New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees

METAIRIE, La. – Both the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) control their playoff destinies heading into Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints could clinch the NFC South title Sunday if they win and the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose to the Cleveland Browns. However, if the Saints lose and the Panthers win, the Saints will be mathematically eliminated.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on the latest installment of the Saints’ oldest and most heated rivalry. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Win back the crowd: Far and away, the biggest stunner of New Orleans’ 2014 season has been the current four-game home losing streak. Before that, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs. The Superdome had earned a reputation as one of the last places opponents wanted to set foot inside.

Instead, some of the Saints’ recent performances have been downright hideous (namely their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago). And the home fans have turned downright hostile.

Check out this picture by The Times-Picayune. Everything about it is as unfamiliar as it is unsettling.

That’s the No. 1 thing that has to change Sunday – and potentially in a home playoff game. The Saints need to turn their home-field advantage back into an actual advantage instead of sucking the life out of the place with early miscues.

That means early turnovers by quarterback Drew Brees and others, as we’ve seen in recent home losses, are unforgivable. And the defense can’t get lit up by big plays early.

The Falcons need to be the ones feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable instead of the Saints feeling pressure to perform inside their own building.

“I think you understand how to utilize the home crowd,” Brees said. “Early success, starting fast -- all those things keep the crowd involved, keep 'em loud. Big plays, momentum-changing plays. So you understand when you’re down and you’re not doing those things, you’re kinda taking that out of it, that benefit, that edge. So, man, we’ve gotta get that back.”

It’s kind of a chicken-vs.-the-egg thing to suggest whether the home fans need to pick up the team or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that neither has been happening lately.

Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted that players don’t let the boos affect their performance – but he said they’re well aware that it’s happening. And that it’s deserved.

“I think we’re going to have a great environment. That’s what’s special about playing at home,” Payton said. “Absolutely, we’re going to need every person in there to be as loud as can be, and we’re going to need to play well. Our fan base is real smart. They understand that. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Defending Falcons’ receivers: A huge X-factor in this game is whether or not Falcons receiver Julio Jones will play. Before he injured his hip two weeks ago, he was on a tear with 21 catches for 448 yards – in just a two-week span!

Payton said it obviously makes a difference whether or not Jones plays. But both Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted it didn’t alter their preparation. And they’re both well aware of how deep Atlanta’s receivers group is with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.

The Saints were torched by Atlanta’s passing game in a 37-34 overtime loss in Week 1, with QB Matt Ryan throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards. The Saints did a decent job of preventing Jones from burning them over the top. Instead, they were ripped apart underneath by all four receivers and a couple running backs – thanks in part to a lot of missed tackles.

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (whom I would love to see in a one-on-one matchup with a healthy Jones) said the Saints were surprised by how the Falcons used Hester. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said he and fellow safety Jairus Byrd played too deep and that the Saints need to use more of an attacking approach.

Rob Ryan bluntly said, “I don’t think we played very well on defense, I don’t think we coached very well on defense, and the simple fact is they beat us and they did what they wanted to. … They obviously executed a hell of a lot better than we did.”

Exploiting Falcons’ pass D: Brees needs to torment the Falcons’ pass defense in a similar fashion. Not only do the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (292.5 per game), but they also rank dead last in sacks (16).

Payton and the Saints' players said Atlanta’s run defense has improved in recent weeks. That’s all the more reason why the Saints’ season will come down to Brees being able to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness. Brees needs to be the guy who’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, with a league-best 70.0 completion percentage – and not the guy who’s stumbled too many times with 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles.

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
Dec 19
video When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.

METAIRIE, La. – Nick Toon’s first career fumble was a potential disaster.

The New Orleans Saints started their first offensive drive with great field position this past Monday night, thanks to a turnover. But on their second play, Toon lost a fumble at the Chicago Bears’ 4-yard line when he got popped by a helmet right on the ball.

Not only could it have derailed the Saints’ momentum in the game, but it also could have sabotaged the growing opportunity that Toon has finally received in his third NFL season.

True to form, however, Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees went back to Toon quickly, completing a 10-yard pass to him later in the first quarter. He finished with four catches for 43 yards in New Orleans’ 31-15 victory.

“That’s huge,” Toon said of the Saints sticking with him. “Obviously [the fumble was] unfortunate, but that’s part of the game. And you’ve gotta have a next-play mentality -- watch the film, learn from it and not let it happen again.”

Brees said “no doubt, 100 percent” he has always put an emphasis on going back to guys soon after things such as fumbles or dropped passes to make sure they maintain their confidence – though he stressed that’s not something he worries about with Toon.

Payton agreed – though he didn’t exonerate Toon for his lack of ball security.

“I think he can be carrying it tighter than he was,” Payton said. “[But] I think Nick is someone that will work hard at correcting that and came back and gave us some good snaps the rest of the night.”

Toon has been the biggest beneficiary since Saints rookie Brandin Cooks went down with a season-ending thumb injury last month, as they play a similar position in the base offense.

After being inactive for most of the first 10 games, Toon has 13 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown in the past four games. He matched his career-high with four catches in each of the past two games.

So far, Toon has done a better job of taking advantage of his opportunity than he did last season, when he had two crucial drops in a loss to the New York Jets while getting a chance to play while starter Marques Colston was injured.

Toon, a fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin in 2012, spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He’s had strong performances every year in training camp, which has always earned him a spot on the 53-man roster. But he hasn’t been able to consistently crack the top-four rotation until now.

“We all want to be out there on the field contributing and being a part of what’s going on. It’s great to be out there helping out,” Toon said. “It definitely took a little bit of patience, but that’s just how things panned out. And I’m happy to be out there contributing and hope to keep improving every week and building off what I’ve done so far.”

How Toon performs this season could be critical for his future, especially with Colston’s future uncertain because of a high salary.
METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees will make his 200th career start on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. And the New Orleans Saints quarterback has made a whole lot of history on his way there.

Brees will become the ninth quarterback in NFL history to start 200 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And he’ll have the most passing yards (55,218), passing touchdowns (393), completions (4,868) and attempts (7,346) of any quarterback to reach that mark.

Brees’ career completion percentage of 66.2 percent also ranks first in NFL history. His completion percentage this season is 70.0, which ranks sixth all-time. He also ranks first (71.2 in 2011) and second (70.6 in 2009) on that list.

Last but not least, Brees is on pace for 4,981 yards this season. He needs to average 321 yards in the last two games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay to reach 5,000 for the fourth straight season and the fifth time in his career. No other NFL quarterback has ever thrown for 5,000 yards more than once.

QB snapshot: Drew Brees

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
A quick observation of quarterback Drew Brees and how he played in the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory in Week 15:

Suddenly Brees has become human at home and unstoppable on the road. Brees gave another outstanding performance Monday night against the Chicago Bears despite some chilly temps and a little wind and rain. He completed 18 of his first 20 passes and finished 29-of-36 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

It was a calm, cool and collected performance that featured a lot of throws to tight ends and running back Pierre Thomas -- but also a few to his receivers downfield as he completed at least four passes to five different guys.

And it was a far cry from last week's disaster at home against Carolina, when Brees forced an early interception in a 41-10 loss.

"I think we responded well as a team," Brees said when asked if he was harder on himself than usual after such a spectacular loss. "We were embarrassed about what happened last week. We know we're better than that and certainly felt a great sense of urgency going into this game just knowing what's at stake and knowing what a win would do for us -- not just in the standings, but from a confidence standpoint."

Mother Nature helped. A steady rain let up just around kickoff time, which allowed the Saints to pick on Chicago's porous pass defense.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was one completion shy of the best start of his career (19-of-21 vs. Atlanta in 2009). And he's tied with Peyton Manning for the most 300-yard, three-TD games in NFL history (46).
CHICAGO -- The New Orleans Saints shocked their season back to life once again Monday with a thorough 31-15 thrashing of a Chicago Bears team that was walking dead.

It was an impressive display of resilience from a team that had hit rock bottom just a week earlier with a 31-point loss at home to the Carolina Panthers.

But we've seen this act before from these Saints (6-8). Now the question is: Will they finally take advantage?

Will they finally build off a performance like this and come back with an even bigger win six days from now at home against the 5-9 Atlanta Falcons?

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast"Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Drew Brees said after passing for 375 yards and three TDs against the Bears.
Somehow, the Saints still control their own destiny in the pitiful NFC South. Now they need to prove they actually deserve it.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success, too," quarterback Drew Brees said after his 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions helped the Saints jump to a 21-0 lead before a lukewarm finish.

The last time the Saints took over sole possession of first place in the NFC South, in Week 9, they responded by losing their next three games -- all at home.

Then they had an apparent season-saving win at Pittsburgh in Week 13 -- and followed up with that epic fail against the Panthers.

"Oh, man, learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Brees said. "Typically when you lose a game, everybody's coming in and you're real hard on yourself, coaches are on you, that week of practice is amped up a little bit. But the tendency after success is to relax, and it's not time to relax.

"It's time to, man, hit the pedal to the metal and continue to get better."

The atmosphere around Saints camp last week was as intense as it's ever been in the Sean Payton regime, according to longtime running back Pierre Thomas. Veteran players demanded more maturity and professionalism out of the team. A couple of guys were demoted, another got cut and an increased sense of urgency was demanded from everyone.

And they delivered. Especially the defense, which had seemingly established itself as the worst in the NFL a week earlier (at least according to ESPN Stats & Information's efficiency ratings).

Sure, the abysmal Bears offense did everything but take a knee from the opening series. But the Saints pounced on quarterback Jay Cutler like a wounded animal with a season-high seven sacks and a season-high three interceptions.

At times, the performance was a bit sloppy on both sides of the ball. But it was fiery. Payton's opening statement after the game was, "I was pleased with the energy level" -- a complete 180 from the previous week, when he opened with the word "embarrassing."

"We had seven sacks today?" said Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks, who had his best individual play of the season when he sacked both Cutler and the offensive lineman who tried to get in between them. "I don't think anybody was counting. We were just trying to get in there and get some."

To a man, however, the Saints insisted that they can't be satisfied -- a problem that has plagued them too often this season.

Heck, it was probably the Saints' problem to start with, since so many people dumped Super Bowl expectations onto them.

"I'm proud of [the effort]," said Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who responded Monday night after being the one individual who was called out more publicly than any other. "At the same time, I shouldn't be proud of effort. It should be like that every game."

"We know how good we can be. We also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two sacks despite being limited by a knee injury.

"The message is always heard. We have the best coaches in the business," Galette said. "I just know on defense, we have a lot of young guys. It hasn't been as consistent as we usually are. Obviously, we have some growing pains.

"At the end of the day, we're still talented, and I still feel like we have a shot at this thing."

'The better Saints team showed up'

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
CHICAGO -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears:

Saints respond: The Saints (6-8) were challenged like never before -- both internally and externally -- after their "embarrassing" 41-10 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers last week. Coach Sean Payton made some roster changes, and he and veteran leaders demanded a sense of urgency. And they got it. Though it wasn't a perfect win, the first words out of Payton's mouth were, "I was pleased with the energy level."

"All year, you hear people saying that you don't know what team is gonna show up. The better Saints team showed up tonight," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two of the Saints' seven sacks. "We were hungrier and more desperate. ... When we play our A-game, we're hard to stop.

"We know how good we can be, but we also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year."

Vaccaro responds: No individual player was more publicly called out than safety Kenny Vaccaro, whose "demotion" turned out to be a switch back to the nickelback role he thrived in last year. Vaccaro wound up playing an estimated two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps -- and he played on all four special teams for the first time in his career. He came up with a huge run stuff when the Bears tried faking a punt.

Payton called Vaccaro's preparation and performance "outstanding." Vaccaro said it was easy for him to switch back to his familiar role, but he's still determined to develop as a true safety going forward. "This will probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally," Vaccaro said.

Upping the ante: Now the trick is bringing the same sense of urgency into next week's home date with the Atlanta Falcons (5-9), which could well decide the fate of the NFC South.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success too," quarterback Drew Brees said of a problem that has crept up often with the Saints this year. "Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15

CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field:

What it means: The good Saints showed up again and vaulted into sole possession of first place in the NFC South at 6-8. Of course, this performance comes with a huge disclaimer: They did it against a Bears team (5-9) that has clearly thrown in the towel and repeatedly self-destructed in this game.

Now the Saints will have to prove they can string two good games together, with a critical divisional showdown at home against the Atlanta Falcons (5-9) in six days. This was certainly a great start, with Drew Brees and the defense both giving outstanding bounce-back performances.

Stock watch: Everyone's stock went way down last week, and everyone's went way up Monday night. Welcome to the Saints' 2014 roller-coaster ride.

The most remarkable resurgence was on defense, after that unit hit rock-bottom in the previous Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Saints made a handful of lineup changes in their secondary, with cornerback Terrence Frederick and safety Jamarca Sanford starting, while Kenny Vaccaro moved back into a nickel role. But it was rookie safety Pierre Warren who came up biggest with two interceptions.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson also had an interception, and New Orleans sacked Jay Cutler a whopping seven times -- three by David Hawthorne and two by Junior Galette.

Sloppy start, tense finish: The Saints were far from perfect. Their first quarter was way too sloppy, with fumbles and penalties (including a lost fumble by receiver Nick Toon at the Bears' 4-yard line on the second offensive play). They once again failed to show that killer instinct after jumping to a 21-0 lead. They had three punts and a field goal over four drives before finally finishing the job.

Game ball: Warren tried to rip it away from Brees with his two picks. But you can't ignore a performance such as this: 29-of-36 passing, 375 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions.

Brees was 18-of-20 in the first half -- one completion shy of the best start in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He also tied Peyton Manning for the most 300-yard, three-TD games in NFL history with the 46th of his career.

Up next: It doesn't get any bigger than this for two teams with losing records in Week 16. The winner of the Saints-Falcons game will control its own destiny in the NFC South. In fact, the Saints could even clinch if Carolina also loses.

But the Saints will have to prove they can win at home again after losing their past four games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Thanks for submitting your New Orleans Saints questions to me on Twitter. Send them any time @MikeTriplett.

@MikeTriplett: I completely agree with the question -- even though I can't find many numbers that actually support it. The Saints' 421 yards per game are the second most in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, and their 6.1 yards per play are about average in that era. Brees is still on pace to throw for about 4,900 yards with 34 touchdowns. Some of that has come in "garbage time," but not much. The one area where I feel like the Saints are lacking most is the downfield passing game. It seems like defenses are forcing them to check down more than ever, and their success has come from chipping away (they lead the NFL in first downs per game, completion percentage and third-down conversion rates). Clearly longtime vets like Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are having down years. And Jimmy Graham isn't catching nearly as many balls deep down the field as usual -- which is why his catches and touchdowns are normal, but his yards are down. At least I thought that was the obvious answer to this question. But I was surprised to see that Brees' numbers on passes of 20-plus yards in the air are pretty close to normal, as well, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He's on pace to complete 30 of them for 1,041 yards this year. Over the past five years, he averaged 31 of them for 1,119 yards. Honestly, the biggest difference is probably the Saints' awful starting field position (roughly the 24-yard line, which is second-worst in the NFL to the Oakland Raiders). The Saints' defense and kick-return games rarely give the offense the ball back on a short field. So they have to work extra hard for every score. It was the same case last year. In 2013, the Saints averaged only 25.9 points per game. This year, it's 25.6 points per game. And the two offenses have been similar in many ways -- both strengths and weaknesses. They just got away with it more last year because the defense was playing so well.

@MikeTriplett: I took an extended look at this issue Friday (after Grantland's Bill Barnwell took an extended look at it). The three guys who stand out most as candidates to either be released or be forced to accept pay cuts are defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses), linebacker David Hawthorne ($4.5 million) and Colston ($7 million). Obviously parting ways with Colston would be difficult and emotional, but his production clearly isn't matching that lofty salary anymore. Two other possibilities are guards Ben Grubbs ($6.6 million) and Jahri Evans ($7.5 million). But those guys are both still playing fairly well -- especially Evans. And the Saints don't really have any backup plans in place.

@MikeTriplett: It's impossible to predict any consistency from the Saints' offense. But there's no reason Mark Ingram can't get back on the 100-yard train. The Saints might need to rely on their run game more than usual in some wind at Chicago. The Bears' defense has been almost as porous as the Saints' this year. And Ingram still remains New Orleans' lead dog, even with Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson back from injuries.

@MikeTriplett: I've ignored this question at least a dozen times in recent mailbags, but I decided I'd better answer it since it's become the most popular weekly submission. Of course the Saints shouldn't purposely tank the season. As bad as they've been this year, they still have the potential to catch lightning in a bottle -- especially if they're hosting a first-round playoff game (assuming they actually figure out how to win at home again). And even if they didn't get far into the playoffs, one or two playoff games would still probably be a greater reward for all the fight they've put into this season than moving up from something like 21st to ninth in the draft. 
METAIRIE, La. -- This week’s New Orleans Saints roster moves weren’t all bad news. Undrafted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones said he couldn’t stop smiling after being promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster.

"I was actually headed to Waffle House to get a waffle," Jones said Thursday. "They called me and told me to come meet with the coach. After I got the news, I couldn't stop smiling. I'm still smiling. I was smiling at the Waffle House, too."

Jones (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) flew under the radar this summer, mostly because fellow undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman was a bigger name. But the Valdosta State product was solid throughout organized team activities and training camp, and caught three passes for 17 yards and a touchdown in the preseason to earn a spot alongside Coleman on the practice squad.

Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees both said Jones has continued to impress in practice. Payton pointed to his size, speed and the way he’s picked things up very quickly.

"It’s every Wednesday and Thursday you’re watching him out here just be productive," Payton said. "Typically what happens with a practice squad player, when it just keeps repeating itself every week, you can’t help but notice it."

Brees added: "He’s been awesome. Whatever you’ve asked him to do, man, he is young and hungry. Really both of our receivers, Brandon Coleman as well."

"I’m excited for the opportunity he now has," Brees continued. "And I think it sends a great message. There are a lot of guys that have come through this program and started off on the practice squad or (as deep backups) and have just continued to work and have had that vision and that intelligence to know that, 'Man, if I work hard and I listen and I’m coachable and I do the right things, then my opportunity will come.' It’s coming for Seantavius."

It’s hard to project Jones joining the Saints’ four-man receiver rotation right away. Even though they released backup Joe Morgan this week, Robert Meachem would be a more natural replacement.

Anything is possible, though, especially during New Orleans’ current roster shakeup.

"I’m just staying positive, working hard and continue doing what I’ve been doing. No pressure," Jones said. "Actually I always took it every day as if I was on the active roster. There’s really no difference, I guess there’s a pay increase. But I always worked hard."
METAIRIE, La. – Grantland's Bill Barnwell took a detailed look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap constraints that will make it even harder for them to fight their way out of this current mess in 2015 and beyond.

I agree with a lot of what he said about the Saints going all in for 2014 with the way they structured new deals with guys such as Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette. And I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise that the Saints are “a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees.” (They’ll have cap space then, they just won’t have a quarterback).

[+] EnlargeColston
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Marques Colston is due $7 million in salary and bonuses next season.
However, I don’t agree with Barnwell's depiction of "salary-cap hell." I don't see anything that will prevent the Saints from continuing to go “all in” as long as Brees sticks around. Especially with the NFL’s salary cap expected to keep rising significantly in future years. To use Barnwell's term, they can keep "kicking the proverbial can down the road."

The bigger question isn't the Saints' salary-cap constraints themselves. It's just how much you trust the guys that they've invested in -- and whether you think they're worth all the dollars that created the cap constraints. They need better production going forward than they'e gotten this year from many of their core players (including Brees, Graham, Byrd and young defensive building blocks such as Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks).

The two things you fear with salary-cap constraints are that you won’t be able to add any new impact players and that you won’t be able to re-sign your own core players. But the Saints have proven under similar circumstances in recent years that they won’t stop doing those things.

They were supposed to be in salary-cap hell last year, too, and they went out and signed Byrd to a mega-deal and inked Graham and Galette to new long-term deals. In previous years they added core free agents such as Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton and Ben Grubbs.

The “victims” of the salary cap are the older guys who the Saints feel have diminishing value – which is why they parted ways with guys such as Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer.

As Barnwell pointed out, the only one of those guys the Saints really miss is Sproles. But as good as Sproles has been in Philadelphia, his absence has hardly been the Saints’ biggest problem this year. The run game and the short passing game are two of the few things New Orleans is doing consistently well.

I plan to examine all of the Saints’ offseason moves in more detail on Monday, to see if and where they went wrong. But in general, I doubt the Saints regret any of those moves in and of themselves.

Meanwhile, looking ahead to the moves the Saints need to make going forward, it won’t be that hard for them to get under the cap next year by restructuring current deals (as Barnwell broke down in great detail) and by releasing or demanding pay cuts from certain veterans. That group could include Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses) and David Hawthorne ($4.5 million in salary and bonuses). And it will likely include receiver Marques Colston ($7 million in salary and bonuses) in one form or another – as tough as that decision will be.

Decisions also might need to be made with guards Jahri Evans ($7.5 million in salary and bonuses) and Grubbs ($6.6 million in salary and bonuses), who have big salaries and are starting to show signs of decline. But the Saints might keep both of them since they don’t have any obvious backup plan in place yet.
METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees said the New Orleans Saints' mood, the message he sent and the roster moves taking place this week all boil down to one idea: A sense of urgency.

“There’s a lot at stake. We’re playing for a tremendous amount. We couldn’t be playing for more,” Brees said of a 5-8 team that is still in the thick of the NFC South race despite losing four of its last five games. “So that in itself is something that’s exciting, but something that we also expected. We planned to be playing for a lot this year, regardless of record or anything else.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees hopes this week's shakeup will help the Saints get back on track in their quest for an NFC South title.
“As far as really what I would call this week and everything is just a sense of urgency. So, yeah, there were some roster moves made, yeah some other motivating kind of tactics. And yet that’s what it is, it’s a sense of urgency. It’s creating that mindset that, ‘Do whatever you need to do to have as much focus and commitment to that as you’ve ever had before. And let’s make this week our best week of preparation yet whether it’s on the football field, practice field, in the weight room, in the film room, whatever it is.’ So that’s really what it’s about for us, our best week of preparation translating into our best performance.”

The roster moves include the release of receiver Joe Morgan, the promotion of undrafted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones and an expected change to safety Kenny Vaccaro’s role. It’s possible there are others that haven’t been revealed yet.

When asked if the team needed a “shakeup,” Brees said it can be a good thing because it provides opportunities for guys. “And it certainly lets you know that everyone is always fighting for something.”

“You’re always fighting for your job. You’re always fighting for a win and what it means for the team and what it means for what you’re trying to accomplish postseason,” Brees said. “So, yeah, it can be accomplished in many ways. But certainly this is one of them.”

Brees made some strong comments after last Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, saying, "We obviously still have a lot of maturing to do," and, "That's not something any of us want to hang our hat on or leave our signature on. But we've gotta go play like it. We've gotta prepare like it. We have to handle ourselves throughout the week like professionals, like men, with a level of maturity."

On Thursday Brees said he still feels "pretty much the same way after watching the film. It is what I thought it was." But he said that game is already in the "distant past."

As for whether or not the “shakeup” of heading on the road to play against the Chicago Bears in prime time on “Monday Night Football” could also help a team that has lost four straight home games, Brees laughed at the notion but still said he’d like to think so.

“I know these are the same questions that were asked before we went to Pittsburgh (two weeks ago). I hope the results are the same,” Brees said of the Saints' 35-32 victory over the Steelers. “On the road, primetime, ‘Monday Night Football,’ everybody’s watching, we’re right in the thick of the hunt. So, man, this doesn’t get any better.”

There wasn't much to like about the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The best thing I can say after reviewing the tape is that the pass protection wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Quarterback Drew Brees wasn't really harassed much until later in the game when the Saints were in desperation-pass mode.

But everything else was off the mark, from turnovers to dropped passes to a sluggish run game. I already broke down Brees' performance and tight end Jimmy Graham's disappointing performance with a career-high three drops.

Here are some more thoughts after reviewing the tape:

Ingram's fumble: What a horrible way to start. On the second play of the game, Ingram caught a short pass in the flat and had it stripped away by cornerback Josh Norman as he tried to turn and run with it. It was either a great play by Norman -- or some great luck. Norman first hit the ball with his right arm as he reached to wrap up Ingram. Then when Ingram pulled the ball back, Norman's left hand punched the ball loose from behind.

[+] EnlargeBen Benwikere
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsBen Benwikere snuffed out a Saints drive when he intercepted a long pass intended for Joe Morgan.
Brees' interception: This was one of those classic cases of Brees trying to force momentum into the game when the Saints were trailing 10-0 early. He fired deep for receiver Joe Morgan on the first play of the drive. Brees wasn't under any real pressure, but the ball was slightly underthrown after sailing 44 yards in the air, and cornerback Bene Benwikere undercut it.

Brees wasn't overwhelmingly off-target throughout the game -- though he did complete just 11 of 24 passes through three quarters. He had two or three other notable misses. But it didn't help that Saints coach Sean Payton said the team tallied eight dropped passes. And Brees' biggest problem in general seemed to be finding open receivers down the field even when he had time to throw. He was 1-of-8 passing on throws of 15 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information, with most of those coming late in the game.

The drops: Yes, eight dropped passes. At least three of them came from Graham, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It's possible the Saints even credited Graham with four drops, depending on that fine line between a drop and a pass break-up.

There were five blatant drops -- two by Graham, one by tight end Josh Hill, one by tight end Benjamin Watson and one by receiver Marques Colston. Hill's was the one that Payton referenced when he said a player jumped for a pass when he didn't need to be jumping. Running back Pierre Thomas also appeared to drop a pass, though a defender was nearby. Several other passes were broken up by hits from defenders.

Pass protection: Brees wasn't under much pressure early. He actually completed 8 of his first 11 passes -- most of which were checkdowns. The blitz pressure picked up, however, as the game wore on and the Saints became more one-dimensional.

Brees wound up being sacked twice. One came after his first two options were both covered and a twist eventually got past Zach Strief and Jahri Evans. The other came when replacement left tackle Bryce Harris got torched one-on-one.

Harris had a few rough moments late in the game, though Payton later commended him for playing on an injured ankle since the Saints were out of options with starter Terron Armstead also hurt. Watson also had one or two moments where he didn't hold his block long enough in pass protection.

Run game: Whether it was the cause or effect, the Saints' run game quickly became nonexistent as the score became lopsided. Running backs had just six carries in the first half and 10 in the first three quarters.

Ingram did have two great runs of 16 and 11 yards, including good blocks by Evans, Strief and Hill. Evans also had a great block on a meaningless 16-yard run by Thomas late in the game.

There were too many duds, though, with Harris and guard Ben Grubbs each getting blown up once and a variety of linemen, tight ends and receivers taking turns with inefficient blocks.

QB snapshot: Drew Brees

December, 9, 2014
Dec 9
A quick observation of quarterback Drew Brees and how he played in the New Orleans Saints’ 41-10 loss to the Panthers in Week 13:

The Saints’ downfield passing game was woefully out of sync as Brees completed just 1 of 8 throws of 15 yards or more, according to ESPN Stats and Information -- his worst of the season.

Brees actually still leads the NFL with a completion percentage of 54.4 on those throws this year. But everyone was a mess in that area Sunday.

Brees was as much to blame as anyone since he underthrew a deep ball for Joseph Morgan that was intercepted on the Saints' third play and helped the game spiral quickly out of control. Brees also slightly underthrew another 50-yard bomb toward Morgan late in the game, among two or three other off-target throws Sunday.

But Brees didn’t get much help as his receivers dropped a whopping eight passes, according to the team’s count, including a career-high three by Jimmy Graham.

And there were two occasions when Brees or coach Sean Payton appeared to correct Morgan for possibly not running the expected route or adjustment.

Brees finished 29-of-49 for 235 yards and a touchdown -- most of which came in garbage time. He was 11-of-24 for 64 yards through three quarters.

Most of those deep misses didn’t come until the Saints were in desperation mode. And surprisingly, Brees also wasn’t under heavy pressure until late in the game.

The bigger problem early was that Brees didn’t see anything he liked down the field, so he settled for checkdowns. He actually started 8-of-11 but averaged less than 6 yards per completion.

That has been a common theme for the Saints’ offense this year. The difference this time was that they weren’t able to methodically move the chains because of all the drops.
A look at the New Orleans Saints’ snap counts in their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 14:

OFFENSE (70 snaps)
Quarterback – Drew Brees 70
Running back – Pierre Thomas 35, Travaris Cadet 17, Mark Ingram 16, Khiry Robinson 2
Fullback – Erik Lorig 8
Receiver – Marques Colston 62, Kenny Stills 50, Joe Morgan 36, Nick Toon 33
Tight end – Jimmy Graham 54, Benjamin Watson 28, Josh Hill 9
Offensive tackle – Zach Strief 70, Bryce Harris 55, Terron Armstead 15
Guard – Jahri Evans 70, Ben Grubbs 70
Center – Jonathan Goodwin 61, Tim Lelito 9

  • Coach Sean Payton said Robinson was available. But the plan was to use him to spell Ingram -- and there didn’t wind up being enough carries to go around. “Unfortunately we didn’t get that opportunity where Mark was looking to the sidelines saying, ‘I need a break,’” Payton said.
  • Payton said he considered pulling Brees late in the blowout. Instead, he kept him in with a quick-tempo offense featuring screens and draw plays, etc. And he said he emphasized that Brees had to get the ball out. “I certainly didn’t want him getting hit,” Payton said.
  • Payton also revealed that Harris was playing through an ankle injury after he replaced Armstead (neck) -- partly because the Saints didn’t have any good options left on the bench. Harris got steamrolled at least once. But Payton said he was proud of him. “There’s a good portion of that fourth quarter that he stays in there and guts it up and continues to play,” Payton said. “That was pretty impressive.”
  • Goodwin left the game late but said Monday that he just got kicked in the knee. … Toon left early with an undisclosed injury, and his status is unknown.
DEFENSE (74 snaps)
Cornerback – Patrick Robinson 71, Keenan Lewis 48, Corey White 38, Brian Dixon 25
Safety – Pierre Warren 72, Kenny Vaccaro 68, Jamarca Sanford 7, Marcus Ball 4
Outside linebacker – Junior Galette 36, Parys Haralson 35, Kasim Edebali 32
Inside linebacker – Curtis Lofton 74, David Hawthorne 73, Ramon Humber 12, Ronald Powell 2
Defensive end – Cameron Jordan 68, Akiem Hicks 59, Tyrunn Walker 11
Defensive tackle – John Jenkins 52, Brandon Deaderick 27

Thoughts: Galette tried to get back in the game with a leg injury, but he was still hobbling in the third quarter and didn’t appear to return again after that. … Lewis left in the third quarter with what was announced as cramps. He did not return. … Vaccaro left the game late and was spotted talking with trainers. He said Monday that he’s fine and it was just a precaution. … Kudos to Lofton, the only one who played every snap and finished with 17 tackles.