New Orleans Saints: Jimmy Graham

Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:20
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- It's impossible to make any sweeping statements about the New Orleans Saints' offense after reviewing the tape of Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

For a long while, they couldn't get started. Then for a long stretch, it looked like they couldn't be stopped.

The Saints' impressive rally put them in a position where they just needed one more play to ice the game. But they weren't able to make that one more play.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesAgainst the Browns, Saints QB Drew Brees threw for 237 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception.
Here are some observations:

Pick-six: The costliest play by far was Drew Brees' interception in the second quarter that was returned 62 yards for a touchdown. Brees overthrew tight end Jimmy Graham in the middle of the field because he was hit as he threw by outside linebacker Paul Kruger. Kruger beat left tackle Terron Armstead on just a four-man rush. Armstead and the entire Saints' line have been very good in pass protection this year, but this was a rare and costly miscue.

I saw some folks on Twitter suggesting Graham should've been able to catch the ball, but that's not how I saw it at all. I think that was an optical illusion from the end-zone replay angle.

Costly sacks: Brees was sacked twice, and the last one was especially damaging. Facing a third-and-5 on Cleveland's 31-yard line with 3:36 remaining, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby came flying through a gaping hole between center Jonathan Goodwin and guard Ben Grubbs. Nobody even attempted to block him. It's unclear whose responsibility it was. Brees was seen talking to running back Pierre Thomas right afterward. And Dansby said after the game that he heard the Saints' line call and knew they were going to send their protection to the right side.

Brees was also sacked near his own goal line in the first quarter. It could be described as a "coverage sack" since Brees held the ball a beat too long while Kruger eventually shed a block from tight end Benjamin Watson.

No one open: The Browns blanketed the Saints' receivers down the field for most of the game (which is why Marques Colston was held without a catch and the receivers combined for a total of nine catches). At one point, the Saints went with an empty backfield, and the Browns actually dropped nine men in coverage, forcing Brees to run for three yards.

However, the Saints eventually adjusted and made Cleveland pay. They wound up running for 174 yards. And Brees had ample time to throw on many passes, allowing him to wait for Graham to work his way open for 10 catches, 118 yards and two touchdowns.

Graham outstanding: We already noted how Graham beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden for two big catches, using his big body to shield the smaller defender. Those plays were even more impressive on tape, because Haden really did everything he could to try and get physical, tight coverage and swat at the ball at the point of the catch. Haden even had an arm wrapped around Graham's waist on one of the catches. ...Graham also beat the Browns' other starting cornerback, Buster Skrine, for at least two catches.

Ingram outstanding: Watching the tape was a reminder of what a shame it is that running back Mark Ingram will miss at least a month with a broken hand. He's playing the best football of his career, and the Saints' entire run game is in sync. Ingram's best effort came after a dump-off pass in the backfield, when he gained 13 yards by beating Kruger around the corner and cutting back to make three other linemen badly overrun him. Then on the next play, Ingram made another great cutback to his left for a 15-yard run.

The run blocking was great, too -- including at least two excellent blocks by Graham, who has continued to impress in that department.

Jet sweep: The Saints had success for the second straight week using speedy receiver Brandin Cooks on the jet sweep play that has become more popular in the NFL lately. Cooks gained 26 yards on the run play in the second quarter after perfect timing on the handoff from Brees. Cooks was split out wide to start the play, then he went in motion and took the handoff in stride. Dansby and linebacker Chris Kirksey totally bit on Brees' fake handoff to Ingram -- having not even realized Cooks snagged the ball. Then Cooks blazed past linebacker Jabaal Sheard around the corner and followed lead blocks by receiver Kenny Stills and Watson.

Later in the game, the Saints tried the play again but only gained three yards.

Screens snuffed: Credit Dansby for totally recognizing the Saints' screen pass to Thomas on the first play of the game, though, sticking him for no gain. Two plays later, the Browns also snuffed out a screen pass to Cooks to force a three-and-out.

Drive snuffed: Another disappointing series for the Saints came in the second quarter. They had to settle for a field goal despite having a second-and-2 at Cleveland's 9-yard line. Watson missed a block, allowing Khiry Robinson to be stuffed for a 1-yard gain. Then the Saints tried a play-action pass to tight end Josh Hill, who was swarmed for a 1-yard loss. Credit Dansby for snuffing that one out, too.

Kickoff returns snuffed: The Saints had blocking issues on two kickoff returns, with returner Travaris Cadet being stopped at the 12-yard line once and the 15 another time. Linebacker Parys Haralson appeared to miss a block on the first one.

Meachem bounce-back: Receiver Robert Meachem dropped a tough-but-catchable back-shoulder throw in the end zone in the second quarter. But he immediately responded with an outstanding effort on third-and-10, catching a short pass over the middle, spinning out of one tackle, then pushing through another for the first down. That set up the Saints' first touchdown.

Jimmy Graham shows his worth

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
9:15
PM ET
CLEVELAND -- Maybe Jimmy Graham has had more impressive days. But the New Orleans Saints tight end was never more important than Sunday.

It may seem like a moot point, since the Saints ultimately lost 26-24 to the Cleveland Browns in the final seconds. But Graham was the single biggest reason why the Saints were in a position to win after starting in a 16-3 hole.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Tony DejakJimmy Graham tied a career high with 10 receptions against the Browns.
Graham didn’t have a catch at that point in the game, with less than four minutes remaining in the first half. But he finished with 10 catches (matching a career high) for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

“That’s why they’re paying him so much money. That’s why he’s asking for that much, he’s that kind of impact player,” Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said, referencing the four-year, $40 million deal Graham signed this offseason. “We held him in check for a little, then he got loose and made his plays.”

On a day when nothing else seemed to be working for the Saints’ passing offense, Graham delivered time and again. No matter who was covering him -- including Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, whom Graham beat twice for big plays in tight man coverage.

“When you’re 6-7, 260 and you can run like a deer and jump out of the gym, you’re hard to cover,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “So obviously you saw him make some plays today. I thought he played exceptionally well.”

When asked if he ever gets in one of those zones where he feels like no one can stop him, Graham said, “You know, I’m not that cocky. But I’m confident that if Drew throws it up, I’m gonna try to get it for him.”

Graham certainly helped to dispel the myth that he can be taken out of games by a top cornerback.

Two of his biggest plays came when he was being blanketed by Haden – a 9-yard TD pass with three seconds left in the first half and a 20-yard pass to the 3-yard line that set up another TD in the fourth quarter.

The notion that Graham doesn’t have the same impact when covered by cornerbacks became popular when the New England Patriots’ Aqib Talib had success against him last year. And it was oft-mentioned when Graham was trying to be declared a receiver for franchise-tag purposes this summer.

But Graham proved that his size advantage can still prove too much for even top cornerbacks.

When asked if he invites teams trying to cover him that way, Graham said, “Yeah, I guess. If they’re gonna cover me with a cornerback, I’ve gotta find a way to get open.”

Graham also added high praise for Haden, who certainly had a successful day aside from those two plays.

The Browns’ passing defense did an outstanding job of frustrating Brees and his receivers throughout the day. At times, they had seven defensive backs on the field, leaving no one open -- and sometimes leading to costly results.

That pass coverage led to Brees being sacked against the goal line in the first quarter when he held the ball too long. It led to an interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter when Brees heaved one over Graham’s head under pressure. And it kept receiver Marques Colston without a catch (or even a single target) for the first time in 87 games.

But the Browns couldn’t find an answer for Graham.

“Jimmy Graham is a special player that has a special talent,” Haden said. “I ran up to him after the game, and we just both paid homage. He was telling me how good I was at corner, but he is just a really big target. Sometimes it is really hard to make plays on the ball; you have to try and get under him. Once he gets that big frame in front of you, it’s kind of hard to hit that ball.”

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
4:30
PM ET

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: Disaster isn't the right word, but disappointment would also be a huge understatement. Maybe disgust fits?

I’m sure the Saints will insist that they aren’t in panic mode after their 0-2 start that came down to two last-second field goals. And they shouldn't be -- yet. But now they'll be in scratch-and-claw mode to dig themselves out of an unexpected hole. This isn’t where anyone -- including the Saints -- expected them to be in a season that started with Super Bowl expectations.

The Saints' offense has shown a ton of promise, which offers hope for the future. But both units can share equally in the blame after a game that started with a disastrous 16-3 deficit thanks in large part to an interception return for a touchdown by the Browns. In the end, though, it was the defense that allowed the Browns to march 14 plays and 85 yards for the winning field goal drive in the final minutes.

Stock watch: The Saints' secondary still has issues, but it was much-improved for large stretches of this game. Cornerback Patrick Robinson struggled mightily early in the game, with two costly penalties and allowing a short TD pass. He was demoted to the nickelback spot. Then the final drive was capped by an assignment breakdown for a wide-open pass to set up the field goal.

The good news is that the Saints were better with their open-field tackling, especially Kenny Vaccaro. But this was supposed to be more of a shutdown unit, especially against a Browns passing offense that didn’t have Josh Gordon or Jordan Cameron at its disposal.

Game ball: On a day when nothing else was working, the Saints could still rely on go-to tight end Jimmy Graham in a huge way. He didn’t have a catch for the first 26 minutes but finished with 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He did it no matter the matchup, even beating Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on two big plays.

Running strong: The Saints also relied heavily on their run game while patiently coming back on a day when the Browns weren’t letting the Saints get the ball down the field to receivers. Mark Ingram was outstanding with 11 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown plus three catches for 21 yards. The Saints want more balance, though. They didn’t complete a pass to receiver Marques Colston and completed only three short passes to receiver Brandin Cooks.

What’s next: The best news of all for the Saints is that they’ll be back in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next week, where they went 8-0 last season. And they’ll be hosting the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a must-win if ever there was one in September.

W2W4: Saints at Browns

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
1:00
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- When considering Sunday's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, I can't help but think of LSU's season opener against Wisconsin as a worthy comparison that Louisiana football fans might appreciate -- for better and for worse.

LSU didn't handle the clash of styles well at first, with the Badgers outrushing the Tigers 182-17 in the first half and jumping to a 24-7 lead in the third quarter. But LSU's superior talent and athleticism eventually won out, with the second half looking like a blowout.

Another good comparison: the Saints' last meeting against Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator last year. The Saints beat Buffalo 35-17, but here's what I wrote in my Rapid Reaction following that game: "Oddly enough, the Saints' offense started a little slow and sloppy in this one. Yet it still wound up with 35 points and five touchdown passes from Drew Brees."

Here's What 2 Watch 4:

Browns' stout defense: Saints players and coaches have widely praised Cleveland's underrated defense. And the subject they point out most is how big and physical the Browns' front seven is with a true 3-4 front in the style of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, etc.

"Their guys are huge," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "They're big and strong and athletic. You look at them on film, they're just massive guys. So you're gonna have to be disciplined and know that it's gonna be a fight."

The Browns have proven talent throughout the defense, from Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner to linebacker Karlos Dansby and nose tackle Phil Taylor, among others. Pettine's former team is a great comparison. The Bills' underrated defense sacked Brees four times last year and held the Saints to less than three yards per rush.

Browns' stout offensive line: Likewise, the Browns have an underrated offensive line, led by perhaps the league's best tackle in Joe Thomas and the league's best center in Alex Mack. Cleveland features a zone-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the mold of his father, Mike Shanahan, and the Browns will stubbornly stick to it even with top running back Ben Tate sidelined by an injury this week.

They'll run a lot of play-action out of that front. And they'll also probably trot out some of the no-huddle offense that was so effective for quarterback Brian Hoyer in the second half of their near-comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. So they'll force the Saints to be disciplined on defense -- which was already a huge point of emphasis after the Saints struggled so much with missed tackles in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Ripe for the picking: Enough about the problems the Browns will cause. How about the monster problem the Saints will cause -- their deep and diverse passing offense, which looked as good as ever in Week 1. Rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks emerged as yet another matchup nightmare for a Saints offense that is loaded with them (Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and possibly the healthy return of Kenny Stills).

Haden is an outstanding corner for the Browns, and No. 2 corner Buster Skrine is solid. But the Browns' own first-round draft pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert, struggled as the nickel back in his debut last week. As Pettine learned last year, even when the Saints start sloppy, they have a deadly quick-strike ability.

Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
7:55
AM ET
If the New Orleans Saints' offense plays the way it did Sunday, the Saints are going to win a lot of games.

The offensive line was outstanding in both pass protection and the run game. Obviously, though, it wasn't enough as New Orleans lost 37-34 in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons. Here are my observations after watching the tape:

The turnovers: I'll start with the negative, since the Saints' two turnovers ultimately had the biggest effect on the outcome.

Colston
Receiver Marques Colston's overtime fumble was the big one. He started with two hands on the ball when he caught it. But then he started to convert it to his right hand as he hit his stride, seeing running room in front of him. Then right at the moment when the ball was most vulnerable, safety William Moore made a great play to hit Colston from behind -- right across his arms to knock it loose.

The other turnover was Drew Brees' interception in the end zone on third-and-7 late in the third quarter. Brees tried to fire a pass into receiver Brandin Cooks into a tight window on a slant route, but he wasn't able to fully step into the throw because of some pressure against guard Jahri Evans. Cornerback Robert McClain made a terrific play to snag the ball in front of Cooks. It wasn't an awful throw or decision, but perfection was required.

Block party: This was the Saints' offensive line at its best. Brees was never sacked, and he was rarely hit or hurried (though Atlanta wisely didn't blitz him much). The linemen also picked up where they left off last season in the run game.

Armstead
Terron Armstead stood out repeatedly. He had good blocks on two touchdown runs and got way down the field in front of Cooks on his 18-yard end-around run. Ben Grubbs was consistently impressive, too. But, really, everyone on the line stood out several times. My favorite block was so unique, I decided to take a picture of it: Right tackle Zach Strief actually shoved the defensive end and the Saints' Evans a full five yards down the field with one hand on each guy during a 7-yard run by Mark Ingram.

The Saints' receivers -- particularly Colston -- also played a big part in the run-blocking. And tight end Jimmy Graham had several nice blocks (something he's been ripped for in the past).

Last but not least, linebacker Parys Haralson was solid on both of his plays as he made his career debut as a fullback -- though the first resulted in a touchdown and the second in a 2-yard loss.

Brees
Brees mostly great: Halfway through this game, I figured I'd be writing about how Brees never needs to play more than one quarter in the preseason again. He was extremely sharp right from the start. He was excellent in the fourth quarter, too, twice leading the Saints on come-from-behind touchdown drives.

But you know Brees himself will pore over every missed opportunity -- and there were a few. Other than the interception, Brees also missed on all three of his "shot play" attempts (two to Joe Morgan in the first half, one to Robert Meachem in the third quarter). In all three cases, most of the credit belongs to the Falcons' defensive backs, who hung with those speedy receivers downfield. The last two throws may have been just a touch underthrown -- but neither was a lack of "zip" or arm strength.

Cooks all great: Cooks' NFL debut was just as impressive on tape. His best catch was his first, when he went up in the air to snag a 32-yard pass, even though he was about to get drilled by cornerback Desmond Trufant. And as expected, the Saints used Cooks in a variety of ways. He had the end-around run; he caught a screen pass when he was lined up in the backfield; he caught a receiver screen behind two tight ends; he went in motion on the interception play; he scored a touchdown on a pick play when he was lined up the farthest left in a trips formation; he also lined up in the middle of the trips formation and on the solo side at times.

Thomas
Pierre unstoppable: I gave my game ball to Cooks. But “old reliable” running back Pierre Thomas was just as worthy. On four different occasions, Thomas made a guy miss in the open field to move the chains -- twice on third down.

Ingram was great, too, especially in the second half. He sprinted to the edge for his first touchdown and plowed over a safety for his second.

Graham, Colston and Khiry Robinson all had nice days, as well. There was an awful lot to like from this offense. It will cure a lot of ills this season.
METAIRIE, La. – Much was made of the success the New England Patriots had last year against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham when they used physical cornerback Aqib Talib against Graham in press coverage.

In fact, probably too much was made of it, as few NFL teams have cornerbacks with that ability and no other teams copied the Patriots’ blueprint after that Week 6 matchup.

But one way or another – whether he’s being pressed by cornerbacks, jammed by defensive ends or harassed by linebackers – Graham knows he’ll keep seeing new wrinkles in the way teams cover him this season.

He always does.

Luckily, as Graham pointed out, the Saints have one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds in coach Sean Payton.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and Jimmy Graham's chemistry gives them a big advantage, no matter the wrinkles defenses throw at them.
So they certainly talked this offseason about the possibility of seeing coverages like they saw in New England, among others.

And they’ll be ready to throw out some new wrinkles themselves.

“Sean’s great with that in the offseason. Always does something new, implements new wrinkles,” said Graham, who offered some good detail Friday on what worked for the Patriots last year.

“I wouldn’t say New England covered me with a corner. I would say they were jamming me on the line with someone who can jam well, and then playing zone behind it,” Graham explained. “When you have help over the top and then you’ve got a linebacker scraping to help and you’re getting jammed man to man, it makes the picture cloudy of what you’re supposed to do. Especially when you run a lot of routes like me and (receiver Marques) Colston, where you have a lot of options. So when teams do that, it just kind of clouds that picture up.

“But it’s something that we’ve worked on this camp, shoring up some of those things and being ready for when teams do that. And Drew [Brees] being the quarterback he is, he finds the open guy. He doesn’t key on one guy or two guys, he finds the open man.”

Graham did stress, however, that he and Brees have a great chemistry that has allowed them to have immense success even when Graham isn’t so wide open.

“I think I definitely have a chapter in his book. I’m definitely on his page … or whatever you want to call it,” Graham said when asked if they’ve built a rapport similar to the one between Brees and Colston. “He looks for me, and he understands my body language. That’s a very important thing when you’re in between the linebackers and safeties.”

Typically, Graham said he doesn’t mind when defenses go to great lengths to try and take himself or Colston out of the game – as long as the Saints win. Last season's playoff victory at Philadelphia was a perfect example, when the Eagles sold out to harass both of them, even using defensive ends to chip them at the line.

“But that means that our running game just opened up. We were smashing people in that game,” Graham said.

The Saints weren't so fortunate against the Seattle Seahawks the next week. They also put a heavy focus on stopping Graham -- with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas shadowing him often in bracket coverage. But the Seahawks' defense is deep enough that they were also able to match up against the Saints' other receivers and runners (at least until a furious fourth-quarter rally).

The good news this year is that neither the Seahawks, the Patriots nor Talib are on New Orleans' regular-season schedule.

Two other positives for Graham – he’s healthy again to start the season after battling through a torn plantar fasciitis throughout the second half of last season; and the Saints’ receivers are loaded in terms of speed.

Graham said he thinks it will be even harder for defenses to take any one element away from the Saints’ offense this year now that they’ve added dynamic rookie Brandin Cooks and gotten downfield threat Joe Morgan back from injury.

“Having Joe Morgan healthy, that’s a big deal. In my opinion, he’s one of the fastest guys that I’ve ever met,” Graham said. “And Meach [Robert Meachem]. We just have a lot of speed now that’s gonna put a lot of pressure on these safeties. So you can’t cheat coverage, and you can’t have the safeties in the box. You have to respect that speed on the outside. And that’s one of the things we had in 2011 and one of the things they had in 2009. It makes teams have to play honest.”

Graham had a monster season in 2011, when he temporarily set some all-time receiving records for a tight end before New England’s Rob Gronkowski passed him up in the final minutes. That season, Graham finished with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But Graham wasn’t far off that pace last year, finishing with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. And as CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco pointed out in this historical film study, Graham has always caused particular nightmares for Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

Graham, Brees in #NFLRank top 6

August, 29, 2014
Aug 29
9:10
AM ET
It should come as no surprise that the most prolific touchdown connection in the NFL over the past three years was well represented on ESPN’s #NFLRank list of the league’s top offensive players. But it is a surprise to see the order in which New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and quarterback Drew Brees finished.


Graham
 
Brees
 Graham ranked fifth and Brees sixth on the list, which was decided by a panel of 90 ESPN analysts who rated players on a 1-10 scale. They were separated by one-hundredth of a point (9.53 to 9.52).

They actually both wound up with exactly 51 “10” ratings. But Graham received only three “8” ratings, while Brees received four.

I’m shocked by that last detail. I find it hard to believe anyone would grade Brees lower than a 10, much less lower than a 9. I don't have a big problem with Brees being ranked below fellow mega-stars like Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. But Brees' grade should be higher.

And for that reason, I do think Brees should be ranked higher than Graham. But I certainly have no problem with the amount of respect Graham received in this poll.

I sang Graham's praises all summer during the debate over whether he deserves elite wide receiver money. I made what I considered a strong pro-Graham argument that he should be ranked among the top 6-10 pass catchers in the NFL, in the neighborhood of guys like Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald.

In this case, however, it clearly actually helped Graham to be labeled a tight end. I have to imagine that he wound up getting more 10s and 9s because he’s clearly considered the No. 1 player at his position.

But that’s just nit-picking. In general, both players clearly deserve the elite recognition they received, similar to when they both cracked the top 10 in the NFL Network’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the league earlier this summer (Brees at No. 6 and Graham at No. 10).

They’re the only pair of teammates ranked in the entire top 15 on the #NFLRank list of offensive players – much less the top 6. And they’re two awfully compelling reasons why the Saints should be considered bona fide Super Bowl contenders again this year.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints have gotten pretty good at these final preseason “dress rehearsals” over the years.

Their 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts marked the eighth consecutive year that they have won the second-to-last preseason game, which is the game where starters typically play the most.

As they usually do, the Saints took their preparation for Saturday’s game more seriously than other exhibitions, specifically game-planning against the Colts in practices during the week. And they came out sizzling, rolling to a 20-7 lead while most of the starters were still in the game.

“It’s a good thing, because we certainly come into this game saying, ‘Hey, this is like a regular-season game for that time we are in. … We usually prep for it like it’s the dress rehearsal for the season,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose two-touchdown performance was especially impressive considering it was also his preseason debut.

Brees was one of several key Saints veterans who made their preseason debuts Saturday after nursing a variety of injuries -- a group that also included guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey and receiver Kenny Stills.

“We knew coming into this we were going to bring all the guns out and see if we could put a few good drives together and then get them out,” Brees said. “Make sure everybody was ready to roll for the regular season.”

Consider that, “Mission accomplished.”

The Saints weren’t perfect -- especially when it came to penalties, a nagging problem that has plagued them throughout the preseason.

This time, New Orleans was “only” charged with 10 penalties, compared to 22 a week earlier. But eight of them came in the first half. And the Saints also had to burn at least one timeout because they didn’t have the right number of men on the field -- an issue that coach Sean Payton said was his "biggest disappointment."

But Payton was obviously more pleased than he was a week earlier, when he was fuming over the penalties in his postgame press conference.

“Pretty much what I told the players, it was good to get the win. There were a lot of positives. I thought the energy was good. I thought situationally in a lot of areas we did some good things,” Payton said in his opening statement after the game. “We are still high in the penalty count with 10. Substitutionally, that was a mess in the second half, part of it in the first half. We will get that squared away, and we need to because it cost us timeouts and just keeps showing up too often.”

Payton specifically credited the strong play by the Saints’ secondary to the high energy the team was playing with. The Saints had two interceptions and nearly two others.

There was still plenty to nitpick about, though, including a coverage breakdown that led to the Colts’ only first-half touchdown.

The consensus among most players was that they’re getting closer but not quite there yet. That’s how defensive end Cameron Jordan felt after he played outstanding, with the exception of one missed opportunity at a sack when he allowed quarterback Andrew Luck to slip from his grasp.

“The one (missed play) is always nagging at you,” Jordan said. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction, further along the path than what we started out with.”

Tight end Jimmy Graham made a similar comment after the offense gave its smoothest first-half performance to date.

"It went well. Especially if you compare it, you can tell that we're just growing,” Graham said. “And to have No. 9 back is a big part of that. He really gets the tempo going early, and he's really looking to push the tempo. When we've been able to push the tempo, that's when we’re at our best, so all good things."

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
7:45
PM ET
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.
The New Orleans Saints have the NFL’s best offensive roster, according to Pro Football Focus. The scouting service came up with a formula Insider based on grades for every individual offensive player (requires Insider access).

As usual, quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints to victory, since the Saints’ quarterback situation ranked as the third best in the league. Tight end Jimmy Graham didn't hurt, either.

The Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots rounded out the top five.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham touched on a handful of interesting topics when he met with the media following Wednesday’s practice. Here are the highlights:

  • Graham didn’t want to reflect too deeply on what it meant for him to sign a four-year, $40 million contract after the struggles he faced growing up, when he was abandoned by his mother into the foster care system. But it's clear that it will always be a part of who he is. “I think my background has been talked about quite a bit,” said Graham, who has spoken in-depth about the subject in the past -- including this 2011 ESPN feature -- and made it a focus of some of his charity endeavors. “For me, it was less about the money; it felt good to be wanted. It felt good to know what your future is going to be. For someone like me, that means a lot. … Sometimes you reflect, but it’s only been three weeks, I’ve been pretty busy here. But obviously I know where I came from, and I know how hard it was to get here. And so I’m going to cherish every moment of it and do everything in my power to never go back.”
  • [+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
    Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports"For me, it was less about the money; it felt good to be wanted," Jimmy Graham said. "It felt good to know what your future is going to be."
    On how he has remained grounded despite rising so quickly to stardom in the NFL: “I think this offseason was a good grounding point for me, just dealing with everything by myself with only a couple of people in my corner. That will keep you real grounded, and it keeps you focused. All I did this offseason was work out and fly. I’m a simple guy. Nothing has changed. I’m still the same person I was four years ago.”
  • Graham cracked a smile while saying that people have been “knocking” his blocking in recent years. But he said it’s a part of his game he takes seriously: Yeah, the last two years, everybody’s been knocking on my blocking, I don’t know why. But you know what, I’m truly healthy now. I think that’s a big deal with that the last two years, with some major injuries that kind of limited that. And I took the time this offseason to really look at some film and analyze myself as a player. And I noticed that all of the times I was able to help the team the most was when I was blocking the best, because that helps out on play-action and it stops them from putting a corner pressed up when I’m on the line with an outside ‘backer. So it’s only going to help the team out, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
  • On how strange it was to practice without quarterback Drew Brees this past week while Brees rests his strained oblique: “Even though he’s not throwing the ball, after every route he runs up to me and tells me what he wants me to do or what I could’ve done better. He’s still getting those mental reps in. I know he’ll be just fine. He’s just taking a little time off, which he needs. It’s a long season. You’ve got 16 games and four preseason games. That’s 20, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have another three or four after that.”
  • On enjoying the amenities at the Saints’ training camp site at The Greenbrier resort, despite the floral decorations in his room: “The floral print is different, but the facilities are amazing. During the off day I had the opportunity to do the sporting clays with some of the guys and some of the Navy Seals. I just want to let it be known that I beat Drew and that I beat most of those Navy Seals. That was a good day for me.”
  • On whether it will be good to get away and play the preseason opener at the St. Louis Rams on Friday: “We’re not ready to really get away from here. The weather is beautiful, the food is good, and we’ve got great fields. I think, more or less, we’re just ready to hit somebody else. We’ve been beating up on each other for the last two weeks. Things are getting a little heated out here today, and so I think it’s time to finally hit somebody else.”
video Jabari Greer hasn’t given up on a return to football yet. Not by a long shot. In fact, the former New Orleans Saints cornerback insisted that if the right opportunity comes along for him and his family and he decides to play again, “then I will be the NFL comeback player of the year.”

For now, though, Greer said the chance to focus on being a devoted husband and father has been a “life-changing” experience for him. And in that regard, Greer said the major knee injury he suffered last November has actually been “one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Greer talked about that among many other subjects while touring ESPN’s various TV, radio and podcast sets in Bristol, Connecticut, on Monday -- when he dabbled in another possible future career path as a guest analyst.

I talked to Greer after a handful of those appearances. He said he felt nervous at first, like on a game day, but he quickly got in the groove.

Greer talked a lot about that focus he’s been able to put on his family – especially during Linda Cohn’s “Listen Closely” podcast, when he said, “Although I always said the game didn’t define me, I realized it was a larger part of me than I actually thought. So I had to relearn how to be a devoted husband, how to be a gracious and devoted father.”

Greer said it was important for him to spread that message because he said so many people feel sorry for you when you suffer an injury like he did. And he wanted to use the platform to let people know that it’s possible to turn such adversity into a positive. Greer said he researched former football star Napoleon Kaufman, whose career was cut short by a devastating injury, and was inspired to read about his life as a pastor.

As for a possible return to football, Greer said he hasn’t decided yet. He’s talked to some teams but wants to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy – and that he gets the OK from his wife.

“I want to let you know that I was ballin’ when I got injured,” Greer told Cohn. “Make no mistake. Even though I’m 32, people think that is an old age, especially for a corner. But, man, I’ve been mentored by Darrell Green, this guy played well into his 40s. I know outside perception is as a corner having this gruesome injury, you can’t overcome that. But they haven’t met me yet.”

Greer was also asked to put on his analyst hat on many topics while appearing on “First Take” and the “Football Today” podcast.

Greer said players love playing for Rob Ryan because he puts them in the best position to play to their strengths.

“He always said, ‘I’m not gonna tell you how to do that, you know how to do that. I’m just gonna put you in the right place,’” Greer explained.

And when asked about defending Jimmy Graham, Greer said Saints defensive players loved Friday practices during the season because coach Sean Payton lets the starters go against each other.

“It was the highlight of our week. When we got an opportunity to go against Jimmy, it was a celebration. We called it ‘Jimmy Graham Fridays,’” Greer said. “We loved going against guys like Jimmy and the offense, because going against guys like Drew [Brees], Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, it’s not only 'pick your poison,' but it prepared you for success on Sundays.”

Across the NFL, Greer quickly chose Tom Brady as the quarterback who drives him nuts the most, based on some painful past experiences. And he chose Darrelle Revis as the cornerback who best raises the level of the defense, though he said the debate between Revis, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson is like asking, “Which kind of car do you want to drive?”

And when asked about the NFL’s increased focus on calling defensive pass interference and contact penalties this season, Greer said he wants to see if the league will be just as diligent with calling contact penalties against receivers like Roddy White and Julio Jones -- two of his longtime rivals with the Atlanta Falcons.

Saints Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
6:50
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints weren’t keeping score in Saturday’s scrimmage. But it was a clear victory for the offense – especially considering Drew Brees was sidelined by an oblique strain. Backup QB Ryan Griffin was particularly impressive, but he and Luke McCown both had some highlights. I already broke down the big performances from receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham. The Saints’ run game was equally productive. And the defense was even flagged for 12 men on the field at one point, which led to some very vocal disappointment from coordinator Rob Ryan. ... There were a few high points for the defense (some Keenan Lewis pass breakups in the red zone, safety Marcus Ball's interception and Junior Galette's pass rushes). But they still walked away with a salty taste in their mouths. “I think the No. 1 thing for us as a defense is that you don’t want to give up big plays, and you’ve got to tackle. We gave up a few big plays and didn’t tackle too well,” linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “You’re going to get that in your first live tackling and stuff, but as a defense we’ve just got to get better.”
  • I was especially impressed with the Saints’ run game, which has looked strong throughout the first eight days of camp. Mark Ingram had several nice runs, including a sharp cutback for a touchdown between blockers Tim Lelito and Terron Armstead (both of whom stood out more than once). Khiry Robinson showed some great burst during a long gain on a screen pass. And Travaris Cadet tore up the third-string defense a couple times.
  • There hasn’t been much buzz around Ball this summer since he has been running with the third string. And Galette said he knew Ball was disappointed by his start in OTAs. But the former Canadian Football League standout stepped up in his biggest audition yet. He showed great instincts on the interception, shooting in front of Cooks to pick off McCown. He also had a sack on a blitz and a nice run stop. Ball even got the crowd involved, turning and yelling to the “Who Dats!” “The one thing I would say based on the film study was his ability to tackle in the open field, and he has really good football instincts. The interception he had today was a good example of that,” said head coach Sean Payton, who credited player personnel director Ryan Pace and the scouts. “The ball kind of finds him, and it did a lot when we watched the tape. He was very, very productive in the CFL, and I think he has a chance to be a real good special teams player.”
  • There was an intense moment when Kenny Vaccaro tackled Graham from behind by grabbing him up near the shoulder pads. It was nearly a horse-collar tackle, and Graham wasn’t happy. He shoved Vaccaro after the play. … Vaccaro was obviously fired up for the live scrimmage. He also laid a big hit on running back Robinson at one point.
  • The Saints will be off the field until Monday at 4 p.m. ET. Players will have Sunday off, then they’ll come back and watch film of the scrimmage Monday before weightlifting, meetings and the afternoon practice.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – The play of the day at New Orleans Saints camp Saturday was provided by tight end Jimmy Graham, who outleaped safety Vinnie Sunseri, reeled in a pass with one hand from quarterback Ryan Griffin and took it to the house before dunking over the goal post (which remains legal in training camp!)

Just in case anyone forgot, it was a vintage Graham moment. And we will continue to see plenty more of them now that the Saints have locked him up with a four-year, $40 million contract.

The notion that defenses somehow “figured out” how to stop Graham last year is misplaced.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesA couple teams figured out how to stop Jimmy Graham last season, but it's not a plan that many teams can pull off.
Yes, Graham was silenced by the Seattle Seahawks in the Saints’ season-ending playoff loss, thanks to frequent double-teams and some heavy attention from All-Pro safety Earl Thomas. Yes, Graham was silenced by the New England Patriots earlier in the season when they made the rare choice to shadow him with physical Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib.

And yes, Graham and Saints coach Sean Payton, among others, will have to figure out ways to adjust to all the new wrinkles that they continue to see from opposing defenses.

But it’s not like either the Seahawks or the Patriots provided a blueprint that other teams can easily follow.

Both of their plans required some of the best defensive players in the league, and they required the depth to also successfully cover the rest of the Saints’ dynamic offensive weapons.

New England’s successful use of a cornerback against Graham became a hot topic during the offseason debate about whether Graham should be considered a wide receiver or tight end. But there wasn’t another team before or after the New England game that simply decided to put a cornerback on Graham and take him out of the game.

“(New England and Seattle) were two different scenarios,” Payton said. “No. 1, New England put one of their bigger best defensive backs on him. Credit Bill (Belichick). You know, Aqib is bigger than their safeties. So he was able to play effectively. …

“But each week it varies what teams are doing. We see different plans to handle him. Obviously when you sit in on a meeting Tuesday night and you’re beginning to defend a player like him, you’re gonna account for him.”

Graham said he went back and looked at the film of that Patriots game at the time but honestly couldn’t see anything he could have done differently with the way they chose to attack him with a combination of Talib’s man coverage and zone coverage behind him.

“Talking with some of the Patriots this offseason, they had a big game plan. That’s just how it is sometimes,” Graham said. “Sean and Drew [Brees], they’re so good at dissecting the game and figuring things out. When it’s not my night, it’s just not my night. We’ve got so many young receivers on this team, we’ve got (Marques) Colston, (Robert Meachem). Somebody else is going to get a ton of balls, and I know they’re going to be making plays.

“For me, my biggest (focus heading into this season) is really staying healthy. Toward the latter part of the season, it was tough. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m going to rehab every day, even though I don’t have to.”

Since Graham emerged as a threat in 2010, the Saints’ offense has been a pick-your-poison attack. If a defense wants to sell out to try and shut down Graham, the Saints will usually make them pay in other ways.

The Philadelphia Eagles, for instance, made it their clear focus to harass Graham by bumping him at the line of scrimmage and double-teaming him through each level of the defense in their wild-card playoff matchup.

And it sort of worked – Graham caught just three passes for 44 yards. But the Saints made Philly’s defense pay by running 36 times for 185 yards in that game.

The Saints also started running the ball effectively against the Patriots in that Week 6 matchup. But they waited a little too long to adjust their game plan (and Brees made a poor decision at one point to try and force the ball to Graham, throwing an interception).

“Yeah, I think it was just one of those games where offensively we weren’t very effective, especially in the first half, then got some things going in the second half,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. “Obviously we’ve always been an offense where Drew’s gonna find the open guy. And give credit to New England for what they did. Obviously they did a good job of taking (Graham) away from what we want to try to accomplish.

“But like I said, our offense is not built around any one guy. We’re gonna find the open receiver, and that’s what Drew does such a great job of.”

More often than not, Graham will continue to be that open receiver.

Every team the Saints faced last year probably went into those game-planning meetings with a desire to shut down Graham. But that plan failed for most of them as Graham racked up 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Carolina Panthers, for example, had one of the NFL’s best pass defenses last year. But in two critical December showdowns against Carolina, Graham combined to catch 11 passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns.

Graham has only been back on the Saints’ practice field for two days since signing his new contract. But he already stood out as Brees’ go-to guy again on several passes in team drills and 7-on-7 drills Saturday.

Get used to seeing a lot more of it this year.

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