New Orleans Saints: jed collins

New Orleans Saints free-agent center Brian de la Puente is exploring other options. He visited with the Washington Redskins on Wednesday. And there will be “more visits coming” if de la Puente doesn’t sign there, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.

I don’t think the Saints have ruled out the idea of bringing back de la Puente. But clearly there’s a strong chance he could get away.

If de la Puente signs elsewhere, one name that looms as a perfect fit is Jonathan Goodwin. The former Saints center is now a free agent again after spending three years with the San Francisco 49ers. He could step right back into the starting lineup and give the Saints a chance to develop a future replacement.

It’s also possible that a young guy could win the job this year. The Saints like the potential of second-year pro Tim Lelito, though his only experience last year came at the guard position. They could draft a center in the early to middle rounds.

Saints moving on: Two former Saints found work elsewhere Wednesday after the Saints didn’t retain them as restricted free agents -- fullback Jed Collins with the Detroit Lions and defensive lineman Tom Johnson with the Minnesota Vikings.

Collins told ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein that he expected to stay in New Orleans -- even up until Monday night, when he was informed the Saints were going in another direction with new fullback Erik Lorig. Fortunately, Collins landed in a great spot, reuniting with former Saints quarterbacks coach and current Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi up there in “New Orleans North.”

Also Tuesday, Caplan reported that former Saints offensive tackle Charles Brown will visit with the New York Giants.

And veteran cornerback Chris Carr, who spent much of last season in New Orleans, announced his decision to retire on Twitter. Check out his farewell messages at @TriplCarr, including his note to NOLA: “it was a splendid experience playing for the Saints; rich culture, great food, and extremely supported fan base.”

Gleason’s birthday: Sean Payton and the Saints’ staff came out in full force to celebrate Steve Gleason’s 37th birthday on Wednesday, presenting him with a framed No. 37 jersey. And @TeamGleason received some celebrity submissions for their contest asking fans to re-enact Gleason’s famous blocked punt: This entry from Scott Fujita and family; and this from Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, with help from family and friends.
Byrd incentives: ESPN reporter Field Yates passed on a small but interesting detail of safety Jairus Byrd’s new six-year, $54 million contract with the Saints. Technically, $1.5 million could be counted as incentives. Byrd needs to either earn two Pro Bowl invitations of two first-team All-NFL selections between 2014-16 to receive the maximum value of his deal.

It’s essentially a Pro Bowl incentive in reverse. If Byrd doesn’t get any Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition during the next three years, his base salary will deescalate by $500,000 per year over the final three years. If he’s honored only once, his salaries will de-escalate by a total of $1 million.

QB guessing game: Saints quarterback Drew Brees is mentioned in this intriguing piece by ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling on why it’s so difficult for NFL teams to evaluate quarterback prospects.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- His plan had been to stay in New Orleans.

That was what Jed Collins had been told by the Saints. He had spent the past three seasons there on the active roster. He was living in the city in the offseason and he and his wife -- who is expecting the couple's first child -- had settled there.

Collins
Yet on Monday night, things changed in the Collinses' world. The Saints made a move on Erik Lorig from Tampa Bay and told Collins he would not be returning in 2014. A day later, he was on a plane to Detroit and the day after that, he signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Lions.

"I was told throughout the offseason that my home was going to be in New Orleans and I came to find out Monday night that they were moving on and that they felt they had an upgrade at the position," Collins said Wednesday afternoon. "I talked to my family. I've talked to a lot of people and keep telling myself this is the business I'm in. This is, there's no friends in it, this is a win-first and if they feel they got a better player, that's their decision.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to come up here and continue to work on and prove that I'm a top-tier fullback. That's who I believe I am. Even though New Orleans didn't go the way I thought it was going to, sometimes change is the best thing for a person and sometimes it's best for a career."

The Lions were the first team he visited and the only visit he had set up, although he said his agent, Derrick Fox, had been taking calls from other teams. But the Lions made sense to Collins, which is why he signed.

While Collins will be making that change and heading up north, there is a level of familiarity he will have when he arrives for offseason workouts next month.

He knows new Detroit offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi from their time in New Orleans. He had been coached by running back coach Curtis Modkins in Arizona. He knows special teams coach John Bonamego from their mutual time with the Saints.

Essentially every coach he will play for with the Lions, he has been with in some capacity before. So that helped and made Detroit an enticing landing spot when he heard the team would be looking to add a full-time fullback to the roster.

"From the system we had in New Orleans, I think I understand the profile of what they want the fullback to be," Collins said. "Obviously first and foremost, the fullback has to add value to himself everywhere he can, on special teams. Always throughout my career been a special teams guy, get on the field any way possible. But off the field, in the classroom, the fullback has to be a disciplined worker, team-first kind of guy and I try to fit that mold any way I can.

"Offensively, you want the ground-and-pound, you want the tough yards. I think that's what the fullback kind of symbolizes but also a lot of good receivers need a lot of good deep shots and play-action kind of opens that up. So whatever they need, I'm here for, but I know who I am as a player and I think I'm going to fit well."

The Lions clearly did as well, as they brought him almost immediately after he became clearly available. The team had already looked around at other fullbacks, including bringing in Henry Hynoski last week, and Collins was the second fullback to visit.

And that familiarity will be everywhere. Beyond the coaches, Collins played with both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell when they were with the Saints, so even in the same meeting room it will start to look a little bit like New Orleans north.

The playbook might look similar, too, but even from meetings with the staff on Wednesday and his prior knowledge of Lombardi, Collins hinted at changes from what the Saints run.

"He wants to put up points," Collins said. "He wants to control the ball and he wants to have a prolific offense, which he has the skills to do that.

"Will we be the New Orleans Saints offense? I don't think so. I think he will have his personal touches that will make it his own."

He will have a familiar blocking back, though, to help implement it.
Lorig
The New Orleans Saints announced they have agreed to a four-year contract with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Erik Lorig. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Lorig will replace Jed Collins, whom the Saints decided not to re-sign as a restricted free agent.

Clearly, the Saints see Lorig as an upgrade. He's been a solid lead blocker for the Buccaneers throughout his four-year career and comes to the Saints in his prime. However, it’s not immediately clear why New Orleans made the switch, since Lorig and Collins are very similar in terms of age, size and production.

Both players are part-time players, primarily used as lead blockers. They’re also used on special teams and occasionally as receivers out of the backfield.

 

One possible theory is the Saints are looking to build a more traditional rushing offense, since they also traded away runner/receiver Darren Sproles this offseason, which will give more touches to more traditional running backs such as Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But the Saints have not made any comments to that effect.

Lorig actually began his career as a defensive end when he was drafted in the seventh round by the Buccaneers in 2010. He then made the position switch during his rookie year, and he has played in all but one game over the past three seasons.

Collins, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit this week with the Detroit Lions, where he could be reunited with former Saints quarterbacks coach and current Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.

Saints mull change at fullback

March, 16, 2014
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The New Orleans Saints brought in free-agent fullback Erik Lorig for a visit on Friday, a league source confirmed. Lorig, 27, has spent the past four years with the division-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints are considering their options at fullback after they opted not to make a qualifying tender to restricted-free agent Jed Collins. However, New Orleans hasn’t ruled out the idea of bringing Collins back.

Lorig is a very similar player to Collins. He’s a bit taller at 6-foot-4, 250 pounds. (Collins, 28, is 6-1, 255). And both of them have played similar roles -- part-time starters who serve as solid lead-blockers in the run game and occasional receivers out of the backfield.

Lorig has played in all but one game over the past three years, with a total of 23 starts. He has 30 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown in his career. He was drafted in the seventh round in 2010 as a defensive end before making the position switch midway through his rookie season.
The New Orleans Saints still have not officially released running back Darren Sproles. Apparently they're still waiting to see if they can trade him before releasing him. Technically, the Saints don't have to make a move before the start of the new league year Tuesday afternoon since they're already under the salary cap. So I'm not sure what their unofficial deadline is for making a final decision.

The Saints are an estimated $2.6 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN's latest figures. Releasing or trading Sproles would put them more than $6 million under the cap.

No tenders for Collins, Morgan: The Saints won’t make qualifying tenders to restricted free agent fullback Jed Collins and receiver Joe Morgan, according to The Times-Picayune, which cited a source. But the Saints are still interested in re-signing both players at more affordable rates.

I’m surprised on Collins, since I think the Saints value him highly as a blocking back and occasional receiver in their offense. But the fullback position is a part-time role in the Saints’ offense, so they don’t want to invest too much in that area. And perhaps they think they can retain Collins at something like $1 million per year. (The lowest RFA tender would have been around $1.4 million).

The Saints also like Morgan’s potential after he showed so much promise as a deep threat in 2012. But they probably want to minimize any investment on him after he missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

Here was my recent breakdown of the Saints’ restricted free agents.

Interest in Strief, de la Puente: The Saints have not given up on the idea of re-signing free agent offensive linemen Zach Strief and Brian de la Puente. But they will hit the open market today, and there has been some interest in both of them.

Strief's agent Ralph Cindrich said there have been discussions with teams, but nothing finalized yet. Both ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton and the Miami Herald have speculated the Miami Dolphins might have interest in Strief. The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas said the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have shown interest in de la Puente.
The New Orleans Saints made a qualifying offer to restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush at the lowest tender level of $1.4 million, according to a league source.

That means the Saints will have the right to match any other offer Bush might sign with another team. But they would receive no draft-pick compensation if they allow Bush to leave.

That's a little risky, since Bush showed his value as a part-time starter for the Saints last season and could be in line to move up into more of a full-time role this year. But it would have cost the Saints around $2.2 million to move up to the second-round compensation level.

Bush, 26, has been an underrated asset for the Saints over the past two years on both defense and special teams. He played about two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps when he was healthy last year, since they featured so many three-safety packages. Used primarily as a deep safety, he had a career-high 42 tackles.

His role could expand since the Saints released veteran safety Roman Harper, and fellow veteran Malcolm Jenkins is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

The Saints have three other restricted free agents –-- fullback Jed Collins, receiver Joe Morgan and defensive lineman Tom Johnson. They need to make qualifying offers to them by Tuesday to keep them from being unrestricted free agents.

Sources have already indicated that the Saints don't plan to re-sign Johnson. But they will likely try to keep both Collins and Morgan -- whether they offer them tenders or work out contract agreements.
The New Orleans Saints have four restricted free agents this year -- fullback Jed Collins, receiver Joe Morgan, safety Rafael Bush and defensive lineman Tom Johnson.

Based on the NFL rules for restricted free agents, the Saints will need to make a qualifying offer to each player by March 11 to secure the right to match any other offers the players may sign elsewhere. And if the Saints' qualifying offer is high enough, then other teams will also be required to give up draft picks as compensation to sign the players away.

A league source has already indicated the Saints don't plan to re-sign Johnson. But they will have to make a decision on how much to offer the other three.

Since all four of the Saints’ restricted free agents went undrafted out of college, the Saints will essentially have four choices to make with each of them:
  • Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $2.2 million (which comes with a second-round draft pick compensation if they sign elsewhere).
  • Offer a one-year deal worth a projected $1.4 million (which comes with no draft pick compensation).
  • Actually sign the player to a new contract -- which could be for less money or for more (like what the Saints did last year when they signed RFA Junior Galette to a long-term extension).
  • Don’t make any offers, allowing the player to become an unrestricted free agent.

Here's a breakdown of the players:

FB Jed Collins: Age 27. Height/weight: 6-1, 255.

I definitely expect the Saints to keep Collins -- either by offering the second-round tender or by working out a long-term extension that works for both sides. Although the Saints only used Collins on about 40 percent of their offensive snaps last year, they value him in that role. He has played at a high level for New Orleans for the past three years -- as both a lead blocker and occasional pass catcher. He was especially good as a blocker during the second half of last season.

Collins has a total of 39 receptions for 174 yards and four touchdowns over the past three years. Last year, he also ran the ball a career-high 15 times for 45 yards and a touchdown. Before that, he had just four career carries (though two of them went for touchdowns).

Collins found a home in New Orleans after bouncing around with a whopping seven different teams from 2008-2010 as an undrafted free agent out of Washington State, mostly on practice squads.

S Rafael Bush: Age 26. Height/weight: 5-11, 200.

I expect the same thing with Bush -- either the second-round tender or a new long-term extension. The Saints valued him quite a bit last year as a backup safety and a special teams standout. And he could push for an even bigger role this year with Malcolm Jenkins' future uncertain.

Bush played about two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps when he was healthy last year, since they featured so many three-safety packages. Bush was primarily used as a deep safety. He had a career-high 42 tackles last season. He had an interception and a forced fumble in 2012.

The Saints picked up Bush off waivers during the first week of the 2012 season after he was released by the Denver Broncos.

WR Joe Morgan: Age 25. Height/weight: 6-1, 184.

I also think the Saints will try to keep Morgan -- but they may go with the lower tender or try to work out a more affordable contract. Morgan seemed poised for a big year last season as the Saints' No. 3/deep threat receiver. But he missed the entire season after tearing his ACL early in training camp.

The speedy Morgan showed signs of a breakout in a limited role in 2012 with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns. The Saints could certainly use that kind of dynamic playmaking ability to stretch the field if Morgan proves he can bounce back from his injury this summer. But the Saints may also consider drafting a fast receiver.

DL Tom Johnson: Age 29. Height/weight: 6-3, 288.

The Saints have apparently decided to move on from Johnson because of their young depth at the defensive line (including backups John Jenkins, Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker). But Johnson was a solid backup for them over the past three years as both a 4-3 tackle and a 3-4 end. He should definitely get an opportunity elsewhere.

Johnson, whom the Saints plucked from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders, had 55 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in his three years with New Orleans.
The New Orleans Saints reportedly aren’t planning to make a tender offer to restricted free agent defensive lineman Tom Johnson, according to USA Today’s Tom Pelissero.

Johnson
That’s not a huge surprise, since the minimum one-year tender for restricted free agents is projected to be around $1.4 million this year. It’s unclear if the Saints will consider bringing back Johnson on a more affordable deal.

Johnson, 29, has been a solid backup at both tackle and end for the Saints over the past three years since they snagged him from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. The 6-3, 288-pounder has 55 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in his career.

The Saints, however, have some nice young depth at their interior line positions, led by Cameron Jordan, Akiem Hicks, John Jenkins, Glenn Foster and Tyrunn Walker, in addition to veteran tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

The Saints will likely make a stronger push to re-sign their other three restricted free agents -- fullback Jed Collins, safety Rafael Bush and receiver Joe Morgan.

They’ll likely use the second-round tender on Collins (meaning a team would have to give up a second-round pick to sign him away). That tender is projected to cost $2.1 million or more. They may need to use the same tender on Bush, since he could move into a starting role for the Saints this year.

Morgan is tougher to predict since he has shown great potential as a deep-threat receiver, but he also missed last season with a knee injury. They could offer the $1.4 million tender, which comes with no draft-pick compensation, or try to work out a deal for less.

RFA tenders must be made before the start of the new league year on March 11.
A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2014 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

TE Jimmy Graham. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

FB Jed Collins. Age 27, restricted free agent.

TE Benjamin Watson. Age 33, signed through 2015. 2014 salary and bonuses: $1.3 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $1.7 million.

TE Josh Hill. Age 23, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $495,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $496,666.

Analysis:

First of all, the reason that I lumped these two positions together is because the Saints typically lump them together when shaping their roster. A lot of times their backup tight ends serve as backup fullbacks as well.

Secondly, I realize that I screwed up this ranking. I should have either ranked it No. 1 or further down the list at No. 11 or No. 12. I think re-signing Graham is the Saints’ No. 1 priority this offseason -- more important than adding reinforcements at any other position. However, I don’t think there’s any real risk of losing him since the Saints will use the franchise tag to keep him if needed.

And assuming the Saints do keep both Graham and restricted free agent Collins, I think they’re pretty well stocked at both positions going forward.

I’ve written extensively on Graham this month -- on whether he should be considered a tight end or receiver; on why I think he’s worthy of “receiver money” regardless; and on how I think the negotiations will most likely play out.

The bottom line is that I consider Graham the second most important player on the Saints’ roster behind quarterback Drew Brees. So it’s essential that they work out a long-term deal that makes everyone happy this offseason (which I believe will eventually happen -- but it may take a while).

I also expect the Saints to lock up Collins. They’ll probably have to offer him a one-year restricted free-agent tender worth more than $2 million to guarantee he doesn’t get away. But he’s worth it, even though the Saints are a pass-first team. Collins was playing exceptionally well down the stretch as a lead blocker in the run game. Perhaps they’ll aim for a long-term contract extension instead.

Watson is an ideal backup. He’s solid as a receiver, a blocker and a veteran leader -- and most importantly, he comes with an affordable price tag. And the Saints are high on Hill, who played extensively as an undrafted rookie this past season. Hill had his highs and lows during the year. But the team obviously showed trust in him, which bodes well for his future development.

Jordan, Lewis should be Pro Bowlers

December, 27, 2013
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The 2014 Pro Bowl rosters will be announced tonight. Remember, this is the first year under the new format in which the top players are selected, regardless of which conference they play in.

Here's a look at which New Orleans Saints I think will be invited -- and which ones I think should be invited.

The no-brainers:

TE Jimmy Graham. I listed Graham first since he's the one player on the Saints who is clearly the best in the NFL at his position. He has 15 touchdown receptions -- three more than any player in the NFL, including wide receivers. And he leads all tight ends with 81 catches and 1,144 yards.

QB Drew Brees. This needs no explanation. But it's worth pointing out that Brees' season has been even better than people probably realize (since these last two weeks have been so disappointing). He is on pace for 5,100 yards, 37 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a completion percentage of 68.2 and a passer rating of 101.8. Every one of those numbers would be the third best of his eight-year tenure with the Saints.

Should be in (and probably will be):

DE Cameron Jordan. Jordan ranks fourth in the NFL with 12.5 sacks, and he is arguably the MVP of the Saints' revamped defense. The only possible hurdle for Jordan is that the defensive end position is filled with so many big-name players. But it seems like Jordan has gotten a lot of well-deserved national recognition throughout the year. He should earn his first Pro Bowl invite in his third NFL season.

Should be in (but might not make it):

CB Keenan Lewis. I think Lewis has been every bit as valuable as Jordan this year to the Saints' defense. Unfortunately, he hasn't received as much national attention -- probably because he only has three interceptions. And he's stuck in a position group with a lot of big-name players.

I can't believe many of them are playing better than Lewis, though. The fifth-year pro has been outstanding as a No. 1 corner who gets matched up on a weekly basis against the opponent's No. 1 receiver in man coverage. You can count on one hand the number of deep balls or touchdowns he's given up this year. And his arrival in free agency is the main reason why the Saints rank No. 2 in the NFL in pass defense -- a stunning turnaround from last year, when they ranked 31st.

Close calls:

P Thomas Morstead. Morstead finally broke through to make his first Pro Bowl last year, which gives him a huge leg up (get it?) on the competition from a name recognition standpoint. His numbers are slightly down from last year, but he still ranks third in the league in net punting average.

G Jahri Evans and G Ben Grubbs. Two other guys who could get a boost based on name recognition. They aren't having their best seasons -- but a down year for them is still better than many around the league. The Saints' run game has been inconsistent, but both guards have been strong in pass protection for a team that ranks second in the NFL in passing yards. Evans has bounced back strong after battling injuries early in the season.

OLB Junior Galette. Galette has been another breakout player for the Saints' revamped defense with 10 sacks (tied for 14th in the NFL). Galette (a speed rusher) and Jordan (a power rusher) have worked in sync to give the Saints a pass rush we haven't seen in years. But Galette seems to be in the same boat as Lewis, as far as the national attention goes. And this is yet another position group loaded with big-name candidates.

Long shots:

S Kenny Vaccaro. The Saints' rookie standout has gotten a lot of national recognition, but he was probably a long shot for the Pro Bowl even before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last week. Only four safeties will make the roster, and Vaccaro doesn't have any numbers that jump off the page.

ILB Curtis Lofton. Lofton does have a big number that helps his case -- he's tied for 12th in the league with 119 tackles. He's also well-known and respected around the league as a guy who's been on the verge of the Pro Bowl throughout his six-year career. The Saints' defensive turnaround could help, but there are only four inside linebacker spots on the roster.

RT Zach Strief. He'd have a better chance if there was a specific place for right tackles, since left tackles get so much more notoriety. But the stat service Pro Football Focus has been giving Strief some love this year, which could help.

FB Jed Collins. He does a little bit of everything for one of the league's best offenses, and he's earned a solid reputation in recent years.

DE/DT Akiem Hicks. Those watching the Saints closely will know how big of a factor he's been in the defense's resurgence as both a pass-rusher and run stuffer. But his profile probably isn't high enough yet.

ST Ramon Humber. The longtime veteran actually got a little love in the fan voting for the special teams position. And it didn't hurt that he recovered two onside kicks over the past two weeks. But he's probably still a long shot.

Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

November, 19, 2013
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Some observations on the New Orleans Saints'offense after reviewing the tape of their 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11:

Bad break/good call: First of all, my thoughts on the biggest and most controversial play of the game -- the personal foul penalty called against 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the fourth quarter. I think it was an extremely bad break for the 49ers. And maybe the NFL should consider changing the rules for what’s considered a penalty and what isn’t. But under the current rules, it didn’t surprise me one bit that they threw the flag. I actually would have been shocked if they didn’t, based on what we see on a weekly basis in this league. I think back to the two penalties called against Saints cornerback Corey White a few weeks ago, for instance, and there are countless other examples.

Although Brooks’ first contact against Brees was in the shoulder area, his momentum quickly took his arm up into Brees’ neck area. And he almost wound up slamming Brees helmet-to-helmet, as well. In today’s NFL, it’s a risk for defensive players to aim that high against quarterbacks or defenseless receivers. It’s too bad that such a great effort by Brooks turned into a negative play for the 49ers. But pass-rushers have to realize by now that they’re risking those flags when they take such a high angle.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints showed off their patience in a close victory against the 49ers in Week 11.
Lucky break for Saints: No matter where you stand on that controversial decision, you have to agree it was an extremely lucky break for the Saints. Although the Saints’ pass protection was very good throughout the game, right tackle Zach Strief got torched by Brooks on the play -- with just a straight speed rush around the corner while the 49ers were blitzing with a total of five rushers. Brees never saw Brooks coming. And, in fact, Brees even slid a half-step toward Brooks before the hit (maybe one of the reasons Brooks overshot?) It was a great play by Brooks, who forced a fumble that was recovered by 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

Blitz busters: Other than the play above, the Saints did an outstanding job of picking up blitzes throughout the game. The 49ers didn’t blitz often, but the Saints made them pay when they did. Brees connected with receiver Robert Meachem on passes of 44 and 34 yards when the 49ers blitzed five men. And Brees’ best throw of the day came against a six-man blitz with 50 seconds remaining, when he hit Marques Colston with a 20-yard pass to put New Orleans in field goal range.

The Saints had seven blockers on the play, and running back Darren Sproles and guard Ben Grubbs did just enough to keep linebackers Willis and NaVorro Bowman at bay. Brees fired a perfect throw down the field to Colston right before absorbing a hit.

Spreading the wealth: It dawned on me as I was watching the tape that it felt like Brees was hitting a different receiver on almost every play. Sure enough, he completed passes to 11 different receivers -- including the first career touchdown pass for undrafted rookie tight end Josh Hill on a beautifully-executed 3-yard pass in the first quarter.

Hill helped sell the play-action fake by blocking Brooks at the line of scrimmage. Then Hill released into the flat after Meachem lured three defenders into the back of the end zone.

Solid run-blocking: The Saints’ offensive line didn’t blow giant holes through the 49ers’ front like they did a week earlier against the Dallas Cowboys. But in some ways, this performance was just as impressive since the 49ers' defense is so stout. The Saints consistently rattled off 5- and 6-yard runs throughout the day to help move the chains. Running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Sproles combined for 90 yards on 20 carries (4.5 yards per carry).

I thought fullback Jed Collins had another exceptional day. Grubbs consistently stood out, as well (despite a holding penalty on a run play). And the Saints even used backup linemen Tim Lelito and Bryce Harris as up-backs (something I haven’t seen much in the past). Lelito made nice blocks in that role on a 15-yard run by Ingram in the first quarter and a 10-yard run by Thomas to the 49ers’ 1-yard line in the second quarter.

Meachem also made an outstanding crack-back block in Ingram’s 15-yard run. The all-around blocking has really been coming together for the Saints over the past month or so.

Biggest blunders: Two huge blunders nearly cost the Saints the game. The first was receiver Lance Moore’s fumbled punt return in the second quarter. Moore’s view may have been blocked by 49ers safety C.J. Spillman, who was hovering nearby after Moore signaled for a fair catch. But Moore still should have caught it. The ball bounced right off his hands after he crouched and tried to cradle it.

The second was Brees’ ill-advised interception/gift to Brooks in the third quarter, when Brees tried to float the ball over Brooks’ head to tight end Jimmy Graham while throwing off his back foot.

When watching the game live, I thought it looked like a horrible decision by Brees and that he should have thrown the ball away on the third-and-4 play. But watching the tape, I at least understood what Brees saw. Graham had gotten wide open behind Brooks after the play had broken down and Brees scrambled to buy extra time. If Brees had put more zip on the pass, maybe it would have been a big gain. But he didn’t.

Tough day: Although the 49ers' defense didn’t "dominate" the Saints physically, they still lived up to their reputation as a physical unit. Saints left tackle Charles Brown got beat a handful of times (twice leading to Brees getting hit to the ground after he threw, and once leading to a 1-yard loss by Ingram). San Francisco lineman Justin Smith made that tackle on Ingram and had a few nice disruptions up front during the game.

The 49ers’ secondary also played physical in coverage. Safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid, especially, contested several throws -- including a fourth-and-4 pass attempt to Hill in the third quarter. And this time, Saints receiver Kenny Stills was unable to win a jump ball in the end zone like he’s done so often in recent weeks because cornerback Eric Wright had him so well-covered.

The Saints did a good job of staying patient and settling for underneath throws throughout the game (similar to their victory over the Chicago Bears earlier this year).
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NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."

Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

November, 13, 2013
11/13/13
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Although it took some time to review the New Orleans Saints’ whopping total of 80 offensive plays from Sunday’s 49-17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, I could sum up the entire film study in one quick sentence: Everyone played great.

There were probably nine or 10 guys who had their best games of the season, from quarterback Drew Brees to running back Mark Ingram to receiver Marques Colston to every run-blocker. Here are some of the observations that stood out most:

Evans superb: Right guard Jahri Evans was dominant throughout the night – which was arguably the most important performance of the entire game for the Saints. Evans has battled injuries all season, but he didn’t show any signs of being limited against the Cowboys. He repeatedly took out two – and sometimes three – defenders in the run game while chipping at the line of scrimmage, then heading upfield.

Evans’ highlight play was Ingram’s 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Evans shoved aside defensive tackle Nick Hayden at the line of scrimmage, then got in the way of linebackers Bruce Carter and Ernie Sims to help clear Ingram’s path.

Guard Ben Grubbs and center Brian de la Puente also consistently stood out with their run blocking. As did tackles Zach Strief and Charles Brown. Clearly they’ve found some rhythm in their zone-blocking schemes, though they were also successful with the straight power blocks, too.

Collins superb: The Saints awarded a game ball to their offensive line following Sunday’s game. Hopefully they included fullback Jed Collins in that group, because he was outstanding. This is the best I’ve ever seen Collins look, and he delivered time and again while the Saints racked up 242 rushing yards. He even added a nice blitz pickup at one point.

Colston superb: Colston bounced back from a month-long drought in a huge way, with seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. The “Quiet Storm” showed his passion by fighting his way into the end zone on his 22-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He was hit by safety Jeff Heath at the 4-yard line. But he stood tall, then shook off Heath and lunged for the goal line. … Colston also stood out several times as a lead blocker in the run game and screen passing game – including two great downfield blocks on Darren Sproles’ 28-yard screen pass TD before halftime.

Graham strong: Tight end Jimmy Graham had a “quiet” day since he didn’t score during the romp and played only 33 snaps while the Saints tried to limit his workload because of foot and elbow injuries. But he showed no ill effects from the injuries while he was on the field. He caught five passes for 59 yards, once dragging Heath with him for 5 extra yards after the catch. The Cowboys often used their best cover corner, Brandon Carr, on Graham – a trend that’s become popular this season. But it wasn’t a very effective matchup. At one point Carr was flagged for defensive holding while trying to contain the bigger target.

Stills strong: Saints receiver Kenny Stills has become a deep-touchdown specialist for the Saints. But not just because of his speed. The rookie keeps showing a great combination of strength and savvy as he uses subtle and legal push-offs to win some jump balls. This time, he scored on a 52-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter by shoving aside Heath at the 5-yard line. Heath (who obviously had a rough night) initiated contact when the ball was in the air, and Stills simply swept Heath’s arms away without taking his eyes off the ball. Then he cruised into the end zone.

Ingram’s big day: There weren’t many subtle details about Ingram’s monster night on tape that weren’t obvious to the naked eye. He obviously showed a ton of passion and determination throughout the game – especially when his runs weren’t breaking for huge gains early. He hit holes with aggression and burst. He made a couple nifty cuts and broke a couple tackles when needed. But mostly he just burst through some big holes and got a full head of steam going. NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth paid him the ultimate compliment (at least in the eyes of some Saints fans) by saying he looked like former Saints running back Chris Ivory. … It will be interesting to see how Ingram’s momentum translates when the Saints play less porous defenses.

Brees, Sproles, Pierre Thomas all great: But what’s new?

Brown up and down: The only Saints offensive player who struggled at times Sunday was left tackle Charles Brown, who was noticeably burned by dynamic pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware four times (one sack, one hit as Brees threw, one hit just after Brees threw, one illegal use of hands penalty). Obviously Ware is a tough assignment, though, and Brown held up well for most of Brees’ 42 dropbacks. I repeatedly wrote the words, “All Day to Throw” in my notes.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – While former New Orleans Saints running back Chris Ivory was running wild against them Sunday in the New York Jets' 26-20 victory, the Saints’ own running game was practically nonexistent.

The Saints ran the ball well, when they did; Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram and fullback Jed Collins combined for 50 yards on 11 carries, an average of 4.5 yards per carry. But the Saints (6-2) never stuck with the run game for a handful of reasons.

Ingram
Thomas
For one, the Saints went into Sunday’s game with a plan to attack the Jets’ secondary, which was a no-brainer since the Jets have struggled to stop the pass, whereas they boasted the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense. And that plan was mostly successful early, with Drew Brees throwing for 230 yards and two touchdowns (and also two interceptions) in the first half.

For another thing, the Saints kept putting themselves into long-yardage situations with too many penalties in the second half (a total of seven offensive penalties for 49 yards).

And lastly, the Saints were forced to play catch-up, down by nine points for much of the second half.

“When we ran it, I thought we did some pretty good things,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We knew they were going to be a good run front coming in, but I thought we did some things that helped give us some balance. But overall, late in the game, all of a sudden you find yourself [with a first-and-20, a second-and-15 and a second-and-19 on the final three drives]. Those are the types of things that I think just make it difficult. They make it difficult for the quarterback, I know that.”

Offensive tackle Zach Strief added: “I think, for one, we became one-dimensional because of mistakes that we made.”

In hindsight, maybe the Saints wish they had tried a traditional run play when they failed to convert a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter. But the Saints didn’t do too much second-guessing on that series of plays.

They actually tried a belly handoff to Collins on third-and-1, which appeared to gain a yard – but the play was nullified when the Jets were awarded a last-second timeout. On the play that counted, the Saints went with a pass to Collins, which also would have worked easily, but Collins dropped the ball.

Then on fourth-and-1, the Saints tried an exotic trick play that failed miserably – an end around to tight end Josh Hill that lost 8 yards. Payton and players all defended the play call, saying they installed it this week and felt confident it would work. But they credited the Jets' defense for staying disciplined instead of selling out to stop the run.

“I’ve been here eight years. I’ve seen reverses work, I’ve seen reverses score,” guard Jahri Evans said. “We tried to just catch then in an aggressive situation, and they made a play.”
A look at the New Orleans Saints running backs through the first six weeks of the 2013 season:

Looking back: The Saints’ run game has shown signs of life over the past two weeks after an excruciatingly slow start. Veteran Pierre Thomas has been solid as a runner the past two games, and undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson continues to impress with increased opportunities. Robinson gained 53 yards and a touchdown on just seven carries in the second half last Sunday at New England.

But it’s the passing game where the Saints’ running backs have been most productive. Darren Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 366 receiving yards this year. And he and Thomas both rank among the top five running backs in receptions (32 and 29, respectively). Seldom-used backup Travaris Cadet even caught a touchdown pass last Sunday at New England.

The one running back who hasn’t had any success yet this year is Mark Ingram, who ran for just 31 yards on 17 carries in two games before being sidelined by a toe injury (though the entire run game was sputtering in those early weeks). Last but not least, fullback Jed Collins has been on the same steady rise as the rest of the Saints’ run game. He had his two best games the past two weeks -- both as a blocker and as a sneaky-effective runner and receiver.

Looking forward: It will be fascinating to see how the Saints choose to work Ingram back into the mix. He should be healthy enough to return in Week 8. And I definitely expect the Saints to give him another chance to become a key part of the offense. They were high on him this summer, and they don’t blame him solely for his struggles in the first two games, since the entire run game was struggling throughout September. I expect improved production from all of the Saints’ running backs going forward.

However, there aren’t that many carries to go around in the Saints’ run game, and Robinson and Thomas have been on a mini-roll lately. So Ingram will have to earn his place back in the rotation and prove he deserves to take carries away from those guys.

Snaps played (out of a possible 415): Thomas 199, Sproles 173, Collins 168, Ingram 31, Robinson 30, Cadet 3.

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “Sproles is special. I don’t know if you can even call him a running back the way they use him. He can do that, but where he’s special is his ability to create mismatches in the passing game. He’s exceptional at that. I’m not sure if there’s a back in the league that’s better at it than him, and they know exactly how to use him, as does (quarterback Drew) Brees.

“The rest of the group, I think is pretty pedestrian. I think Robinson’s a little bit exciting, though. He’s starting to come on and show some flashes and runs with some power and some anger. I think he can be your Ivory type of guy, possibly, so I think he’s encouraging. Pierre Thomas is what he is and he does everything well, but he doesn’t excel in one area. You love to have him on your team, but you only want to give him so many touches.”

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