, who played 14 fewer snaps than Cooks while being targeted zero times and catching zero passes for the first time since 2008. I’m not sure what exactly limited Colston's snaps. But obviously the Saints adjusted their game plan to be more run-heavy as the game went along (also evidenced by fullback Johnson’s 22 snaps).
DEFENSE (75 snaps)
Cornerback: Keenan Lewis 74, Corey White 65, Patrick Robinson 55
Safety: Jairus Byrd 75, Kenny Vaccaro 75, Rafael Bush 5
Outside linebacker: Junior Galette 70, Parys Haralson 25, Kasim Edebali 5
Inside linebacker: Curtis Lofton 75, David Hawthorne 54, Ramon Humber 24
Defensive end: Cameron Jordan 66, Akiem Hicks 48, Tyrunn Walker 23
Defensive tackle: Brandon Deaderick 35, Brodrick Bunkley 30, John Jenkins 21
Thoughts: Hawthorne left the game with an undisclosed injury and was replaced by Humber. I’m not sure of the severity or whether it will limit Hawthorne going forward. But that is an area where the Saints do have plenty of depth with Humber and Haralson both able to fill in if needed. ... This week it was defensive end Glenn Foster's turn to be the odd man out on the defensive line. Foster was inactive, while the Saints added Jenkins back into their lineup. It’s interesting to see that Deaderick has passed up both of those guys in the pecking order, though. Deaderick is useful as a versatile end/tackle. ... Bush played even less snaps than last week as the Saints have clearly made a switch to their nickel package from last season, using three corners instead of three safeties. White began the game as that nickel back but switched places with Robinson after Robinson struggled early. Obviously the Saints will revisit their secondary plans this week after having issues in both losses.
@MikeTriplett Do you think Brees will have another 5,000 yard season with the new focus on the run game by SP?— John Hong (@John_Hong) Aug. 9, 2014
@MikeTriplett:: I'm totally buying into this improved Saints' run game that we've been seeing this summer. And I think Sean Payton's commitment to it and confidence in it may be as high as they've ever been during his tenure with the Saints. However, I don't expect any drastic changes from the ratios we've seen in the past. This is still a pass-first, pass-heavy offense -- as it should be with Drew Brees behind center. If everything goes according to plan, maybe he'll only throw for 4,800 yards or so. There are two big keys for the Saints when it comes to their run game. 1. They need to be able to run out the clock when they've got big leads, like they did in 2009 and 2011. That's something Payton has talked about often this summer. 2. The Saints need to be able to make defenses pay when they try to sit back in coverage and practically beg them to run. That's what worked in the playoff win at Philadelphia last year, and it's something New Orleans didn't turn to quickly enough in its loss at New England earlier in the year. The dream ratio would be what we saw in 2011, when Brees set the NFL record for passing yards with 5,476 -- and the Saints still ran for more than 2,100 yards. Easy, right?
@MikeTriplett do you think sp can stay with the strong run game. Also how much of the better run game is due to armstead— Shelby McCarty (@shelbywmccarty) Aug. 9, 2014
@MikeTriplett:: This was partly a repeat question, but I threw it in to address the Terron Armstead part. I asked Payton a similar question last week after I noticed how strong Armstead's run-blocking looked in practice. I asked if Armstead was a bigger part of the Saints' late-season turnaround in the run game last year than we realized. Payton's response: "He wasn't part of the problem." The Saints mostly leaned on the right side of their line (guard Jahri Evans and tackle Zach Strief) in the run game late last year. But Armstead is definitely a strength in that area. As I wrote early in camp, the Saints organization is extremely high on Armstead's potential. And though we keep talking about him as a supreme athlete, it does go a bit under the radar that his run-blocking is actually ahead of his pass protection so far.
@MikeTriplett what is your take on the line backing group? It appears as Lofton and hawthorne continue to struggle in coverage— Huey Newton (@JA5O4) Aug. 9, 2014
@MikeTriplett:: I'm sure this question was inspired by the St. Louis Rams' first touchdown on Friday night, when tight end Cory Harkey broke wide open in the flat against an obvious blown coverage by the Saints' defense. But it is a fair observation. Although I think both Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are solid in pass coverage (after all, this was the No. 2 pass defense in the NFL last year), I wouldn't rank that as either player's top strength. And the Saints definitely don't have the kind of supreme athlete at linebacker who can lock down athletic tight ends and speedy pass-catching running backs in open space (see division rivals like Lavonte David, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, for examples). However, the Saints make up for that by lining up three safeties most of the time instead of three linebackers. Also, they did draft a couple of athletic linebackers this year (Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell) that may eventually help in that area.
@MikeTriplett Do you think our defense will be as strong or stronger than last years? Last night made me worried even though its preseason.— Nick Catto (@Cattostrophic) Aug. 9, 2014
@MikeTriplett:: That's also a fair question, since it can't be considered a "given" that the Saints will again boast a top-4 defense just because they did last year. And now they won't be catching anyone by surprise, and teams are more familiar with their tendencies, etc. But there's two reasons to expect improvement or at least the same level of success. For one, most of their breakout stars last year were young players on the rise, and they might keep getting better (guys like Cameron Jordan, Keenan Lewis, Junior Galette, Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks). Secondly, the Saints only forced four turnovers over their final 11 games last year. That's almost statistically impossible, even for a mediocre defense. If they start forcing more turnovers, they should be even more productive than they were last season. Oh, and No. 3, don't get too excited by anything you see in the preseason, good or bad. That should actually be No. 1 for every question in this mailbag!
@MikeTriplett After the first pre season game, what UDFA's do you see making the 53 man roster, and what 8 guys make up the practice squad?— Patrick Crosby (@patrickkcrosby) Aug. 9, 2014
@MikeTriplett:: I'll post my next 53-man roster projection on Monday morning. So far it's been very hard to add too many undrafted rookies or dark horses because I'm not yet ready to cut veterans who haven't shown enough reason to let them go. The best example is linebacker, where I want to add Kyle Knox to the 53-man roster after seeing him start on all four special teams units Friday night (in addition to how strong he's looked on the second-string defense this summer). But that would make 11 linebackers. So who do I cut? Parys Haralson? Victor Butler? I think there's indeed a strong chance one of those vets will miss the cut, but I haven't seen enough reason to drop either guy yet. The unheralded guys I'd most like to find room for on my 53-man roster or the practice squad are Knox, safeties Marcus Ball and Pierre Warren, cornerback Trevin Wade, tight end Nic Jacobs, fullback Austin Johnson and guards Senio Kelemete and Marcel Jones. I'd bet at least one of the receivers, Brandon Coleman or Seantavius Jones, makes the practice squad. But neither has forced his way onto the 53-man roster yet.
At No. 17, it's linebacker David Hawthorne
Analysis: Hawthorne had a much better season in 2013 after injuries marred his first year with the Saints in 2012. He played in all 16 games with 91 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble, plus another 15 tackles in two playoff games.
That forced fumble was the best play of Hawthorne's season -- a vicious hit against Buffalo Bills quarterback Thad Lewis on a Wildcat run that pretty much shut down Buffalo's Wildcat package for the rest of the game.
For the most part, though, Hawthorne hasn't been a very "flashy" big-play type of defender for the Saints. He's also not a player on the rise at this stage of his career, which makes it hard to place him on a list like this, compared to the up-and-coming young defenders on the Saints' roster.
However, Hawthorne's solid play as a run defender last season shouldn't be ignored as part of the Saints' spectacular defensive resurgence. And he was particularly good down the stretch, shining in two key late-season battles against the Carolina Panthers among others.
Before coming to New Orleans, Hawthorne had three outstanding seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, with a total of 338 tackles, six sacks and seven interceptions from 2009-11.
No. 20 (tie) RBs Mark Ingram/Khiry Robinson
No. 19 WR Kenny Stills
No. 18 S Rafael Bush
Click here for a breakdown of where the Saints are allocating their resources this year on offense. Below is a breakdown of their defense:
Percentage of salary-cap space: 7.32%
Total cap charge: $8.74 million
NFL average: $21.82 million
Biggest cap hit: Brodrick Bunkley, $3.26 million
Biggest bargains: Everyone else
Thoughts: This is where the Saints have a huge advantage over the rest of the NFL right now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the league – and one of the cheapest.
Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan is still costing just $2.5 million against the cap in the final year of his rookie deal (though the Saints will have to pony up $6.97 million for his 2015 option by May 3 – which will still be a bargain).
Meanwhile, ends Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster, Tyrunn Walker and Keyunta Dawson and tackle John Jenkins are all costing below $750,000 against the cap. If I had to choose one player as the biggest bargain of the group, I'd go with Hicks, because I'm expecting a big breakout year from the third-year pro in 2014.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 13.81%
Total cap charge: $16.51 million
NFL average: $15.55 million
Biggest cap hit: Curtis Lofton, $5.2 million
Biggest bargain: Junior Galette, $2.9 million
Thoughts: The Saints are right around league average here with mid-range deals for starters Lofton, Galette and David Hawthorne. They’ve also got veterans Parys Haralson and Victor Butler at affordable rates.
Lofton and Hawthorne both have big pay increases coming in 2015 (to $7 million and $4.5 million in salary and bonuses, respectively). So they’ll both have to keep playing at a high level to secure their salaries. Hawthorne, in particular, could be a pay-cut or release candidate.
Regardless, the Saints need to start developing some younger, cheaper talent for the future at this position.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 6.27%
Total cap charge: $7.49 million
NFL average: $8.33 million
Biggest cap hit: Jairus Byrd $3.5 million
Biggest bargain: Kenny Vaccaro, $2.14 million
Thoughts: The Saints also have a ton of talent here without a sizeable cap hit. But that’s mostly because of how they structured Byrd’s contract. His cap hit will soar to about $10 million per year for each of the next five years.
Vaccaro will probably become more expensive a few years from now, too, if he keeps living up to his own Pro Bowl-level potential. In the meantime, though, the Saints are expecting to get a lot of bang for their salary-cap buck at this loaded position.
Percentage of salary-cap space: 8.66%
Total cap charge: $10.35 million
NFL average: $12.16 million
Biggest cap hit: Keenan Lewis $3.35 million
Biggest bargain: Corey White, $614,125
Thoughts: Lewis is one of the Saints’ biggest salary-cap bargains right now, since his cap number also doesn’t take a significant jump until it goes above $7 million in 2016 and 2017. He played at a Pro Bowl level last year and remains the anchor of this position group.
The Saints have more question marks among the rest of their cornerbacks. They have good depth and guys with good potential. But they need veteran Champ Bailey or younger corners like White and Patrick Robinson to step up consistently after suffering through some ups and downs in recent years.
DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker
DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster
NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins
OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox
OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson
SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber
WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick
CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade
CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks
SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush
FS –- Jairus Byrd
Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.
Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.
The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.
And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
But a closer look at the numbers shows the Saints will be in about the same position in 2015 that they were in this year. And the two years before that.
Not better. But not worse.
And after what we've seen over the past three offseasons, does anyone doubt the Saints' ability to live on the edge of the salary cap?
It helps quite a bit that the NFL's cap is expected to keep soaring. This year, the cap rose from $123 million to $133 million for every NFL team. And analysts project similar increases during the next two years as the revenues from recent TV deals kick in.
Those new deals should push the Saints' 2015 cap costs closer to $140 million for 41 players. And that projection will continue to rise as the Saints sign more players or restructure more contracts. Remember, a team's salary cap figure during the offseason includes its top 51 salaries. So even 10 minimum contracts would raise that number to $145 million by the start of the 2015 league year.
So the Saints will have to find more creative solutions to get back under the cap again next offseason. But there is no sense of impending doom or disaster. Just more of what we've been seeing in recent years.
Here's a breakdown of some of the more interesting cap issues facing the Saints in 2015 and beyond:
The big leaps: Two contracts will have huge salary-cap increases in 2015 -- quarterback Drew Brees and newly-signed safety Jairus Byrd. Brees' cap cost will go from $18.4 million this year to $26.4 million next year (because his salary and bonuses will increase from $11 million to $19 million). And Byrd's cap cost will go from $3.5 million to $10.3 million (largely due to a $6 million roster bonus).
Free agents: The good news for the Saints is that most of their core players are already under contract through 2015 (once they get those new deals in place for Graham and Jordan, that is). Other than those two, the top players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year are running back Mark Ingram, linebacker Victor Butler, safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Patrick Robinson.
Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract at some point that should average at least $10 million per year, likely with lower cap costs in the early years. (NOTE: Graham is already counting $7.05 million against the Saints' cap this year because of his franchise tag, so a new deal wouldn't affect the 2014 cap much.)
As for Jordan, the Saints are expected to exercise a fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive end this spring that will likely cost somewhere between $6 and $8.5 million for a one-year deal in 2015. If they exercise that option, Jordan can't become a free agent until 2016.
Big decisions: Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are both scheduled to receive big roster bonuses in 2015 that could force the Saints to make a decision on their status. Lofton has a roster bonus of $4.5 million due in 2015, plus another $2.5 million in salary and workout bonuses. If he continues at his current level, Lofton could well be worth a total of $7 million. But his contract was clearly designed for that to be a “prove it” clause. Hawthorne, likewise, is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2015, plus $2 million in salary.
Smaller bounces: The other cap jumps in 2015 are more modest. Marques Colston, Keenan Lewis, Zach Strief and Pierre Thomas are all scheduled for increases between $1 million and $1.4 million. No one else on the roster is scheduled to go up by more than $500,000.
Raising the dead: If you're wondering why the Saints' total cap figure for 2015 isn't higher, remember that they don't have any “dead money” counting against their 2015 cap yet. This year, the Saints have nearly $13.8 million in “dead money” counting against their cap from the pro-rated signing bonuses of veterans that were released before the end of their contracts (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Garrett Hartley, etc.).
Current depth chart:
David Hawthorne. Age 28, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $3.51 million.
Parys Haralson. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.
Jonathan Vilma. Age 31, unrestricted free agent.
Ramon Humber. Age 26, unrestricted free agent.
Will Herring. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.
Kevin Reddick. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $495,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $496,666.
As I wrote earlier, I broke down the Saints' front seven into three categories (interior linemen, edge rushers and linebackers) since they run a hybrid between a 4-3 and a 3-4. So this is essentially the group of true linebackers who play in space, rather than the pass-rushing linebackers such as Junior Galette.
This may not seem like one of the Saints' most glaring needs since Lofton and Hawthorne played so well this past season. But look how thin the list gets behind those two veterans. I think it would be especially helpful for the Saints to look at this group in the draft since they need to inject youth and athleticism -- someone who could rotate into the mix right away and develop into a future starter.
Just imagine how much more potent this defense would be with an outside linebacker like Tampa Bay's Lavonte David or Carolina's Thomas Davis roaming the flats. And I ranked this list even before Seattle outside linebacker Malcolm Smith was named Super Bowl MVP, but it seems especially fitting now.
As for the guys who are under contract, I think the Saints are set with their two starting inside linebackers, Lofton and Hawthorne. Lofton played especially well down the stretch this past season, and he has been a great addition as an every-down middle linebacker, captain and leader of the defense. What a smooth transition he has made since arriving as a free agent in 2012. Hawthorne, on the other hand, struggled when he first arrived in 2012, mostly because of injuries. But he bounced back this past year and played at a high level. Hawthorne's contract could become an issue in 2015, but for now he comes at a good rate.
Reddick will also be back, and I could see him playing a more prominent role after he earned playing time as an undrafted rookie in 2013. He played a lot on special teams and joined the defense in jumbo packages. He could have a future as an inside linebacker if he continues to deliver on his potential.
The two biggest question marks among the unrestricted free agents are Vilma and Haralson. I know the popular opinion is that Vilma will be gone after he missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, and he'll be 32 in the spring. However, if he wants to try and play this summer, the Saints would be the team most likely to give him that opportunity since he's been such a valued member of the organization. Haralson is also coming off of a season-ending pectoral injury, but I could also see him back at a minimal contract after he seemed like such a good veteran fit in a part-time role last year.
Humber and Herring are two of the Saints' most valued special teamers, so they could both be back. Humber showed promise as a backup middle linebacker in the summer, as well, so his versatility is valuable.
The final drive: First of all, quarterback Cam Newton lived up to his "Superman" persona on the Panthers’ 32-second touchdown drive to win the game in the final minute. It was a stunning development after Newton had done practically nothing since the opening drive. But he deserves tons of credit for the way he stood in the pocket and delivered three strikes for a total of 65 yards to win the game.
The Saints’ four-man pass rush was more successful on the second play of the drive, with Walker batting down a pass at the line of scrimmage. But Newton followed with a nice 14-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen on second-and-10 against tight coverage by Harper (and also against a four-man rush).
Newton then spiked the ball to stop the clock. Then he followed with the go-ahead 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Domenik Hixon in the left corner of the end zone. The Saints blitzed with six pass-rushers on the play, but no one got pressure on Newton. Safety Malcolm Jenkins came the closest, but his path was slightly altered by just enough of a shove from fullback Mike Tolbert. … In the end zone, Hixon broke open with a sharp out route about two yards in front of cornerback Corey White, who was in single coverage.
Williams set free: The other big breakdown for the Saints' defense came on a one-play touchdown drive before halftime. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams broke free for a 43-yard touchdown run up the middle. The Saints' defense got caught being over-aggressive on the play, blitzing seven men, including linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback White. That left very few defenders beyond the line of scrimmage when Williams came bursting through a big hole in the middle.
One of them -- linebacker David Hawthorne -- was taken out by a tremendous block from pulling left guard Travelle Wharton. The other -- Harper -- took himself out of the play by running to the outside of the line instead of the pile-up in the middle. It’s unclear if that was Harper's job (to make sure and contain the backside) or if he guessed wrong.
Harper review: I noticed Harper catching a lot of flak on social media for showing up in the vicinity of so many of those big plays Sunday. But Harper didn't look as bad on play-by-play review of the tape. He had solid coverage on Olsen at times. And clearly the Saints’ entire pass coverage was excellent throughout the day -- even after starting safety Kenny Vaccaro left with a fractured ankle in the first quarter.
Losing Vaccaro will hurt the Saints’ defense, though, even if Harper is a solid replacement. Vaccaro had been excellent lately -- including the first quarter of Sunday’s game in both coverage and as an open-field tackler (though he did earn a horse-collar and taunting penalty during his best tackle).
Coverage highs/lows: As I said, the coverage was mostly excellent on a day when Newton completed a total of 10 passes in the first 59 minutes of the game (and was sacked four times). The Saints’ defensive highlight was an interception by Jenkins in the red zone in the first quarter. Newton held the ball for a long time searching for an open receiver against a four-man rush (with Vaccaro in tight coverage against top receiver Steve Smith, among other matchups). Eventually, Newton tried to fire off a short pass to Ginn, but he threw behind him, and Ginn tipped the ball up in the air. Jenkins dove to catch the fluttering ball from behind.
The Saints’ coverage wasn’t perfect, though. They allowed a 44-yard pass to Smith on that first drive. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis had pretty good coverage on Smith, but Smith beat him by a half-step down the field. And Newton dropped a gorgeous pass into a tight window for Smith to make a great catch (Lewis tried to swat the ball away but missed). The Saints blitzed six on that play, but Newton got rid of the ball just before safety Jenkins hit him.
The Saints later allowed a 29-yard pass to Ginn as well when he broke wide open in zone coverage against an apparent missed assignment.
Bringing heat: The Saints had four sacks in the game -- coming in a variety of ways (once with a three-man rush, once with a four-man rush and twice with blitzes). Outside linebacker Junior Galette’s sack on third-and-6 in the third quarter was impressive since it came on a three-man rush. He was the only rusher being single-teamed, and he got past standout left tackle Jordan Gross with a wicked spin move. And once again, the Saints’ coverage was excellent on that play -- including a good adjustment by new cornerback Trevin Wade that was highlighted on the replay.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks also made a great effort on a fourth-quarter sack during a four-man rush. He collapsed right guard Nate Chandler to swallow up Newton.
Lofton also made a great play on his sack on third-and-2 in the first quarter. Lofton found a clear path to Newton on a delayed blitz, and he did a great job of wrapping up Newton’s legs and not letting him escape.
And end Cameron Jordan finished off a 17-yard sack on third-and-8 in the second quarter on a heavy blitz that swarmed Newton from the start.
The Saints also pressured Newton into some key incompletions or short passes -- including a six-man rush from their "amoeba" formation on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, when Harper hit Newton as he threw.
Hawthorne shines: The run defense was mostly excellent -- aside from Williams' breakaway TD. The Panthers had 17 other carries for a total of 38 yards. Hicks continued to stand out against the run. But the defender who shined most often on film for the second week in a row was Hawthorne -- who made great open-field hits against Newton on a keeper, Williams on a screen pass and Tolbert on a check-down pass, among other plays.
The Saints defense had terrible breakdowns during four back-breaking big plays by the Rams (all in the first half). Meanwhile, the Saints didn't make any big plays of their own (zero turnovers for the third straight game and zero sacks).
Here are my observations after reviewing the tape:
Lowest point: The Saints' worst defensive play of the game came early -- when they gave up a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end/fullback Cory Harkey. The whole play was a disaster. The Saints sent five or six defenders on a blitz (depending on whether outside linebacker Junior Galette was supposed to be rushing or covering Harkey -- which was hard to tell from the replay). Either way, Harkey was wide open after running into the flat from the fullback position, and quarterback Kellen Clemens threw the ball before any blitz pressure came anywhere close to him.
Run over: Later in the first half, the Saints gave up runs of 29 yards and 40 yards to Rams rookie running back Zac Stacy (the first one setting up a touchdown and the second one scoring a touchdown). They were also huge miscues by the defense -- but at least both of those plays should be credited to some perfectly-executed blocks by the Rams, too.
Both plays came around the right end, and both were designed to have tight end Lance Kendricks take out Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks with a crack-back block at the line of scrimmage. Then Stacy followed pulling right tackle Joe Barksdale and pulling right guard Rodger Saffold around the corner.
On the 29-yard run, Barksdale, Saffold and tight end Jared Cook all combined to flatten safety Roman Harper to the ground at the line of scrimmage. Then Saffold and Cook also knocked linebacker David Hawthorne to the side. Stacy then hurdled some of the fallen bodies while breaking into the open field. And to make matters worse, Jenkins was flagged an extra 14 yards for a late shove out of bounds at the end of the run.
On the 40-yard run, the Saints were in a different defensive front, but the Rams' blocking scheme was just as effective. Kendricks took out Hicks, Saffold took out Lofton, and Barksdale ran into outside linebacker Parys Haralson. Haralson actually did a good job fighting off the block, but then he missed the tackle against Stacy as he came around the corner. Stacy then flashed some impressive speed while shooting past Jenkins, who took too shallow of an angle at him. After that, no one had a chance to catch Stacy.
No pressure: The Saints got virtually zero pressure on Clemens all day (though he only dropped back to pass a total of 20 times). And they were burned several times when they tried to blitz. Harkey's touchdown came against a blitz. So did Clemens' 4-yard touchdown pass to Kendricks later in the first quarter. And so did Clemens' 31-yard pass to receiver Chris Givens on a third-and-5 play that kept alive another TD drive in the second quarter.
Kendricks broke wide open on his touchdown pass. It appeared to be a mistake by linebacker Will Herring, who bumped Kendricks at the line of scrimmage, then let him go as if he expected help from behind. But it also could have been a missed assignment by Lewis or Jenkins, who both followed their men on slant routes to the middle of the field.
The 31-yard pass to Givens was clearly a mistake by White, who fell down while chasing Givens on a short route across the middle of the field. After White fell, Givens had clear sailing for another 20 yards. Then to make things a little worse, safety Isa Abdul-Quddus whiffed on an open-field tackle attempt toward the end of the play.
Caught off guard: The Saints' special teams were also caught off guard for a big play -- the Rams' surprise onside kick in the first quarter. The kick was about as perfectly-executed as you'll ever see. Kicker Greg Zuerlein's kick sailed high into the air, and receiver Stedman Bailey went up and caught it at its highest point as if it was a pass. Saints linebacker Ramon Humber was actually in position to take a swipe at the ball in the air, but he lost the jump ball to Bailey. Meanwhile, Hawthorne and running back Travaris Cadet weren't in position to make a play after initially running away from the play (though it's unclear if they could have made a difference regardless).
Crying foul: The Saints made things worse on themselves with three personal-foul penalties in the first quarter. I thought the first two were a little iffy (Lofton hitting Clemens a tad late when Clemens slid at the end of a read-option keeper, then Jenkins' late hit against Stacy). Although Jenkins clearly shoved Stacy after he was already out of bounds, Stacy also might have gotten away with a stiff-arm against Jenkins' face mask leading up to it.
The last penalty, however, was clearly a bad call. Jenkins was flagged for launching into receiver Austin Pettis, but Pettis got hit in the shoulders, and Jenkins made the hit with his hands and shoulder. There was no helmet contact from either player.
Something good: Aside from those game-breaking runs by Stacy, the Saints' run defense actually played well for much of the game. The Rams had a total of 13 runs and two short passes that gained 1 yard or less -- five that went for negative yards. Hawthorne was particular good, making several open-field tackles on run plays and short passes (finishing with 10 solo tackles). Lofton, Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro also had one or two nice solo run stuffs as well.
The 5-foot-9, 217-pounder has always stood out as a power runner. But he's surprisingly slippery as well. Just like the New Orleans Saints said two weeks ago after their game against the New York Jets, teams know that Gore is gonna be running the football "stepping off the bus." But they can't stop him anyway.
Here's what the Saints have been saying about Gore this week:
LB Parys Haralson (longtime former 49ers teammate): "Any time you play the 49ers offense and Frank Gore is there, you have to be able to stop Frank. I think that's common sense. You have to stop Frank Gore. ... Got to find a way to tackle him. It's what it calls for. Me and Frank are friends. Being there and knowing how he practices and being on the sidelines watching him against other defenses, you know what he brings to the table. He's a physical runner. He's one of the best running backs I think I've seen play the game of football."
LB Curtis Lofton: "I think he has the best pad level of any running back I've ever played against. ... I think it starts up front with the offensive line. They do a lot of shifts, motions, pulling a ton of guys. And, you know, they've got a big, physical line. And what makes Frank Gore special is he's a north and south runner. And so, when they get those big guys on you, you've got to be able to punch and get off and make plays. And he runs so low to the ground."
Coach Sean Payton: "He's a player we coached back in 2006 at the Pro Bowl. He is very durable. He has very good vision and balance, and I would describe him as strong. He's a guy that's difficult to bring down with one player. ... The first thing that comes to my mind is consistency and how long he has done it. He is very durable and he was outstanding coaching him in the Hawaii that one season. He's a special player."
LB David Hawthorne: "Frank, he's been a monster, man, ever since I've been in the league. I remember when I was in Seattle, he was like the main attraction. We always knew that we had him twice a year. We always knew what kind of runner he was. And you know, the plan of attack is you have to come at him. And you have to make a conscious effort to not let him slip by your vision. ... I feel like he's one of those guys that he's never done running, until you absolutely take his cleats out of the ground and put him on the ground. His legs are always churning. He's always fighting for extra yards."
It’s unclear when Lofton was injured or how severe the injury is, since the Saints’ injury report came out after Friday’s media access. So it’s hard to predict whether he’ll be available for Sunday’s game.
If the Saints have to play without both of their starting inside linebackers, they’ll lean on backups Ramon Humber, Will Herring and Kevin Reddick – and possibly on outside linebacker Parys Haralson. Mostly they’ll lean on defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s creativity, with different alignments and formations.
The Saints offense appears to be in good shape heading into Sunday’s game. Tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston and guard Jahri Evans are officially listed as questionable. But they all practiced on a limited basis again Friday – the latest encouraging sign that they’ll be good to go.
Graham smiled as he sidestepped questions about his lingering foot injury and the new elbow injury he suffered during last Sunday’s game at the New York Jets. He finished that game without showing any noticeable limitations. And he has practiced on a limited basis the past two days. So chances are, he’ll be fine Sunday.
“The elbow’s the elbow. It’s still connected. It’s still there, so I’m going to keep using it,” Graham said.
Graham later added, “The foot is what it is. And it's going to be what it is. And I'm going to keep playing the way I play, and doing what I can to be healthy and be out there Sundays. That's the best I can do."
Colston’s status is a little more ambiguous since he was held out of last Sunday’s game with a knee injury. But it’s likely he will return after practicing on a limited basis every day this week. Colston declined to comment Friday.
The Saints’ defense, meanwhile, is littered with injury question marks.
A total of seven defensive players are listed as questionable – including Lofton and Hawthorne. End Cameron Jordan (ankle) and safety Malcolm Jenkins (knee) both returned to practice on a limited basis Friday for the first time this week. Jordan is more likely to play, since he’s been playing through the nagging ankle injury for the last two weeks. Jenkins is harder to predict, since he just returned to practice for the first time Friday after missing nearly two weeks with the knee injury.
Fellow safety Roman Harper (knee) is in the same boat, even though he practiced fully all week. Harper has been out since Week 2, and coach Sean Payton said it might take longer for him to get up to speed than some of the others on the list.
Defensive linemen Tom Johnson (hip) and Tyrunn Walker (knee) are listed as questionable, but they should be good to go after practicing fully all week.
Jordan has been able to play through the ankle injury during the past two games, despite being limited in practice. So it’s tough to predict his status. The same goes for Hawthorne, who played the entire game last week.
Jenkins seems like more of a long shot since he’s been sidelined for nearly two weeks now. But he was suited up for practice Thursday and did a little individual work for the first time since suffering his injury.
“I’m getting there. Taking it day by day. I got out there and ran around a little bit,” Jenkins said. “So we’ll see what happens.”
It will help the Saints’ depth at safety if veteran Roman Harper is able to return from his own lingering knee injury that has kept him out since Week 2. Harper has practiced fully this week after returning on a limited basis last week. Coach Sean Payton, however, stressed that Harper was facing a longer rehab period than most because he missed so much time.
Graham and Evans should both be OK to play Sunday since they played through the same injuries last week -- though it will increase their odds if they’re able to come back out and practice again on Friday. The same goes for Colston. He was held out of last Sunday’s game with the knee injury after he was only able to practice once last week.
Everyone else on the Saints’ roster practiced fully Thursday.
Galette everywhere: Outside linebacker Junior Galette had an outstanding performance -- one that was much more appreciated from watching the tape than from reading the stat sheet. His biggest play of the day was a sack and forced fumble in the second quarter when he beat tight end Scott Chandler with a speed move during a blitz (the Bills recovered, though). But Galette did much more that may have gone unnoticed.
He forced a critical holding penalty against Chandler to nullify a 55-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. And he pressured quarterback Thad Lewis into at least one other incomplete pass. Galette was equally impressive against the run, helping to stop tailback Fred Jackson for a 3-yard loss and a zero-yard gain. And at least twice, Galette helped set up his teammates for big plays.
On the game's first play, the Bills ran the read-option with Lewis faking a handoff to Jackson. Lewis looked as though he might run to the right, but Galette did a great job of staying home and blocking his path. So Lewis ran left instead and got clobbered by linebacker David Hawthorne, who forced a fumble with a vicious hit. Later in the fourth quarter, Galette helped flush Lewis out of the pocket to set up teammate Glenn Foster for a 1-yard sack.
Hawthorne's hot start: Hawthorne also sacked Lewis on the Bills' third play of the game when the Saints sent seven men on a blitz. Hawthorne has continued to play well this season now that he's healthy.
Bringing blitzes: This was probably the most the Saints blitzed all season. They were officially credited with 15 blitzes on passing plays by ESPN Stats & Information -- one fewer than their previous season-high against New England. But they also blitzed on several run plays and on at least three other pass plays that were nullified by penalty.
The Saints blitzed a lot on that second drive to make sure Lewis didn't get comfortable inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. They got caught over-pursuing on a 15-yard run by Jackson but eventually forced Buffalo to settle for a missed 50-yard field goal. They sprinkled several more blitzes throughout the game -- including a few more with seven rushers.
Jordan un-tucked: Defensive end Cameron Jordan's sack and forced fumble in the first quarter came on a four-man rush. It was all him. He beat right tackle Erick Pears with a power move to the inside, popped the ball loose from Lewis with a big hit and recovered the ball himself.
Jordan was lucky that the NFL changed its "tuck rule" before this season, though. Lewis was in the act of trying to tuck the ball down when he got hit.
Run D highs, lows: The Saints' run defense was a little shaky early, with the 15-yard gain by Jackson and a 20-yard gain by Tashard Choice, which also caught the Saints over-pursuing on a blitz. But the Saints did a good job of shutting down the run for most of the game. They held Buffalo to 53 rushing yards on 23 other runs and a total of 13 yards on nine carries in the second half. Galette, defensive end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro all had standout days against the run. Vaccaro had two tackles for loss.
Greer bailed out: If not for the holding call mentioned above, Saints cornerback Jabari Greer would have been burned for the 55-yard TD pass to receiver T.J. Graham. Greer tried to jump the route but misjudged the ball by several yards. It was a rare gamble by Greer, who is usually solid in deep coverage.
Overall, the Saints' pass defense was good. Fellow cornerback Keenan Lewis intercepted a pass by Lewis in the fourth quarter that was so off-target that it was hard to tell who was the intended receiver. Cornerback Chris Carr also prevented a touchdown with blanket coverage on Chandler in the second quarter (that flirted with being pass interference).
Chandler did get too wide open a couple times on a field goal drive, though. And Vaccaro got burned by receiver Stevie Johnson on a 13-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter when Vaccaro failed to jam him off the line.
White's penalties: Cornerback Corey White was flagged twice for roughing the passer with head shots on Lewis while blitzing. The first one looked like a tough break. White appeared to be aiming for Lewis' midsection, but Lewis lowered his head as he crouched to absorb the hit. The second time, White went too high, almost bear-hugging Lewis as their heads hit. Afterward, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was seen on the sideline offering pointers to White.
White's aggressive play did pay off a couple of times, though. He snuffed out a quick out-pass to Johnson for a 2-yard loss in the second quarter. And he shot down the field to force a fumble on a punt return by Leodis McKelvin in the fourth (though Buffalo recovered).
Naturally, however, there were plenty of good things to like about New Orleans’ performance. And Payton reiterated one of his favorite expressions Monday that the tape is never as good or bad as you think the next day.
Payton also singled out linebacker David Hawthorne, who made a huge play on the first snap of the game, hitting Lewis hard on a read-option run and forcing a fumble. He mentioned cornerback Keenan Lewis, who helped clinch the game with a fourth-quarter interception. He talked about the big plays made by the offense, describing quarterback Drew Brees as "very sharp" during his five-touchdown performance and complimenting tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills.
“I think that Kenny Stills continues to really play well at a high level and at a consistent level where he’s made some big plays for us,” Payton said of the rookie, who has six catches for 193 yards and three touchdowns over the past two games.
The players who were present in the Saints’ locker room Monday morning said much of the same things -- acknowledging both the things they did well and the things that need to be cleaned up.
“You really want to bug coach? Don’t put enough guys on the field," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said of an issue that crept up on both offense and defense Sunday. "Have a procedural, a pre-snap kind of deal. Those types of things drive him nuts, and it looks sloppy. It doesn’t look good. At the end of the day, when we get into the part of the season that we hope to be in, towards the end of the year where you’re playing for seeding and you’re in playoff games -- places we want to go -- those teams will beat you because of those things. And those are things that you can fix.
"But a lot of times you can’t fix them unless they’re brought up and emphasized. And that’s a time that he has everyone’s ears and everyone is listening, and I think those messages can kind of stick in those moments."
Looking back: Outside linebacker Junior Galette is having a breakout season now that he’s a full-time starter in his fourth year. He has three sacks while playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role. He also has 16 hurries and six quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus, many of which have led to sacks by teammates. And he made two big-time run stuffs behind the line of scrimmage last week at New England that were as good as sacks. Galette has stepped up at a time when he was sorely needed, with veteran outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler suffering major injuries this summer.
Veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton has continued to be a solid every-down player as the team’s signal-caller and a defensive captain. He leads the team with 47 tackles (though PFF has him credited for seven missed tackles, which is tied for fifth in the NFL). Fellow starter David Hawthorne has also been solid, showing improvement after an injury-plagued 2012 season. Both starters have played at a similar solid level -- both slightly better against the run, both with one sack on blitzes.
Backups Ramon Humber, Parys Haralson and Martez Wilson have all made decent contributions as seldom-used backups. The Saints play so much nickel and dime defense that they don’t rotate in that many linebackers. Wilson’s lack of playing time has been a surprise after he’s shown flashes as a dynamic athlete in the past. But part of the reason could be the schemes New Orleans prefers to play, and part of the reason could be how well Galette is playing.
Looking forward: It will be interesting to see how the Saints decide to add veteran inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the mix once he’s eligible to come off of short-term injured reserve next week. Vilma just began practicing on Monday (officially confirmed by NFL transactions log), so they’ll probably bring him along slowly. And it’s hard to predict how effective he’ll be after being plagued by a knee injury off and on for more than two years. But if the Saints like what they see in practice, he could rotate in with Hawthorne and Humber.
The Saints will continue to rely heavily on Galette going forward as their most dynamic pass-rusher. I expect him to keep delivering. But his health will be crucial to the Saints’ fortunes since they don’t have a proven pass-rusher behind him.
Snaps played (out of a possible 375): Lofton 364, Galette 294, Hawthorne 245, Haralson 100, Humber 69, Wilson 41, ILB Will Herring 12, ILB Kevin Reddick 12.
ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “I think Galette’s a good fit here, and he’s come on well. He was pretty productive as a pass-rusher even before this season. And he didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities, but he still would show up on tape consistently when he was out there. So I think he’s long deserved to get this shot, and the scheme change helps him a lot. … And then the inside guys are average. That’s not a knock – I know you call people average, they think that’s a bad thing. But I think they’re just an average group on the inside and not really difference-makers there.”