New Orleans Saints: Keenan Lewis

ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters and Pro Football Focus both took a detailed look at the rosters of every team that failed to make the Super Bowl this season, with PFF using its grading history to determine "how far away" each team was.

I had some strong disagreements with some of PFF’s grades (especially when it came to cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Curtis Lofton, whom they inexplicably categorized as "bad" players in 2014). Those two were on my short list of the New Orleans Saints' MVP candidates for 2014 -- a belief that was only further backed up when I chatted with some personnel folks last week at the Senior Bowl.

Lewis
Lofton
You can check out my thoughts on many of the individual grades in the report and the accompanying video.

Where I agreed most with PFF, though, was that the Saints didn’t have enough players playing at an "elite" level in 2014 -- or even at the level PFF designated as "good." They had a total of five players in those categories in 2014, with quarterback Drew Brees and outside linebacker Junior Galette listed as elite, and running back Pierre Thomas, tight end Jimmy Graham, and offensive tackle Zach Strief as good.

A strong argument could be made that the Saints had no elite players in 2014, which was their biggest problem.

As I’ve written several times in recent weeks, the way the Saints have structured their roster, they have invested heavily in six to eight guys that are supposed to be elite – including Brees, Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, receiver Marques Colston, safety Jairus Byrd, Galette, and defensive end Cameron Jordan. Brees makes $20 million per year, and all the others make between $7 million and $10 million per year, if you include the 2015 option the Saints exercised on Jordan. But all of them underachieved to one level or another.

Check out the full breakdown of the Saints’ roster and other rosters around the league. It goes deeper than just the grades -- with breakdowns of the teams’ biggest needs, their best and worst values, and the good news and the bad news looking forward.

ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williamson also wrote an intriguing companion piece (which requires Insider access), ranking which NFL teams have the best talent aged 25 and under Insider. The Saints are in the middle of the pack.
A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason – ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Keenan Lewis. Age 28, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $2.55 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $4.85 million.

Terrence Frederick. Age 24, scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number $510,000.

Patrick Robinson. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

Corey White. Age 24, signed through 2015. 2015 salary and bonuses: $1.574 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $1.618 million.

Brian Dixon. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $511,666.

Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Age 24, signed through 2017. 2015 salary and bonuses: $585,306. 2015 salary-cap number: $826,530.

A.J. Davis.. Age 25, exclusive rights free agent.

Analysis

Lewis
If you’re feeling déjà vu, it’s because this was also No. 1 on my list at this time last year. The Saints still desperately need a No. 2 cornerback opposite Lewis after Robinson, White, Jean-Baptiste and free-agent veteran Champ Bailey all failed to seize the job last year.

I think the Saints must sign an experienced veteran free agent to fill that role since they can’t count on a draft pick to step in right away or for Jean-Baptiste to develop rapidly enough after he barely played as a rookie. In a perfect world, New Orleans would find the latest version of Lewis or Jabari Greer – No. 1 corners who came at affordable rates in free agency.

The bad news is that will cost a good bit of money that the Saints don’t have in ample supply. But the good news is there should be a good variety of choices on the market (from marquee names such as Byron Maxwell, Kareem Jackson, Brandon Flowers, Tramon Williams and Antonio Cromartie to young guys on the rise such as Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver to older vets such as Ike Taylor and Rashean Mathis).

The Saints are set with Lewis as a true No. 1 corner who held his own (and then some) against No. 1 receivers such as Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson and Kelvin Benjamin during an otherwise-disastrous year for the secondary. Frederick, Jean-Baptiste and Dixon should be back, too, since they’re young players with chances to develop further.

I’m less certain about Robinson and White, though. I don’t know what the Saints think of Robinson, who is an unrestricted free agent. He seemed to bounce back well after an early season demotion. But then he got demoted again late in the year. White got demoted even further at the end of the year -- being moved to safety. And now White is due to make more than $1.5 million, which could price him off the roster.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson’s take: “My biggest reservation about picking [the Saints] as Super Bowl champ last year was corner. And I thought Lewis was a quality player. He was one of the few that actually I thought played better than expected. I thought he had a really good year for a majority of the season. And I would call him a No. 1 corner right now, which is big praise. But they had no others. And I knew that going into the season, but I figured, ‘Hey, [safety Jairus] Byrd is going to be in deep center field. He’ll make up for a lot of issues. They’ll cause a lot of turnovers. [Safety Kenny] Vaccaro is going to be a [Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy] Polamalu, all-over type of guy. [Defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan will dial up a bunch to help that off-corner and their nickel corners. If you only have one major weakness, you should be able to scheme around it.’ But their second and third corners got attacked all year, and they just had no answer for it.”

(on Jean-Baptiste): “Jean-Baptiste, you give him an incomplete grade. At least that’s possible that he develops into what they thought when they drafted him. He was a high draft pick, he’s got good size obviously. Maybe he emerges and is a starter, but I don’t know much about him, I don’t remember him on the field much.”

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback

No. 10: Tight end

No. 9: Running back

No. 8: Safety

No. 7: Offensive tackle

No. 6: Wide receiver

No. 5: Defensive line

No. 4: Inside linebacker

No. 3: Guard/center

No. 2: Outside linebacker
METAIRIE, La. – Over the next week or two, I’ll take an in-depth look at each of the New Orleans Saints position groups, ranking them in order of offseason needs. I asked ESPN NFL scouting Insider Matt Williamson for his insight on each of those position groups.

But first, I asked Williamson for his overall take on the Saints after their disappointing 2014 season -- which was as much of a surprise to him as anyone:

“Well, in the preseason they were my pick to win the whole thing. They were my Super Bowl champion. And obviously that didn’t quite go as planned," Williamson said. "I’m not exactly sure what to pin it on, either. A lot of teams, when they crumble, you say, ‘Wow, their offensive line fell apart’ or, ‘The left tackle got hurt.’ Or some big reason why things changed so drastically. And I don’t know what that one thing would even be with the Saints.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJimmy Graham, and the rest of New Orleans' "Pro Bowl" talent, didn't always play like Pro Bowlers in 2014.
“Obviously their defense was much better a year ago than it was this past year. But is that enough to go from a Super Bowl contender to a top-13 draft pick? And the offense obviously wasn’t as good either. Is coaching involved? Is it [quarterback Drew] Brees? I think a lot of their stars ... there’s such cap issues that it’s a pretty top-loaded team. The bottom of their roster is never gonna carry things. It’s gonna be Brees and [Jimmy] Graham and whoever. And if you look at where all their money is, a lot of those guys really didn’t come through. The guards [Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs]. Jimmy Graham to some degree, although I think he plays hurt a lot. Brees to some degree. (Defensive end) Cameron Jordan, for sure. And the safeties [Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro].

“Just those guys I mentioned, they have a lot of resources tied up in those guys. And did any of them play like a Pro Bowler? That’s borderline. I don’t think they did.”

For the record, I completely agree with that assessment, as I’ve written several times in recent weeks. I don’t think the Saints have put themselves in “salary cap hell." But they have invested a large portion of their cap space into a handful of guys that they need to play like Pro Bowlers. And they almost all regressed across the board in 2014.

“It gives you less room for error, as opposed to having the total roster,” Williamson said of the way the Saints have invested their cap space. “And I don’t disagree with the philosophy, either, because in the end all that matters is, ‘Hey, can you get a ring?’ And they had a Super Bowl-caliber roster, I thought, at the beginning of the season. So I’m all for teams taking a shot to make a run, especially because Brees isn’t gonna play forever.”

As for what went wrong on defense, Williamson said:

“My biggest reservation about picking them as Super Bowl champ last year was corner. And I thought [Keenan] Lewis was a quality player. He was one of the few that actually I thought played better than expected. I thought he had a really good year for a majority of the season. And I would call him a No. 1 corner right now, which is big praise. But they had no others.

“And I knew that going into the season, but I figured, ‘Hey, Byrd’s gonna be in deep center field. He’ll make up for a lot of issues. They’ll cause a lot of turnovers. Vaccaro’s gonna be a [Pittsburgh’s Troy] Polamalu, all-over type of guy. (Defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan will dial up a bunch to help that off-corner and their nickel corners. If you only have one major weakness, you should be able to scheme around it.’ But their second and third corners got attacked all year, and they just had no answer for it.”

New Orleans Saints season report card

December, 31, 2014
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video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

It's not overstating things to call this the most disappointing season in franchise history.

The New Orleans Saints were a trendy Super Bowl pick to start the year, with a rising young defense and one of the best home-field advantages in sports. Instead, they finished 7-9, their defense was the worst in the NFL by some metrics and they lost their last five games in the Superdome, with the fans routinely showering them with boos.

The defense was the biggest culprit, even before big-ticket free agent Jairus Byrd went down with a season-ending knee injury. But the offense was just as disappointing, with top stars Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham coming up small in too many big moments.

MVPs: Brees and Keenan Lewis. I went with co-MVPs since everyone on the roster was a flawed candidate with too many highs and lows. Brees is by far the Saints' best player, and he gave them their best chance to win. He tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards, but he just couldn't finish the job consistently enough and had too many costly turnovers in big moments. Lewis, meanwhile, was the best asset on a turbulent defense, despite battling nagging injuries. He also battled inconsistency, but he came up big many times while being matched up against No. 1 receivers such as Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Kelvin Benjamin.

Best moment: The Saints' 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 on a Sunday night was one of those vintage moments when they looked unbeatable in a night game in the Superdome. Brees outdueled Aaron Rodgers, Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards, the defense came up with two interceptions, Graham and Brandin Cooks had big games, and at 3-4, it seemed the Saints had finally started to turn their season around. Instead, they never won another home game all year -- the biggest stunner of all.

Worst moment: The Saints hit rock-bottom with a 41-10 home loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 14. They had never looked so lethargic at home in the Sean Payton-Brees era. They were down 17-0 in less than 10 minutes, thanks to two early turnovers. They were down 41-3 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The boos were relentless. Afterward, veteran leaders questioned things such as professionalism and maturity in ways they never had before. Payton made several roster changes the following week to try to salvage the season -- which led to a win at Chicago. But it didn't last. Whatever magic the Saints once had at home had clearly evaporated.

2015 outlook: Optimism is low, given the Saints were loaded up to win this season and flopped. Plus, they're further over the salary cap to start 2015 than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information, so a major overhaul is out of the question. However, the talent everyone loved heading into 2014 is still there. The Saints should be able to manage the cap, keep most of their core players and even add one or two pieces in free agency and the draft. Above all, they'll need bigger returns on some of their heftiest investments, such as Brees, Graham, Byrd, Jahri Evans, Cameron Jordan and recent first-round picks Kenny Vaccaro and Cooks (whose promising rookie season ended early due to a thumb injury).

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 28, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: It was a mostly meaningless win for the Saints (7-9). In fact, it will actually hurt their draft position by a few notches and helped guarantee the No. 1 overall draft pick for the division rival Buccaneers (2-14).

But since the Saints went all-in to win this one, they at least got to finish with pride by rallying from a 20-7 deficit in the fourth quarter.

And they did it with a dominant defensive effort in the second half -- perhaps a last-ditch effort to save defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s job after players have so passionately backed him all season.

The Saints shut out the Bucs in the second half and capped the victory with back-to-back sacks by Cameron Jordan and then Junior Galette for a safety in the final minutes.

Stock watch: Quarterback Drew Brees ended his season in the same inconsistent style that defined his entire year. He threw three interceptions early in the game -- twice trying to force the ball downfield into traffic on third-and-long. But he finished with a go-ahead TD pass to Marques Colston with less than two minutes remaining.

Brees finished with 281 passing yards, leaving him at 4,952 passing yards for the season -- just short of his fifth career 5,000-yard season. He finished the frustrating year with 33 TD passes and 17 interceptions.

Milestone watch: By finishing 7-9, the Saints tied for their worst record in the Sean Payton-Brees era (they also went 7-9 in 2007 and 2012, the year Payton was suspended).

Brees fell short of the 5,000-yard threshold, and running back Mark Ingram fell 37 yards short of his first 1,000-yard season by rushing for 57 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Galette had one sack to give him 10 on the season but fell two short of the 12 he needed to kick in $6.5 million in future incentive bonuses.

Game ball: The Saints’ finale did at least help me settle on the winner of my overall season team MVP. I went with cornerback Keenan Lewis, whose second interception of the season helped spark the fourth-quarter comeback. Lewis was the best thing about New Orleans’ woeful defense all season long, routinely matching up against No. 1 receivers and shutting down the likes of Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Kelvin Benjamin. They need more guys like him.

Heading into Sunday's game, I was leaning slightly toward Brees, who did some of the best and worst things for the Saints all year. And I briefly considered Ingram and receiver Kenny Stills, who quietly snuck up close to a 1,000-yard season and came up clutch in some late-season wins. Stills, however, left Sunday’s finale with an apparent leg injury, which will be worth monitoring going forward.
METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees said next season is "a long way away" and he's not thinking about it at this point, with the New Orleans Saints still having one game left to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

But true to his optimistic nature, Brees insisted Wednesday that, "This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here."

[+] EnlargeBrees
AP Photo/Bill Haber"This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here," Drew Brees said.
"I'm very confident," Brees said. "I look around me at this team, and I feel like we have all the pieces in place, knowing we're going to go out and add pieces as well. I'm very confident in our management, our general manager Mickey Loomis to do that, Sean Payton, our entire coaching staff."

Although Brees' comments were laced with bravado, his feelings aren't totally misplaced.

As badly as the Saints (6-9) have struggled this year, they still have a lot of core players in their prime on a roster that many thought had Super Bowl potential this season. As I've written a few times in recent weeks, I believe their salary-cap situation is manageable. But they absolutely need to get a lot more production out of those core leaders they've invested in than they did in 2014 (including Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, safety Jairus Byrd, guard Jahri Evans, defensive end Cameron Jordan and several young rising defensive players).

I also wonder how much motivation plays a part.

I don't think motivation is everything in the NFL, compared to talent and coaching. But I do believe there's a difference between feeling good about yourself vs. having that salty taste in your mouth or a chip on your shoulder or whichever cliché you prefer.

Think the Saints' 2011 season vs. 2010 (their Super Bowl hangover year).

Cornerback Keenan Lewis acknowledged Wednesday that those lofty expectations surrounding the Saints heading into the offseason could sometimes hurt a team.

"You know, a lot of guys, we read a lot. And sometimes when you get so caught up into reading, you get caught up into that and you're feeling yourself," Lewis said. "And sometimes the reality check hits you. And I'm pretty sure it did for us this year. Coming in, people had us favored to win it. It didn't turn out like that.

"So next year, I'm pretty sure guys will remember this feeling and put that to the side and play ball. … You gotta be motivated, especially when you're coming off of a season like we had this year."

The Saints insist they'll remain motivated to finish this year strong, as well, with Sunday's season finale against the 2-13 Buccaneers.

But outside linebacker Junior Galette shot down the notion that they'll consider it the "first game of next season."

"No, it's not. It's the last game of this season," Galette said. "I don't want to bring anything from this season into next season, I know that."
A look at the New Orleans Saints’ snap counts in their 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16:

OFFENSE (70 snaps)

Quarterback – Drew Brees 70
Running back – Mark Ingram 53, Khiry Robinson 8, Pierre Thomas 7
Fullback – Erik Lorig 13
Receiver – Marques Colston 57, Nick Toon 49, Kenny Stills 47, Robert Meachem 19, Jalen Saunders 1
Tight end – Jimmy Graham 56, Benjamin Watson 30, Josh Hill 9
Offensive tackle – Zach Strief 70, Bryce Harris 70
Guard – Jahri Evans 70, Ben Grubbs 70
Center – Jonathan Goodwin 70
Safety – Kenny Vaccaro 1 (on kneeldown)

Thoughts:
  • Left tackle Terron Armstead didn’t play because of his lingering neck injury and said Monday that he’s not sure if he’ll be able to play in Week 17 (though it seems doubtful). Armstead also said he didn’t know if it’s the kind of injury that might require surgery in the offseason. … Once again, Bryce Harris struggled at times as Armstead’s replacement.
  • Running back Pierre Thomas left early with a rib injury and did not return. That was a double whammy since the Saints decided not to activate pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet since they wanted an extra lineman up instead. … It’s also unclear if Thomas will be able to play in Week 17.
DEFENSE (65 snaps)

Cornerback – Terrence Frederick 65, Patrick Robinson 49, Keenan Lewis 41, Brian Dixon 13
Safety – Kenny Vaccaro 65, Pierre Warren 65, Corey White 7
Outside linebacker – Ramon Humber 42, Parys Haralson 37, Junior Galette 28
Inside linebacker – Curtis Lofton 58, David Hawthorne 58
Defensive end – Cameron Jordan 65, Akiem Hicks 55, Tyrunn Walker 11
Defensive tackle – John Jenkins 46, Brandon Deaderick 10

Thoughts:
  • Once again, Junior Galette played a limited pass-rushing role because of a lingering knee injury. Fellow pass-rush specialist Kasim Edebali didn’t play at all on defense, which was a change for him.
  • Kenny Vaccaro returned to an every-down role after fellow safety Jamarca Sanford suffered a hamstring injury. The Saints will still need to figure out how to best use Vaccaro going forward, but he’s still a big part of the defense.
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis missed a third of the game after leaving to receive an IV in the second quarter. It’s unclear if it was related to the cramping issue he dealt with earlier this month.

Saints’ Pro Bowl prospects are slim

December, 23, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints were officially shut out of the playoffs this past Sunday. They might not fare much better when the 2015 Pro Bowl rosters are announced Tuesday night.

That’s what happens when you’re 6-9. It becomes a lot harder for guys such as offensive linemen and rising young players to get the benefit of the doubt.

Graham
The only real safe bet is tight end Jimmy Graham -- who has had a down year but should still land safely among the four all-stars at the position (which are now chosen regardless of conference).

Even quarterback Drew Brees is in danger of missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2007 (though he’d almost certainly make it as an alternate). Brees has still played at a very high level this season (including a league-high 4,671 yards). But the team’s losing record and his struggles with interceptions could slide him out of the top six with so many other worthy candidates (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson among them).

Guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs have gone to multiple Pro Bowls, and they’ve played about as well as they did when they got invited last season. But those are the kinds of guys who go when the team is winning.

Likewise, cornerback Keenan Lewis and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton have played well enough to earn Pro Bowl consideration -- but they’re facing a steep uphill battle on a defense ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed.

Lewis got snubbed last year and started to receive more national recognition this year. He deserves to go sooner than later. But it’s hard to break through at a position loaded with so many big names.

The teams will be announced at 7 p.m. CT. This year’s game is being played in Glendale, Arizona, the week before the Super Bowl.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first big decision facing the New Orleans Saints when their offseason begins next week is whether to make any coaching-staff changes -- most importantly, whether to stick with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

As they have all season, Saints players continued to offer strong support for Ryan in the locker room Monday. Safety Kenny Vaccaro didn't even just say he wants Ryan to be back; he insisted he will be.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Bill Haber/AP PhotoDespite the Saints' defense falling near the bottom of the league in several key categories, players are supportive of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"Rob will be here," Vaccaro said twice in response to questions about Ryan. "Rob's my guy. I love Rob. I'll fight for Rob every game. I'm a Rob guy, so there's no point even asking me about Rob. He'll ride with me until the end. Year 17, he'll come get me off my couch and say, 'Come play with me.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis agreed.

"I want him back. I'm gonna ride with him, no matter what the situation is. A great coordinator," Lewis said. "You can't just blame him when things go wrong. I don't think none of the blame should go to the coaches at all. We're the ones out there playing. We've gotta find a way to get it stopped.

"You know, I've played for two good coordinators. I was fortunate playing for Coach LeBeau [Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh], and I had an opportunity to play for Coach Rob, and I definitely feel as though he should be back."

When asked if players feel the need to convey their support for Ryan to the decision-makers, defensive end Tyrunn Walker said, "I think they know what they got. I think they know that he's a great coach and a great mentor."

Other veterans such as Curtis Lofton, Junior Galette, Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne, who have played with multiple defensive coordinators, have also passionately sung Ryan's praises in recent weeks.

So did head coach Sean Payton a few weeks ago when reports surfaced about an alleged rift in their relationship -- going above and beyond in crediting Ryan's passion and work ethic and even offering the ultimate compliment that he could've worked for Payton's mentor, Bill Parcells.

But the ultimate question is whether Payton can accept the lack of production he saw on the field from the Saints' defense. They're ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed (390.9 per game). They're tied for 28th in takeaways (16). And the Saints are by far the worst-ranked defense according to ESPN Stats & Information's defensive efficiency formula, accounting for negative-8.6 expected points added per game. That's worse than 2012, when the Saints were negative-7.0. And Payton fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after one year.

There were a few big differences that season, though. For one, Spagnuolo never actually worked for Payton, since Payton was serving a season-long suspension. But the bigger difference is Spagnuolo didn't have nearly the kind of "buy-in" from players in his system that Ryan has.

Plus, Ryan did get results from many of these same players in 2013 before this year's collapse.

A lot of the Saints' offseason decisions will depend heavily on how much they believe in the potential of 2013 vs. the regression of 2014.

Payton, however, wasn't interested in looking at any of those big-picture decisions on Monday with one week still remaining in the regular season and a game coming Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"We'll have a chance to look over every element, as far as from playing to coaching to who's in the building [next week]," Payton said. "All of those things, like we would every year."
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons eliminated them from playoff contention:

Galette
'Feels like a funeral': The mood in the Saints' locker room was gloomy. Outside linebacker Junior Galette said he couldn't describe how he felt because he had never experienced this. Although the Saints had been up and down all season, Galette said he didn't see another disappointment coming Sunday.

"It sucks. We lost. Terrible year," Galette said. "I thought we'd be happy in the locker room right now, celebrating. Instead it feels like a funeral in here."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief said this loss didn't come down to a lack of energy like others the Saints had harped on before. But he said the execution clearly wasn't good enough.

And coach Sean Payton said the loss wasn't a head-scratcher. He said that once again, the Saints didn't consistently do the things they need to win -- although he pointed out it was a little different in that the defense played well for the most part and the offense wasn't good enough.

Falcons get last word: That funeral analogy was popular because Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis kicked off the week by saying he was hoping this game would become Atlanta's funeral. Those words obviously had an impact on the Falcons. Receiver Roddy White drew a personal foul by grabbing Lewis' face mask at one point, and after the game, White and Harry Douglas threw a few more jabs Lewis' way.

Lewis conceded afterward, saying, "They hate us, we hate them, but hats off to those guys. They came out here and fought. And they deserve to move on."

Brees on interception: Drew Brees said his interception with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by six was "about as bad a feeling as you can ever have as a quarterback."

Brees has had that feeling too many times this season. He has been very good at times, but his turnovers (14 picks, three lost fumbles) have killed the Saints in too many of these close games, which he called "frustrating and disappointing." Stay tuned for more on Brees and the offense.
METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team and has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts.

Greer had some great insight earlier about how the leadership transition has affected New Orleans’ secondary and safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular. Here’s Greer’s take on the Saints’ recent personnel changes (replacing Vaccaro and Patrick Robinson in the starting lineup with Jamarca Sanford and Terrence Frederick) and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday:

“At first I was concerned about the changes, given that it was Week 15. On the other hand, given the magnitude of the game, the opportunity for those young men that played was tremendous. So part of me was hesitant. But the undrafted free agent part of me was looking back to the opportunity I got with the Buffalo Bills. The flip side of those changes is that there are a lot of people the Saints have invested in, which the team really needs. Kenny Vaccaro, Corey White, Patrick Robinson. These are guys that have incredible athleticism, have proven they can play football, but for one reason or another have taken a limited role. We understand that the Saints are going to need these guys if they’re going to make a push to the playoffs.”

[+] EnlargePierre Warren
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastPierre Warren has the "intangibles that you want to see out of your free safety, that you want to see out of a leader of your defense," Jabari Greer said.
(on the rise of undrafted rookie safety Pierre Warren) “We talked about this during the preseason. Pierre Warren was the standout of the entire defense, to me, in the preseason. Every game I saw him not only make plays, but he was doing the intangibles that you want to see out of your free safety, that you want to see out of a leader of your defense. He was around every ball, helping his defenders up, congratulating every man who had made a play. You knew that he had a passion, not only for the game, but for the players. Seeing that was really, really impressive. On top of the plays he made, it was the small psychological things I saw in Pierre Warren that I really, really liked. And to see him have a two-interception game on 'Monday Night Football?!' Coming off the practice squad?! Man, I’m telling you, he should be looking to sell his rights for a movie.”

(on matching up with Atlanta’s deep receiving corps): “I think the best approach would be to put your best cornerback on Julio Jones and then have a safety just to lean on top of him. Not to necessarily double him or commit two to him, but we understand that Julio is a deep threat. And I believe Keenan Lewis plays the deep ball almost better than anybody else in the league. You very rarely see Keenan get beat by the deep ball. I like Patrick’s ability to play in the slot. He’s extremely athletic, we all know that. But I think that over the last six games, the way that he’s contested every throw has been incredible. In six games I’ve only seen one ball being openly caught by a receiver that Patrick Robinson has guarded. So I’d feel very comfortable about putting him or Corey White or Kenny Vaccaro on the slot receivers. And then having Terrence Frederick or the other corners play Roddy White with a safety being able to respond. Because Roddy, he doesn’t run many deep balls anymore, not nearly as much as he used to. And it’s really time to test the young man Fredrick. He had a good game last week, and it’s time to see if he’s the real deal.”

Click here for Greer's more detailed scouting reports on Jones and White from earlier this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- The revamped New Orleans Saints secondary did a decent job in the dress rehearsal.

But now comes the real thing.

The Saints will face much stiffer competition Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons than they did in this past Monday night's 31-15 victory over the hapless Chicago Bears.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFalcons QB Matt Ryan (2) shredded the Saints' D for 448 yards in Week 1.
Atlanta has the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense, and quarterback Matt Ryan previously carved up the Saints for a Falcons-franchise-record 448 yards in Atlanta's 37-34 overtime victory in Week 1.

The Saints and their 31st-ranked defense have been trying to fix the problem ever since.

"They're probably the best receiving corps in the league. I'm not gonna say probably -- they are," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who said he's preparing as though Atlanta will be at full strength despite receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas all missing practice Wednesday.

"So we definitely gotta get it together," Lewis continued. "They definitely embarrassed us the first week. And when you've got pride, you know you just can't come out there and let that happen again."

Jones' hip injury is the ultimate X factor this week. He didn't play last week and remains questionable. But Lewis said he expects Jones to play because the Falcons' season is on the line in this showdown that could wind up determining the NFC South champion.

Jones ranks second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards this year.

In that first game, the Saints' approach to covering Jones worked OK. They primarily put their best corner, Lewis, on White while mostly double-teaming Jones with corner Patrick Robinson and free safety Jairus Byrd. Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards, but most of it was underneath stuff, and he didn't score a touchdown.

The Saints used a similar approach that worked great three weeks ago against dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

The problem in Week 1, however, was that New Orleans got carved up by Atlanta's depth -- including a huge game from fourth receiver Devin Hester, strong performances by White and Douglas and two big touchdown plays by backup running backs Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Lewis admitted that Hester's usage (five catches, 99 yards) came as a "shock."

"In Chicago they really didn't use him like that," Lewis said of Hester's former team. "But he came out and he definitely exploited us last time. I'm pretty sure probably none of the guys expected it. The whole week they were saying how they were gonna use him as a returner and not as a receiver. But he showed that he's elite in this league and we've gotta keep aware of him."

The Falcons feature a lot of three-receiver sets (sometimes four) that will stretch New Orleans' new-look secondary to the limit.

Young cornerback Terrence Frederick and veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford were new additions to the starting lineup this past Monday. And undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made just his fourth start since being re-signed off of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro was demoted back into the nickel role in which he had thrived as a rookie last year. Robinson was bumped to dime back, and former starter Corey White was inactive.

The switches worked for the most part, with the Saints intercepting a season-high three passes (two by Warren, one by Robinson) and taking a 21-0 lead before some late breakdowns made the game temporarily uncomfortable.

"I thought overall, like anything else, you watch it, and you play well, and yet you put the tape on and there are things you can look at," coach Sean Payton said. "I didn't like particularly how we finished. Our red zone defense needs work. But I thought there were some positives you take away from the game.

"This'll be an entirely different type of game and an entirely different type of team we're playing. So we'll be smart about our personnel packages and how we want to use them."

Payton wouldn't specify whether he plans to stick with the same lineup. But he said the plan won't be altered much by the Falcons' injury report -- especially because the Saints have so much respect for Atlanta's depth at receiver.

"Their depth at that position is pretty impressive," Payton said. "Obviously the way Julio's been playing, it's important to know where he's at on the field. But I'm sure they'll be capable if he's not able to, so we have to prepare like he's playing."

Ryan also has traditionally frustrated the Saints' pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. A repeat of New Orleans' seven-sack performance against the Bears seems extremely unlikely.

"They're an explosive team offensively -- and not just in the passing game," Payton said. "Their numbers in the last six weeks with regards to big plays … they're a team that starts fast, they've got great tempo, obviously a veteran quarterback that gets them in to some advantage looks. It's not just a challenge for the secondary, it's a challenge for the whole defense. It's a challenge for our guys up front and understanding the splits, understanding what we're trying to do within each snap."
CHICAGO -- Technically, Kenny Vaccaro did wind up getting demoted. But it was both a motivational and tactical move by New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. He returned Vaccaro to the role where he thrived last season, covering the slot in nickel packages.

Vaccaro still played 70 percent of New Orleans' defensive snaps in Monday night's 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears. And he even played on all four special teams for the first time in his career -- helping to stuff a fake-punt attempt while in a role that he said was just assigned to him during pregame.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Nam Y. Huh/AP PhotoKenny Vaccaro pressures Bears QB Jay Cutler in the second half of Monday night's game in Chicago.
"A lot of people are gonna go in the tank, get mad. I wasn't mad," said Vaccaro, who described a meeting with Payton earlier in the week as both being "put on red alert" and career-changing. "I'm a team player, whatever my coach wants me to do, that's what I'm gonna do."

It didn't hurt that Vaccaro's "punishment" was also sort of a reward. He said it was easy for him to slide back into the role he played both last season and throughout his college career.

"My favorite thing to do is, 'You guard him, lock him down.' Or, 'You shoot that gap,'" Vaccaro said. "That's what I'm really good at. You tell me to lock somebody down, they ain't catching the ball. ...

"It was easy for me to plug back in, but that comes with repetition. And it'll be same way with safety ... when it all clicks. This is a year I grew a lot, this'll probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally-wise."

Vaccaro was admittedly making too many assignment errors in his first season as a true strong safety -- including two very costly ones in last week's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. He said he was reacting before thinking and needs to learn patience.

Payton ultimately decided Vaccaro was hurting the team too much in that role. But he still believed Vaccaro could be an asset if he played him to his strengths.

"His preparation was outstanding," Payton said. "He played about three different spots tonight (temporarily going back to his old spot when replacement Jamarca Sanford was injured). He was outstanding."

Vaccaro wasn't the only one who bounced back in impressive fashion as the Saints shuffled up their embattled secondary. Sanford and cornerback Terrence Frederick made their starting debuts, while cornerback Patrick Robinson moved to dime packages and Corey White was inactive.

The Saints' top cornerback Keenan Lewis was stingy as usual, coming up with some big-time pass break-ups against dangerous receiver Alshon Jeffery.

And the Saints picked off a season-high three passes against an extremely off-target Bears quarterback Jay Cutler -- one by Robinson on a tipped ball during the opening series and two by rookie safety Pierre Warren.

Warren, an undrafted rookie who re-signed with the Saints last month off the Minnesota Vikings practice squad, practically feels like a veteran already after filling the free safety spot that was vacated by season-ending injuries to Jairus Byrd and Rafael Bush.

"It feels good because they brought me in to make turnovers, so doing that, doing my job, I just gotta keep going," said Warren, who explained that his first pick came in prevent mode in the final seconds of the first half and his second came from a tip by Lewis.

"No. 28, 'Westbank,'" Warren said, using Lewis' nickname, "he had helped me out on that one. He had figured something out, so he told me to get over the top of him, and I was in the right place."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

December, 11, 2014
12/11/14
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The best news for the New Orleans Saints defense is that they don’t have any more read-option teams left on their regular-season schedule this year. They were awful against it in Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Quarterback Cam Newton had read-option runs of 21 and 22 yards during the Panthers’ first two touchdown drives. Running back Jonathan Stewart went untouched for a 69-yard touchdown run off the read-option in the third quarter. Tight end Greg Olsen’s wide-open 16-yard touchdown catch and running back Fozzy Whittaker’s 26-yard TD catch both came after play-action fakes. And New Orleans’ pass rush also appeared to be affected at times because guys were hesitant to over-pursue and get burned by the run game.

One good note is that the Saints never really got beat deep. Newton was very sharp for most of the game, but most of his throws were quick, shorter throws. When he did challenge the Saints deep, cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Brian Dixon and safety Pierre Warren held up well in coverage.

Here are some more thoughts after reviewing the tape:

Stewart’s TD: This was the ugliest play of the game since it looked so easy. First, linebacker Parys Haralson went after Newton -- which may have been his assignment, but either way it illustrates why the read-option causes so many problems. Then safety Kenny Vaccaro, linebacker Curtis Lofton and Warren all over-pursued toward the middle before Stewart burned them with a cutback around the right side.

Vaccaro was the last man on the edge, so it may have been his responsibility to keep containment on that side. But I can’t say for sure without knowing the assignments.

Olsen’s TD: This was the first runner-up for ugliest play of the game. The Panthers lined up in a heavy formation on third-and-1, with three tight ends and a fullback, so the Saints were expecting a run. But nobody covered Olsen as he slipped through the line.

It’s impossible to know for sure who blew the assignment just from watching the tape, but coach Sean Payton referenced a player missing an assignment in man coverage. Vaccaro started the play by attacking the run, then he glanced at fullback Mike Tolbert in the flat, then he reversed course and started chasing behind the play. Linebacker David Hawthorne went after Tolbert. And Lewis and safety Marcus Ball both appeared to shadow tight end Ed Dickson after he went in motion. Lewis appeared to be playing a deep safety role on the play, and he allowed Olsen run behind him as if he was expecting someone else to cover him.

Whittaker’s TD: The Saints’ defense had one more big breakdown late in the third quarter on Whittaker’s TD, which came on a screen pass after two play fakes. All four of the Saints’ linemen and Hawthorne got burned for over-pursuing after Newton faked a handoff . Then Lofton got frozen by a pump fake across the field. Newton then tossed to Whittaker in the left flat, and he followed his blockers into the end zone.

Newton’s runs: Long before Stewart’s run, Newton burned the Saints defense twice by keeping it himself on the read-option. His 21-yard run and 22-yard run were almost identical. Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette crashed down on the running back both times. And Newton went around the left end both times behind a block by Olsen (the first time against Lofton, the second time against Hawthorne).

The rest of the Saints’ linebackers/safeties that were in the box got caught up in traffic both times. On the second run, Lofton and Haralson hovered back waiting to see which runner had the ball, which gave the Panthers’ guards time to get up to them. FOX analyst Daryl Johnston pointed out what a great job the Panthers’ entire offense was doing at selling the fakes.

Newton also burned the Saints a couple times when he was freelancing or escaping pressure. At one point he fumbled the ball, picked it up and still ran for nine yards.

Overall run defense: Obviously the Saints’ run defense wasn’t good on a day when they allowed 271 rushing yards. Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of missed tackles, though. There were definitely a handful of plays where the Saints’ linemen or linebackers got blown up at the line of scrimmage (one time guard Trai Turner took out both Galette and Hawthorne on the same play). But mostly the Saints were either burned by over-pursuing or hanging back to guard against the play fakes. End Cameron Jordan also got frozen at least once or twice while spying Newton.

On a positive note, the Saints did start stuffing Carolina’s run game late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth quarter, forcing two straight three-and-outs to end the game. It was too little, too late, but it did show that they were still putting forth the effort. Lofton and Brandon Deaderick were among those who stood out late, but not the only ones.
METAIRIE, La. -- Lost in the aftermath of the New Orleans Saints' dreadful 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday were a handful of injuries to key players during the game.

Lewis
Cornerback Keenan Lewis (cramps), outside linebacker Junior Galette (leg), left tackle Terron Armstead (neck), center Jonathan Goodwin (leg) and receiver Nick Toon (unknown) all left the game at some point.

Goodwin said Monday morning that he'll be alright and just got kicked in the knee. We might not get any other updates on the injuries until the Saints return to practice on Thursday. But there is reason to hope that most of them are minor.

Galette returned to the game briefly in the third quarter, but he was noticeably hobbling down the field after running back Fozzy Whittaker during his 26-yard touchdown reception. And it didn’t appear as though Galette played again after that.

Lewis also did not appear to return after heading into the locker room in the third quarter, but if it was indeed just a cramping issue, he should be back for next Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears.

Armstead did not appear to play in the second half after he left the game early in the first half. But he was still suited up on the bench in the second half.

Meanwhile, running back Khiry Robinson played in only two offensive snaps in his return from an arm injury with no touches. It’s likely that Robinson would have seen more action if the game had played out differently. But their running backs only ran the ball 16 times in the blowout loss.

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