New Orleans Saints: Keenan Lewis

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ offense is a little banged up heading into a potential Sunday shootout with the Green Bay Packers. Running backs Pierre Thomas (shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) and center Jonathan Goodwin (knee) were all held out of practice Wednesday.

On a brighter note, tight end Jimmy Graham participated in full-team drills on a limited basis while still working back from his shoulder injury.

Robinson’s injury was previously unknown, but replays show he may have been hurt while being tackled out of bounds in the fourth quarter this past Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Robinson was wearing a brace on his right arm after Wednesday’s practice but seemed optimistic when he said, “I got a little boo-boo. I’m straight, though.”

Thomas and Goodwin seem even more questionable for Sunday’s game after they both left the Lions game in obvious pain. Neither was in attendance Wednesday for the portion of practice that was open to the media.

If Thomas and Robinson are out or limited Sunday, the Saints will lean heavily on running backs Mark Ingram and Travaris Cadet – with Cadet likely being heavily involved in the passing game as he was this past week.

Graham’s limited participation on Wednesday was a continued sign of his progress. Last Wednesday he was held out of team drills before participating on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday.

Graham played 30 snaps against the Lions but didn’t catch a pass and was only targeted twice. He wasn’t completely kept out of harm’s way, though, since he did block on a few occasions. He ran mostly short routes and possibly would have been targeted more if quarterback Drew Brees wasn’t having so much success throwing the ball down the field.

“Jimmy coming off the injury, we wanted to be smart and obviously not ask him to do too much, and so it just kind of happened to work out that way,” Brees said. “But I thought we made a lot of big plays down the field with the receivers.”

The rest of the Saints’ injury report was also encouraging.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee/shoulder) and nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley (concussion) returned to practice on a limited basis after leaving last Sunday’s game early. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (hamstring) practiced fully Wednesday and linebacker Ramon Humber (ankle) was limited after both were held out of last Sunday’s game.

Backup linebacker Kyle Knox remained out with an ankle injury Wednesday.
METAIRIE, La. -- As Sean Payton said, the New Orleans Saints had "by far" their best defensive performance of the season Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

Until they somehow managed to have their worst breakdown of the season in a stunning 24-23 loss.

The Saints had season highs with two takeaways and three sacks. They were dominant against the run. They held the Lions to 101 yards and three points in the first half and a total of 10 points through 56 minutes.

Then it was all undone by Golden Tate's 73-yard touchdown catch with 3:38 remaining and Corey Fuller's 5-yard touchdown catch with 1:48 remaining.

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe Saints' defense sacked Lions QB Matthew Stafford three times for 14 yards in Week 7.
Here are some observations after reviewing the tape:

Tate's touchdown: The Saints were actually in a prevent-style defense. But they clearly had a breakdown in their fundamentals when Tate caught a 9-yard pass from Matthew Stafford on third-and-14 that was slightly underthrown under some decent pressure. The most egregious error was cornerback Corey White's decision to jump up in the air and try to intercept the pass -- especially considering there wasn't another defender within 15 yards behind White. Tate had better position on the ball, and he caught it and took off down the field before White got his feet re-set.

That left safety Kenny Vaccaro needing to make a stop in the open field, which would have been difficult. But Vaccaro probably should have at least cut off Tate from the sideline and forced him to run inside where there were more possible tacklers. Instead, Tate cut outside and had clear sailing while cornerback Keenan Lewis also took an inside angle and safety Rafael Bush and linebacker Curtis Lofton were too far away to catch up.

Fuller's touchdown: The Saints had an assignment breakdown on this one. Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste decided to let Fuller run free to the back of the end zone, but nobody else picked up the coverage. Perhaps it was Bush's job to do that, but Bush instead went to help White cover Tate. It's unclear what the Saints should have done differently, but Payton suggested that there was more to it than just Jean-Baptiste's coverage. ...It also didn't help that the Saints' four-man rush didn't get any pressure on Stafford on the third-and-goal play.

The interceptions: Lewis' interception in the first quarter was a terrific effort. He was originally covering Fuller, but he let him go down the field and shot over to dive in front of Tate instead.

Vaccaro then followed with an interception near the end zone in the fourth quarter. It was a gift, since the ball bounced off the hands of tight end Jordan Thompson, but Vaccaro showed great awareness and aggressiveness to snag it out of the air and return it 45 yards across midfield.

Improved pass rush: The Saints had three sacks (by linebackers Junior Galette and Parys Haralson and cornerback White on a zone blitz). They also consistently pressured Stafford into incomplete passes while having by far their best pass-rushing performance of the season. Galette continued to show some nice flashes, while ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks both got more pressure than they had previously. And the Saints did it mostly with just a four-man rush.

By my count the Saints only blitzed on five pass plays (only once in the first three quarters), plus two blitzes on run plays. They did mix things up quite a bit, though. The Saints used their amoeba formation (with everyone standing up at the line of scrimmage) at least seven times. They used that zone blitz (with Galette dropping in coverage and two defensive backs blitzing) at least three times. And they moved Jordan inside to defensive tackle at least four times.

Lofton, Lewis outstanding: Linebacker Curtis Lofton and Lewis continued to be the Saints' most consistent performers on defense. Lofton finished with 16 tackles and was repeatedly thumping guys in the open field. Lewis was rarely targeted and didn't give up anything noteworthy.

Ball decent: Safety Marcus Ball played his first 21 snaps of the season on defense and flashed a few times, including a stuff for minus-2 yards on a run blitz and good penetration when Reggie Bush lost four yards. He did miss at least one open-field tackle, though.

Some negatives: White also got burned by Tate off the line for a 19-yard catch on a third-and-16 play. ...Rookie cornerback Brian Dixon had a rough game, giving up passes of 26 yards, 21 yards, 18 yards and a questionable pass interference penalty for 31 yards. His coverage wasn't that bad on some of those plays, but he's obviously got to be prepared to keep getting picked on. ...There were still too many missed tackles, at least six that really stood out in addition to a few cases of taking a poor angle. ...Add the late-hit penalty against Jordan in the fourth quarter to the list of judgment calls that may have been irking Payton. Jordan hit Stafford about one second after he threw the ball, so it could have been a no-call, but it was close.
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton didn't offer updates on any of the various injuries that piled up for the New Orleans Saints during Sunday's 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions.

But cornerback Keenan Lewis insisted, "I'll be ready," without getting into any of the specifics of what knocked him out of the game late in the fourth quarter. Payton said after the game it was hamstring and cramping issues.

The Saints certainly hope Lewis will be back this week, since they'll need their top corner more than ever Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers and their dynamic passing offense.

The nature of running back Pierre Thomas' injury remains unknown. He appeared to be in pain as he punched the ground and lay there for a couple minutes as trainers tended to him in the third quarter after a hard hit to his left arm/shoulder area. But Thomas got up soon after and sat on the bench before later walking into the locker room with a medical staff member.

Center Jonathan Goodwin left via a cart with an unspecified leg injury. The severity is unknown, but Goodwin and teammates reacted on the field as though it might be significant before he was helped off the field by trainers.

Defensive end Glenn Foster was also ruled out of the game with a knee injury and was later seen on crutches. Nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley was ruled out after being tested for a possible concussion. And receiver Kenny Stills was sidelined on two separate occasions for undisclosed reasons. He mentioned afterward that he was ill, but it's unclear if that's the only issue he was dealing with.
METAIRIE, La. -- For the first time all year, Sean Payton said the New Orleans Saints resembled the team they expected to be this season.

And though it ended with a painful 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions after blowing a 13-point lead in the final four minutes, Payton said it was important for him to send a positive message to the team on Monday.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesDespite the loss, Coach Sean Payton said it was the best the defense has played this season.
"It was the first game we played this year where I felt like there was a markedly different team from the last game, even [compared to a] victory versus Tampa, and how we looked. That's encouraging," Payton said. "And the reason is all we've talked about is that improvement from week to week. You guys [in the media] hear me say it all the time, 'We're in a race to improve.' And I felt like I saw more and we saw more in that game than we had in the prior five, with regards to improvement.

"Now obviously, listen, we're not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place (including the officiating, which I'll expand on later today after Payton again expressed his frustration Monday). … And we weren't able to finish. But when watching the tape, I'm encouraged with a lot of the improvement that I saw."

Obviously Payton and players acknowledged that they still need to clean up mistakes related to execution and scheme, etc., especially in those final minutes where they've now coughed up three leads this season en route to a 2-4 record.

But Payton's emphasis was more on things like energy, work ethic during the practice week and even that "edge" that had been missing for most of this season.

"I wouldn't come up and tell you guys, ‘Hey, I'll be shocked if we don't play lights out and win this game.' But this would have been a week where I would have said that," Payton said. "And I felt like the preparation leading up to it and the focus, that's the thing that was encouraging. And I felt like it was different. …

"I think it's important that they need to see that. Look, it's frustrating and it's tough when you expend that energy and come off the bye with a good plan and at the very end you still come away empty-handed. That can be very difficult and very frustrating. And yet, I think it's important that they recognize here's some of the things that were different. This is what we saw differently. This is why we resembled a little more of the team we expected for the first time.

"If we continue to make that same progress and improvement, this team will be alright."

Payton said it was "by far" the best game the Saints played defensively, with season-highs of two takeaways and three sacks. But obviously the defense ultimately collapsed with breakdowns on both of Detroit's late touchdown passes (a 73-yarder to Golden Tate on third-and-14 and a 5-yarder to Corey Fuller on third-and-goal).

As a result, the Saints' defensive players seemed torn Monday between that frustration and that encouragement.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis said you can't ever walk away happy after a loss -- whether there was improvement or not. And many other defensive players offered some variation of what linebacker Curtis Lofton said Sunday afternoon: "A loss is a loss, regardless, they all suck and you hate the feeling of them."

At the same time, players stressed that they remain united and focused on continuing to improve after seeing more signs of that improvement Sunday.

"We know we have to finish games, and that's something we will work on this week," Saints end Cameron Jordan said. "When you lose close games like that, it's heartbreaking. When you dominate for three quarters and you end up letting off in the last couple minutes, it completely changes the game. It definitely hurts, and this is a tough game to swallow."

But, Jordan also said, "There were a lot of great things in that game. That's why we're upbeat."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19

DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field:

What it means: Somehow the Saints (2-4) managed to come up with their ugliest, most painful loss yet in a season filled with them. They blew a 23-10 lead with less than four minutes remaining thanks to huge breakdowns by the defense and quarterback Drew Brees.

The defense allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate and a 5-yard TD pass to Corey Fuller in the final minutes, and Brees threw an interception inside his own territory as the lead -- and possibly the season -- rapidly disintegrated.

The only saving grace for New Orleans is that the entire NFC South is in turmoil, with no teams over .500. And the Saints still have six home games remaining. But they can't expect to win anything if they can't close out games.

Stock watch: Brees' stock rose and fell dramatically in this game. He was clutch for 56 minutes, finally rediscovering his receivers on a day when tight end Jimmy Graham and the run game were nonfactors. But Brees threw his most costly interception of the season from his own 29-yard line with 3:20 remaining. Safety Glover Quin cut in front of a pass intended for receiver Marques Colston to snag the pick on third-and-9.

Brees was then unable to march his team back in the final minutes for a possible game-winning field goal, completing just 2 of 7 passes on the final desperate drive with only one first down. He finished 28-of-45 for 342 yards, two touchdowns (including a 46-yard strike to Kenny Stills) and the one interception.

The defense was just as much of a roller coaster, with interceptions by Keenan Lewis and Kenny Vaccaro nullified by the late breakdowns.

Graham a nonfactor: Graham did play and probably wound up playing close to 20 or 30 snaps by unofficial count. But he was targeted only twice and didn't catch a pass. It’s unclear if the Saints intentionally left him out of the game plan or if he was covered on plays designed for him. He is heading in the right direction with his shoulder injury, though -- and the Saints will need him going forward.

Game ball: Colston and Stills reluctantly get the nod since Brees and the defensive backs had too many highs and lows. Colston hauled in six receptions for 111 yards, many of them resulting in big hits over the middle. And Stills caught five passes for 103 yards and the 46-yard TD on a day when the Saints absolutely needed their receivers to come through.

What's next: The opponents don't get any easier for the Saints, who host the sizzling Green Bay Packers (5-2) next Sunday night. But the Saints love the setting. They have won 13 straight prime-time games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome by an average of roughly 20 points per game.
METAIRIE, La. -- Cornerback Keenan Lewis (toe) and running back Pierre Thomas (illness) were both listed as probable for Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions even though both players were held out of team drills for the second consecutive day on Friday.

Both players participated in some individual drills during the portion of practice that was open to the media. Thomas said he’s still battling the illness but insisted he’ll play Sunday.

Running back Mark Ingram (hand), center Jonathan Goodwin (knee) and fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) are also listed as probable after practicing fully all week. Linebacker Ronald Powell (illness) is listed as probable after missing practice both Thursday and Friday.

As previously reported, Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is officially listed as questionable after participating in team drills on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson (hamstring) is listed as questionable after being held out of team drills all week. That means rookie cornerbacks Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste could both see increased action as nickel and dime backs.

Backup linebackers Ramon Humber (ankle) and Kyle Knox (ankle) have officially been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints’ roster through the Week 6 bye:

Snaps played: CB Keenan Lewis 319, CB Corey White 313, CB Patrick Robinson 147, CB Brian Dixon 27, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste 0.

S Kenny Vaccaro 332, S Jairus Byrd 267, S Rafael Bush 151, S Vinnie Sunseri 2.

Key stats: Vaccaro 27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass break-up; Byrd 22 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble; Lewis 15 tackles, 4 PBUs; Robinson 12 tackles, 3 PBUs, 1 interception; White 23 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 fumble recovery; Bush 22 tackles, 1 PBU; Dixon 4 tackles, 1 forced fumble.

My take: It’s a neck-and-neck battle between the secondary and the defensive line for the Saints’ most disappointing position group so far this season. But the secondary has clearly undergone the most turmoil -- capped by Byrd’s season-ending knee injury in practice two weeks ago.

Byrd, who was expected to come in and take this rising secondary to another level, was struggling even before the injury. But he was hardly the only one as the Saints suffered through assignment breakdowns and missed tackles across the board. The Saints’ original No. 2 cornerback Robinson was benched during Week 2 (before returning as the nickel back after Byrd’s injury). His replacement, White, has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride with ups and downs since then. And fellow safety Vaccaro has been equally inconsistent, either because he was still dealing with soreness from last year’s broken ankle or because he was trying to do too much -- or both.

There is some reason for optimism. Lewis has remained steady as the Saints’ No. 1 corner and most reliable defensive back. He’s mostly held his own while routinely matching up against top receivers. Vaccaro played his best game in Week 5, attacking as a run defender and saying he felt healthier and faster. And defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has helped to eliminate some of those assignment breakdowns by cutting down on the number of on-field checks and adjustments.

More than anything, the main reason for hope is that things can’t get much worse than they were in the first four weeks. Losing Byrd is a severe blow, but Bush at least gives the Saints a veteran alternative to lean on. And Robinson showed signs of life in Week 5, when he reeled in the team’s first interception of the season.

It will still be a roller-coaster ride for the entire secondary going forward. But the adjustments they’ve made and expected improvement from the pass rush should help even things out a bit.

ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “It’s been a nightmare. I think Lewis is turning into a great corner, on the positive side. But I never saw from Byrd what I saw in Buffalo, where he was a great ball hawk deep safety, played the ball in the air extremely well, baited quarterbacks, very few wasted steps. He didn’t show up at all. And maybe even more concerning, I thought Kenny Vaccaro was on the cusp of making the Pro Bowl. I don’t know if it’s injury-related, if he’s not all the way back, or he just doesn’t move as well as he used to, but he’s not doing anything well right now. Maybe the week off goes a long way [with Vaccaro]. And obviously the second corner’s a nightmare. They don’t have a second corner.”
I was even more impressed by the New Orleans Saints' defensive performance after reviewing the tape of their 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints had some terrible lapses over the course of three drives in the middle of the game, so it wasn’t perfect by any stretch. Cornerback Corey White especially struggled at times, and the pass rush remains a work in progress.

But the Saints started fast and finished dominant. Their run defense was downright stifling -- thanks in large part to safety Kenny Vaccaro. And two of those touchdown drives came after bad breaks when the Saints nearly got off the field much earlier (a roughing-the-passer penalty against Junior Galette and Galette’s almost interception).

Here are more thoughts after breaking down the play-by-play:

Dominant finish: Galette’s sack for a safety midway through the fourth quarter might have been the defense’s biggest play of the season to date. He was lined up as a true 3-4 outside linebacker outside of end Cameron Jordan (something the Saints have done more often this season). The Saints ran a stunt, with Jordan consuming both the left tackle and left guard while Galette cruised inside on a delayed rush after the fullback went out for a pass.

However, that wasn’t the Saints’ only big play over the final 10:14 as they finally “finished.” Tampa Bay’s next series ended with a holding call and three straight incomplete passes. The pass coverage deserves most of the credit, since Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon couldn’t find anyone open. Keenan Lewis was especially good against Vincent Jackson on some of those plays. The Saints also got decent pressure on Glennon with a four-man rush.

Dominant/lucky start: The Buccaneers also went nowhere for the first 28 minutes of the game, gaining 94 yards with three points over their first five drives. The Saints got lucky a few times, since tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins dropped a pass on the first third-and-8, and both a 32-yard catch by running back Doug Martin and a 27-yard catch by Louis Murphy were nullified by illegal formation/shift penalties. Still, the Saints didn’t give up many legal big plays.

And the Saints -- finally -- made their own badly needed big play when cornerback Patrick Robinson made an outstanding diving catch for an interception in the second quarter. Robinson had tight coverage on Murphy, located the ball in the air and made a terrific basket catch over his shoulders -- Willie Mays style. Glennon couldn’t quite step all the way into the throw because of blitz pressure.

Vaccaro lights fire: Vaccaro was flying all over the field as the Saints got off to that fast start, often cruising into the backfield on run blitzes. He missed once or twice, but throughout the day he helped stop Martin for gains of 3, minus-5, 1, 2 and 0. Vaccaro also flew in to hit Seferian-Jenkins to help break up two passes on the first two series. Vaccaro did, however, draw two penalties for illegal hands to the face on a blitz and illegal contact.

More run stuffs: Linebacker Curtis Lofton had at least three big-time run stuffs, Jordan had two, and linebackers David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson had one each as Tampa Bay finished with a total of just 66 rushing yards on 21 carries (and one of those was a meaningless 16-yard run by Martin as time expired in regulation).

The Saints did have one ugly breakdown when Bobby Rainey walked in for a 9-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Hawthorne looked like he might have been held, but the play was so well-blocked that it might not have mattered.

White’s struggles: The worst play for the Saints’ defense was a 20-yard TD pass to Murphy on third-and-7 before halftime. Blitz pressure didn’t get anywhere near Glennon. And White let Murphy get two full yards behind him in the end zone -- after first being flagged for holding Murphy earlier on the route.

White also gave up an ugly 32-yard gain to Jackson when he allowed too much cushion on a deep comebacker, then missed an easy tackle as Jackson got up to run. And White later whiffed on a tackle against Jackson that allowed him to gain at least 15 extra yards.

White didn’t get picked on too much in coverage, though, and he did have one nice breakup on a deep throw and one big hit on Martin after a short pass.

Other low points: Safety Rafael Bush was trailing on the easy 9-yard touchdown pass to Robert Herron in the fourth quarter, but Glennon had too much time to throw against a three-man rush. ... Bush also let Jackson get behind him for an unreal 34-yard gain that seemed to happen in slow motion when Glennon floated a pass across his body under heavy pressure on a second-and-20 play. ... Hawthorne also whiffed on a tackle against Martin after a check-down pass that turned into a 20-yard gain.

Other high points: Haralson and Galette should’ve made the play of the year with Galette’s near interception in the third quarter. Haralson shot past tight end Luke Stocker on a blitz to nail Glennon, who made a horrible decision to try and shovel the ball away (sound familiar?). The ball bounced off guard Logan Mankins' helmet and popped in the air, but Galette couldn’t hang on while Mankins grabbed at his feet. ... Lewis was matched up against Jackson often and held up very well. The only one of Jackson’s big plays that came against Lewis was a 17-yarder against too much cushion. ... End Glenn Foster had a handful of nice pass rushes -- often when he and end Tyrunn Walker were being used inside as tackles. ... Linebackers Ramon Humber and Kyle Knox had two big solo sticks on kickoff returns.
METAIRIE, La. -- That didn't take long.

After the best season of his career in 2013, New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is once again facing scrutiny just four games into the 2014 season -- at least outside of the team facility.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesYear 2 of the Rob Ryan defense has been a rough one thus far for the Saints, mimicking what's happened at Ryan's other stops.
The Saints (1-3) are ranked 29th in the NFL in yards allowed (396 per game), tied for 27th in points allowed (27.5 per game) and dead last in turnovers (1).

Inside the Saints' building, players and coach Sean Payton have continued to support Ryan. Cornerback Keenan Lewis offered the strongest possible endorsement Monday when he wasn't even asked about Ryan, saying, "We're gonna get it fixed. We've got the coaches, Coach Ryan's got all the faith, the best coordinator in the NFL. He's doing a great job. We just gotta listen, and we just gotta man up and get the job done."

Payton cut off a question when asked about Ryan not getting the same results as last season, saying, "Yeah, but that's 'we.' It's not any one individual. It's the Saints' defense. Sean Payton is not getting the same results as he did last year, and every player on this team is not getting the same results ... on defense."

However, a growing number of skeptics have pointed to Ryan's spotty track record in previous stops with the Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders. ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson said this week that if Ryan -- son of Buddy, twin brother to Rex -- had a different last name, "I don't think he'd be a defensive coordinator in this league."

Media members in both Cleveland and Dallas (where the Saints have lost games this year) suggested that Ryan's struggles are reminiscent of relapses his defenses had in those cities.

ESPN Stats & Information produced a chart this week, pointing out that last year's Saints defense was Ryan's first since 2006 to rank better than 20th in the NFL in defensive efficiency (a formula that measures the value of each play, based on the situation and result).

It's worth noting, however, that whether Ryan is the cause or the effect, he hasn't been with many good teams during his career. Last year's Saints team was the first to finish with a winning record in Ryan's 11-year career as a defensive coordinator.

Personally, I disagree with Williamson's assessment. There is more to Ryan than his family ties. Ryan has one of the most infectious personalities of any coach I've ever been around.

I've talked with many of Ryan's current and former players and scouting analysts who admire his work ethic as a creative schemer and "film rat." Players in both New Orleans and previous stops have almost universally praised him as a guy they love to play for. There is no question that Ryan's ability to both motivate and innovate got the most out of the Saints' young talent during their unexpected rise to prominence last year.

Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who fired Ryan after the 2012 season, said recently, "I think Rob's going to make a great head coach. I haven't seen anybody that is better in front of a team and better motivating than Rob Ryan."

But no one can dispute the fact that Ryan's defense needs to start producing better results on the field.

Injuries haven't been an issue this year, and talent shouldn't be either. Ryan is working with mostly the same players as last season, plus the addition of three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd.

The Saints did let go of several veteran leaders (Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper). But while their leadership clearly seems to be missed, many of them played limited roles last year because of injuries.

Ryan himself hasn’t shirked the blame. He isn’t scheduled to meet the media until Friday this week to discuss the defense's latest setback, a 38-17 loss at Dallas. But Ryan made no excuses after the Saints' first two losses, saying it was "on me."

Ryan also simplified his scheme before Week 3, eliminating the heavy amount of checks and adjustments he likes to use in his defenses (an approach that has also drawn its share of criticism in previous stops).

"When I was hired, I came into something special here. And I'm not going to screw it up," Ryan said last week. "I'm going to work hard and make sure we get it right."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
What’s wrong with the New Orleans Saints defense? Depends on which game you watch.

This time their run defense was the most glaring issue in a revolving set of problems that have plagued them throughout this season. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Saints got gashed by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ run game in last Sunday night’s 38-17 loss. They got paralyzed by the mere threat of Murray.

The Saints’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly got caught in no man’s land. Their pass rush wasn’t overly aggressive because they kept guys hanging back to guard against the run -- which ultimately didn’t work anyway. At the same time, the Saints’ coverage suffered in the middle of the field because they were burned by play-action passes.

The good news is that the Saints won’t face many running backs with Murray’s combination of power and speed this season. The bad news is that they keep finding different ways to lose games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray rushed 24 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Here are more observations after watching the tape:

Murray overwhelming: Murray definitely gets his share of credit for churning out 149 yards and two touchdowns. Once he got a head of steam, he powered through some guys (even stout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton on one occasion). Other times, Murray’s speed burned guys who took bad angles.

The low point might have been Murray’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, where he came up the middle, powered through Lofton while Lofton was coming off of a partial block, then kept running as linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Rafael Bush also failed to bring him down.

Murray’s speed burned the Saints on both of his touchdowns. On his 28-yarder in the third quarter, Murray started running left but made a sharp cut inside while Humber went wide. Then he sped past Lofton, who was trying to spin away from a block. And he made safety Jairus Byrd miss in the open field toward the end of the run. … Byrd also took too shallow of an angle on Murray’s 15-yard TD run in the first half.

The Cowboys’ run blocking was outstanding, with Murray getting out wide into open space a lot rather than plowing up the middle. Backup running back Joseph Randle also broke off a 14-yard gain late in the third quarter, aided by a missed tackle by safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Missed tackles: This was a repeat violation for the Saints, who were also plagued by missed tackles in Week 1. They had at least six blatant misses (one each by Vaccaro, Byrd, Lofton, Humber, Junior Galette and Corey White). And they had several others that would have been more challenging stops but still would be counted as misses.

Pass-rush problems: I can’t remember seeing many games where Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan were so ineffective. They barely even got any hurries on quarterback Tony Romo. To be fair, Romo didn’t stand in the pocket all day picking the Saints apart deep. But he was rarely harassed, and one of the few times he did get flushed, he ran 21 yards to convert a third down.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith had a lot to do with that. He beat both Galette and Jordan 1-on-1 a few times. One time, Galette even bounced off Smith and fell to the ground while trying a spin move. Nothing seemed to work for the Saints. One time, they flooded the Cowboys’ right side with a zone blitz that included two rushing linebackers, but Murray picked up Humber. Another time they tried stunts on both sides of the line, but everyone got stood up.

The Saints didn’t blitz much early in the game. And they started to have some success when they finally did start sending some heavy pressures (including a third-down sack by Vaccaro during a big moment late in the game when the Saints were rallying). But then again, all three of Romo’s touchdown passes came against blitzes.

A 23-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams in the second quarter and an 18-yarder to Dez Bryant in the fourth were almost identical plays against all-out blitzes. Romo made quick, back-shoulder throws to the receivers, who turned and caught them short of the goal line before powering in (Williams against Brian Dixon and Bryant against Keenan Lewis). Dixon was playing physical coverage, while Lewis gave a small cushion, but neither worked.

No man’s land: There were several examples of the Saints either getting burned by a play-action pass or leaving the middle of the field open with eight men in the box spying Murray. Romo’s first 6-yard TD pass to Williams was an example of the latter. Others included passes of 16, 16, 15 and 11).

Some good stuff: Lewis did a solid job against Bryant. He had one nice pass-break up and had good deep coverage twice when Romo fired that way under pressure. Sometimes the Saints doubled Bryant, but not too often, as he finished with three catches for 44 yards. … The Saints tightened up against the run in a few key moments late in the game. Bush, Byrd and linebacker Parys Haralson each got good penetration on run stuffs. … Not sure if this counts as good or bad, but the Saints recognized at the last moment that receiver Devin Street was uncovered on a third-and-9 play in the second quarter, and Byrd got there just in time to break up the pass. … Byrd struggled in run support but put some big licks on receivers in the open field.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints seemed to have the proper mix of anger/frustration/confidence/realism/focus on Monday after a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sent them reeling back to 1-3 on the season.

But they were the first to admit they won't really know if they're reacting the right way until they start to see real evidence on the football field -- beginning with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said. "And so you've gotta constantly look at tweaking the approach coming into the next week.

"Look, we'll find out a little bit about this team here. When you start the season 1-3 and you get punched like that, very quickly we'll find out a little bit about what we're made of."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Sean Payton
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images"Here's what we can't do: We can't continue with the exact same preparation plan and expect different results, right?" Saints coach Sean Payton said.
"Every team is different," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "This team is different from last year, and that team was different than the year before. And this team has not figured out how to win yet."

I know a lot of Saints fans are eager to pinpoint some grand, big-picture theme that can explain this inexplicable start.

I've heard countless theories, from this team buying into its own preseason hype to tuning out Payton's message to having a "country club" training camp in West Virginia to just plain not wanting it as much as the Cowboys did on Sunday night.

And none of those theories can be dismissed outright since, as Payton suggested, everything should be on the table when looking for a solution. Payton said he'll look closely at all factors with the staff and veteran leaders on the team.

But when I asked leaders such as Payton, Strief, Junior Galette and Keenan Lewis on Monday if they see any such big-picture reasons that could point to their slide, they said they genuinely didn't think so.

"There's no lack of fire. We practice our ass off," Galette said. "I feel like we practice harder than any other team I've been here with in five years. We practice harder than any of those teams, and we have more talent than any of those teams as well.

"You have to be realistic and know that we're not as good as we thought we were. We have to get better and improve drastically. It's very humbling, but we still believe in our team, and we still believe the sky's the limit.

"We're in a rut right now. Coach always talks about the rut and the groove, and we're in a rut. We've got to get in that groove, and once we find it, we'll keep our foot on the gas."

Strief said he can't guarantee that nobody was reading news clippings -- but he knows from experience they don't mean a thing, whether you're predicted to be good or bad.

"And do I feel that the idea of going somewhere to save guys' legs for the season is causing us to lose games? No," Strief said of the training camp theory. "Having three turnovers is causing us to lose games. Getting behind 24-0 before halftime is having us lose games. Not finishing drives in the fourth quarter had us lose games."

Payton agreed that it's important for the Saints to take a hyper focus on what's preventing them from winning -- including the "laundry list" of on-field problems that were on display Sunday night.

"That's all of us looking at the tape closely and looking at the specifics in regards to assignment technique and then us as coaches looking at, 'Are we asking the players to do things we feel like they can do well?'" Payton said.

And Payton stressed the "sense of urgency" that's needed isn't just about showing up on game days, but showing up on the practice field and in the film room.

"This is a win business, so when you're not having success, that challenges everyone. That challenges the players, the coaches. You have to dig down deep. It's a gut check," Payton said. "And I'm certain we will."

Whether or not the Saints did lose their proper focus or motivation or any other intangible you want to consider early in the season, it's clear there's no excuse for those things to be lacking now.

"I'm definitely angry," Lewis said. "I didn't picture us being 1-3, the team battling even to get to .500. So it hurts. And I'm going to try and challenge my teammates and get it going.

"The first two losses, you lose by 2-3 points, you look back and say we could have done more. But a team comes in and puts up 38 points, dominating from start to finish. It's definitely head-scratching, and we gonna get it fixed.

"We can't be waiting around saying, 'It's still early.' We've gotta start kicking the door in."

W2W4: Saints at Cowboys

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
METAIRIE, La. -- Who are these guys?

The New Orleans Saints (1-2) and Dallas Cowboys (2-1) have both learned to embrace their run games this year. And their potent offenses have become much harder to defend as a result.

Here's What 2 Watch 4 when they meet Sunday night in Dallas:

Pick your poison: When you think of Dallas, you think about dynamic receiver Dez Bryant first and foremost. But the Cowboys have stubbornly stuck to their run game this year -- even when they were down 21-0 last week at the St. Louis Rams before rallying for a victory. DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing yards (385) and carries (75).

That means the Saints' defense will have to be on its best behavior. They struggled with things like missed tackles and blown assignments in their first two losses. They can't afford either at Dallas.

Meanwhile, the Saints offense has been making defenses pay for sitting back in deep coverage to guard against big plays from the likes of Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Brandin Cooks. New Orleans ranks sixth in the NFL with 140.3 rushing yards per game, using a committee of Mark Ingram (who is out for Sunday night with a hand injury), Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Dallas' defense has been hit and miss this year -- though it's better than last season, when the Saints set a NFL record with 40 first downs in a 49-17 victory over the Cowboys in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Get the ball: Forcing more turnovers has been arguably the Saints' No. 1 objective since the offseason, when they signed ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. But they have a grand total of one takeaway so far this season -- which came in the first quarter of Week 1.

The Saints inexplicably have just five takeaways over their past 14 games. Asked what they can do differently, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said, "That's a great question."

"Right now, man, nobody's doing worse than the Ryan brothers," Ryan said of his brother Rex, whose New York Jets have forced only two turnovers this year. "We might say we are two of the best coaches, and I believe that, and I know that. We're doing everything we can to do it, but we have to do more. There's got to be something else out there.

"We keep emphasizing it and all of that, but that's lip service. We need to start getting turnovers and it needs to start happening this week."

The Cowboys could provide an opportunity. They've turned the ball over seven times, with four interceptions by Tony Romo.

Bryant vs. Lewis: This is a potential "get your popcorn ready" matchup. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis has quietly become one of the NFL's best cover men -- and one of his signature performances came against Bryant last year, when he stymied him with press coverage while a safety often shadowed behind. Bryant said this week that he was surprised by that double coverage, but he has plenty of respect for Lewis.

It will be curious to see, however, if the Saints stick with that approach, which could leave them vulnerable against weapons like Murray, tight end Jason Witten and speedy receiver Terrance Williams. In Week 1, the Saints actually used Lewis in man coverage against the Atlanta Falcons' No. 2 receiver, Roddy White, while using more double teams on No. 1 receiver Julio Jones. Although the Saints got burned in that game by underneath throws, they didn't get beat deep much by those potent weapons.

Who's who?: Although the Saints have faced Dallas in each of the past two years and four of the past five years, they've got to get used to a lot of new faces in the Cowboys' front seven. Longtime pass rusher DeMarcus Ware is now in Denver. Fellow pass rusher Anthony Spencer is questionable for Sunday night. And standout middle linebacker Sean Lee is on injured reserve.

The Cowboys' front is now led by free-agent newcomers like end Jeremy Mincey, tackle Henry Melton and middle linebacker Rolando McClain (though Melton and McClain are also questionable with injuries).

"I think more than anything, they're playing really assignment sound," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "When we watched the tape from last year I think there was a lot of indecision, linebacker reads coming slow, which let us get to the second level. You don't see that with them this year."

Film study: Reviewing Saints' defense

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
The play that best showcased the New Orleans Saints' impressive performance in pass coverage last Sunday was the one that ended with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel breaking his foot.

Cassel had to take off running when he couldn't find anyone open on third-and-10 from the Saints' 12-yard line. Saints end Cameron Jordan shed tight end Kyle Rudolph's block so forcefully that he knocked Rudolph to the turf. And Saints cornerbacks Keenan Lewis, Corey White and Brian Dixon all got excellent jams on Minnesota's three receivers at the line of scrimmage. The pass rush from Junior Galette also helped quite a bit.

[+] EnlargeKyle Rudolph
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsSaints strong safety Kenny Vaccaro tackles Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph in the second half of their Week 3 game in New Orleans.
Cassel wound up with a broken foot after being tackled by Curtis Lofton and Kenny Vaccaro. And the Vikings had to settle for a field goal -- which became a recurring event in New Orleans' 20-9 victory.

The Saints' pass coverage had a few breakdowns, but it was mostly excellent throughout the day -- a much-needed turnaround after suffering too many breakdowns in the first two weeks. They limited the Vikings to a net total of 188 passing yards and kept them out of the end zone. The Saints did an especially good job of holding up when rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater entered the game and started scrambling to keep plays alive.

Here are some more observations:

More on the pass defense: It wasn't perfect. The Saints had gaping holes in their coverage on a 41-yard dump-off pass to running back Matt Asiata in the second quarter, a 30-yard pass to Greg Jennings in the third quarter, a 17-yard pass to Cordarrelle Patterson on a first-and-19 play in the fourth quarter and at least one occasion where Bridgewater didn't see Jennings wide open deep down the field. Lewis and Vaccaro also assisted Minnesota's offense with one defensive holding penalty apiece.

But those errors become much more forgivable when the defense tightens up in the red zone like it did so consistently Sunday. And the Saints never let anything get behind them over the top. Lewis had another excellent day, highlighted by his third-and-5 pass break-up against Jennings in the third quarter. And White was very solid as the Saints' new No. 2 starter, highlighted by good coverage on an incomplete deep ball in the third quarter.

Lofton dominant: I'm very glad I awarded Saints linebacker Lofton with my game ball Sunday night. Because if I hadn't, I'd be kicking myself after watching the tape. Lofton's performance was even more impressive during a play-by-play breakdown.

Lofton was all over an end-around toss to the dynamic Patterson in the second quarter, slamming the 6-2, 220-pounder for a 7-yard loss. He also showed that same combination of recognition and power to stick Asiata for a 5-yard loss on a screen pass during another red-zone stand in the second quarter.

Lofton had at least four other impressive solo stops that I noted (once shedding a blocker, once reacting to a sharp cutback) as he helped the Saints shut down Minnesota's run game (a total of 59 yards on 22 carries).

Linebacker Parys Haralson also stood out with a handful of noteworthy stops or hits on the quarterback. Linebacker Ramon Humber had a couple highs and a couple lows, but he was mostly solid while starting in place of injured David Hawthorne.

Pass rush closer: The Saints' pass rush still wasn't as productive as they'd like, with only two sacks and no forced turnovers. But they did get consistent heat on both quarterbacks throughout the day. Galette had an especially strong day, highlighted by his second sack of the season against Bridgewater in the second quarter. Jordan had the other sack in the fourth quarter -- and nearly had two, though he let Bridgewater slip out of his grasp.

Both sacks came during a four-man rush. However, the Saints blitzed even more than I realized -- 15 times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The results were hit or miss. Among the highlights were Asiata's 5-yard loss and Tyrunn Walker forcing a holding call. Among the lowlights were Asiata's 41-yard gain and a 15-yard pass to Jennings on a second-and-17 play.

Also, a 28-yard screen pass to Patterson burned a zone blitz when the Saints overloaded one side, and Galette wound up being matched up against Patterson in the open field on the other side.

Missed opportunity: Once again, the Saints failed to force a turnover. Their best chance came when Humber tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage and the ball fluttered in the air -- but no one got close to it. I couldn't help but notice that of the three defensive backs in the area, the one who instantly recognized the opportunity was safety Jairus Byrd, who is known for his “knack” for takeaways. Byrd shot toward the ball but couldn't reach it.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t give any indication Monday as to whether he intends to make a permanent change at the cornerback position after starter Patrick Robinson was demoted to the nickel back role during Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

However, fellow cornerback Keenan Lewis offered a passionate defense of his teammate Monday morning, after Robinson took a brunt of the criticism following the defeat.

“I’m going to root for him until the end. That’s my brother, and I feel he is one of the best in the league,” Lewis said, according to The Times-Picayune.

"A lot of people will sit there and say a ‘bad day,’ but only thing he gave up was 40 yards one time," Lewis said. "You see guys giving up three or four touchdowns a game. It's a part of football. … Look around on Sunday and there guys who caught 200 yards, three touchdowns. What do you say about those type of guys?"

The biggest play Robinson allowed Sunday was a 19-yard pass interference penalty in the first quarter, though he also committed two other costly penalties in the game (one during a Browns' missed field-goal attempt and one during the Browns' final play that included multiple coverage errors).

"Those guys (the Browns) are professionals too, and they made some good plays," Lewis said. "Just to lean on him and say he had a bad game I would say that ain't fair towards him. And as a teammate I think he is one of the best."

Robinson was not available for comment Monday.

Certainly, neither Payton nor any Saints players pinned Sunday’s loss solely on Robinson’s shoulders. They talked at length Monday about several “situational” issues where the Saints made mental errors or had assignment breakdowns in every unit.

However, Robinson was involved in a handful of those for the second straight week. And his miscues were highlighted by the fact that Payton decided to make the in-game switch.

It was reminiscent of when Payton yanked starting left tackle Charles Brown during last season’s loss at St. Louis. And Brown never returned to the lineup.

"Listen, it was just based on those early series," Payton said Monday when asked about the cornerback switch. "He ended up playing in nickel, and Corey [White] has been getting a bunch of snaps in the base. So it’s something I just felt like it was the best thing to do."
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints receiver Kenny Stills appears close to making his return from a quad injury Sunday at the Cleveland Browns. Stills practiced fully on Friday and was listed as probable on the Saints’ official injury report.

It’s always possible the Saints could stay cautious with Stills, as he suffered two setbacks with the quad injury when trying to come back too soon this summer. But Stills said the Saints already played it cautious by holding him out last week. He said he feels ready to go, and it’s just up to the coaches to give the green light.

If Stills does play, it’s possible they could de-activate either Joe Morgan or Robert Meachem if they want to stick with just four active receivers. So stay tuned the Saints’ pre-game list of inactives.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee) and linebacker Curtis Lofton (shoulder) are also listed as probable after fully participating in practice both Thursday and Friday. Both of them should be good to go Sunday.

Fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) and safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) have been ruled out for the Saints.