New Orleans Saints: Marques Colston

I’m ranking the top 20 New Orleans Saints players leading up to training camp. It’s based on their current value -- meaning both past accomplishments and potential are taken into account. Think, who would you want on the field most in Week 1 this season?

At No. 7, it’s receiver Marques Colston.

Profile: Year 9, Age 31, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds

Colston
Analysis: The Saints’ all-time leading receiver has rewritten the franchise record books over the past eight years -- and he’s not done yet. Although Colston had a bit of a “down” year by his own lofty standards in 2013, he still caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five touchdowns. And he finished on a tear, with 347 yards and three touchdowns in the final four regular-season games, plus 11 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown in the playoff loss at Seattle.

Colston has seemingly been fighting through a series of nagging injuries throughout his career -- including foot, knee and back ailments last season. But it’s a testament to his toughness that he has rarely let any of them slow him down in games. And this summer, he said the foot injury that has lingered over the past two years has finally become a non-issue.

Colston remains one of the best in the NFL at catching balls anywhere in his vicinity -- whether in traffic or near the sideline or snagging those classic back-shoulder throws from Drew Brees. He is certainly a go-to guy in the red zone with the way he can box out smaller defenders, as evidenced by his franchise-record 63 touchdowns. He also ranks first in Saints history with 607 receptions and 8,337 receiving yards.

Previous rankings:

No. 20 (tie) RBs Mark Ingram/Khiry Robinson
No. 19 WR Kenny Stills
No. 18 S Rafael Bush
No. 17 LB David Hawthorne
No. 16 CB Champ Bailey
No. 15 P Thomas Morstead
No. 14 OT Zach Strief
No. 13 RB Pierre Thomas
No. 12 DE Akiem Hicks
No. 11 S Kenny Vaccaro
No. 10 LB Curtis Lofton
No. 9 G Ben Grubbs
No. 8 OLB Junior Galette
METAIRIE, La. -- One of the most encouraging things I've seen or heard yet from New Orleans Saints camp this summer came from a guy I admit I wasn't really even paying much attention to -- Marques Colston.

The veteran receiver is such a mainstay in the Saints offense that I've been taking him for granted while focusing most of my attention on newcomers and guys competing for expanded roles.

Colston
However, it struck me when Colston talked about how good he's feeling on Wednesday after fighting through a nagging foot injury the last two years -- especially since the soft-spoken Colston is never prone to hyperbole.

"Completely different," Colston said when asked about the foot. "I feel really good. It's really not an issue. I've been able to get out here with really no restrictions and just run around and feel good."

The only restrictions that will be put on Colston in training camp are the kind of courtesy restrictions that players earn when they reach his veteran status. Colston, who turned 31 years old last week, has racked up franchise records of 607 catches, 8,337 receiving yards and 63 touchdowns during his first eight seasons.

Coach Sean Payton has said that he'll give Colston routine days off in training camp to keep him fresh.

"With as much mileage as I have in eight years going on nine, I'd definitely look forward to that," Colston said with a laugh.

Colston is coming off of a "down" season by his own lofty standards. He caught 75 passes for 943 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games while battling foot, knee and back injuries at different times. But he finished strong, capped by 11 catches, 144 yards and a touchdown during the Saints' playoff loss at Seattle.

Although he has definitely become more of a secondary option behind tight end Jimmy Graham in recent years, there's really no reason why Colston can't get back close to his standard, 1,100-yard, eight-touchdown type of season again this year.

"We spread the ball around quite a bit so I can't really think, besides maybe the year Jimmy had, with everybody else, you're just spreading the ball around and you're trying to keep everyone involved," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "Marques has as big a contribution now as he ever has. Even if he's not getting the ball, he's a threat so teams have to game plan for him and therefor that opens up opportunities for others even if he's getting the ball. ...

"He can play everything. He can play outside, he can play inside, he's extremely intelligent, he's a big physical target that even when technically covered, he's not really covered. There's always a place where I can throw Marques Colston the ball where most players can't get it just because he's 6-5 and 220 pounds.

"There's a way a route is drawn up on the blackboard, and then there's a way you actually execute it on the field depending on the type of coverage and the technique and what you're seeing. We know all those things because we've been doing it together for eight years and it's come up many times in practice and during games, so there's just a huge trust and confidence factor between the two of us."

Colston also had some interesting things to say in this column by The Advocate's Ramon Antonio Vargas about how he knows his long-term future isn't guaranteed in this business -- as he's seen with the departure of long-time teammates like Lance Moore and Devery Henderson in recent years.

Colston is due to make $5.6 million in salary and bonuses this year, $7 million in 2015 and $7.8 million in 2016.
METAIRIE, La. – Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin earned some attention for how well he performed during the New Orleans Saints’ minicamp practice on Tuesday.

He was even better on Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeRyan Griffin
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSaints reserve QB Ryan Griffin has earned praise for his work during offseason practices.
Griffin stood out more than anyone else to me during Wednesday’s session while working with the second team as he continues his open competition with veteran Luke McCown. The highlight was a deep completion to receiver Marques Colston in full-team drills. But Griffin was sharp throughout the day, except for one late interception to cornerback Terrence Frederick.

It’s too early to project Griffin as the Saints’ No. 2 quarterback this year, since McCown has remained solid and steady, as well. This competition will most likely play out in the preseason.

But it’s been evident that Griffin is coming into this year’s camp with a lot of polish and confidence for such a young guy.

Saints coach Sean Payton complimented Griffin when asked Tuesday if he attributes some of that polish to Griffin’s experience in a similar offensive system at Tulane under former Saints assistant coach Curtis Johnson.

“In fairness to Ryan, I don’t know that if [Tulane’s] offense was different, he’d be any further behind,” Payton said. “He’s someone who picks it up very quickly. He and Luke are real quick studies.”

Bringing the noise: For the first time in Payton’s tenure, the Saints started pumping in crowd noise during minicamp so the offense could simulate the conditions they’ll face in road games. It’s a popular tactic for NFL teams – just not usually this early in the offseason.

Clearly, it had an effect on the offense, with miscommunication leading to one mishandled shotgun snap by Brees from center Tim Lelito and a couple false starts with the backups.

Payton said part of the motivation behind the pumped-in noise was driving home the importance of playing better on the road this year.

Stills shines: If Griffin wasn’t the player of the day on Wednesday, it was second-year receiver Kenny Stills. He made a great effort to come back for a diving catch after Drew Brees chucked one to him from all the way across the field on the run in full-team drills. Stills also made a nifty one-handed catch in earlier passing drills, among other nice catches.

Stills has looked good throughout offseason workouts this year. He certainly looks like he’s ready to keep rising after a breakout rookie year. And Payton said after re-watching the film from last season, the Saints felt they needed to get Stills some more opportunities this year.

Colston healthy: Veteran receiver Marques Colston has been steady in camp so far. But most noteworthy is what he told The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas after practice – that his nagging foot pain from the past couple years is a non-issue this year. “Feels completely different … no restrictions,” Colston said.

Breaking up: Despite those standout moments by Griffin and Stills, it was a generally strong day for the defensive backs once again. I didn’t keep an exact tally, but it felt like there were at least a half-dozen noteworthy pass breakups in team and 7-on-7 drills. The one that stood out most was cornerback Keenan Lewis denying a touchdown pass to running back Travaris Cadet from Brees in the corner of the end zone during 7-on-7 red-zone drills.

Cornerback Patrick Robinson also stripped and recovered a fumble against receiver Robert Meachem, chasing down Meachem as he was corralled by a couple defenders in full-team drills. That’s been typical of the defense’s aggressive emphasis on forcing turnovers this year.

Coleman’s rough start: Undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Coleman continued to have highs and lows. He dropped a pass from Brees in a brief cameo with the starting unit in full-team drills. He did rally with a couple nice catches with the backups, though, before failing to locate a deep ball in the air. That’s been the story of Coleman’s offseason practices so far. But obviously it’s way too early for a fair evaluation on the young big man as he tries to gain his footing.
The New Orleans Saints' wide receiver position is suddenly overloaded with talent. Not only did the Saints add dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks with their first-round draft pick, but they also added intriguing prospect Brandon Coleman as an undrafted free agent.

In other words, some good players won't make the cut this year.

The Saints now have at least eight candidates with a legitimate shot to make the active roster this year -- and they'll probably be battling for only five or six roster spots.

Typically, only four receivers are active on game days, unless another is called up in a specific special teams role (like Courtney Roby in years past). And the Saints usually keep a fifth and possibly sixth receiver around in "redshirt” roles based on their future potential.

[+] EnlargeRutgers TD
Andrew Mills/USA TODAY SportsUndrafted rookie free agent Brandon Coleman could make his way onto the Saints final 53-man roster.
A veteran like Robert Meachem, for example, will need to earn one of those top four spots to make the roster. A rookie like Coleman, however, could stick around as a sixth receiver if the Saints don't want to risk losing him.

Here's a look at the Saints' current depth chart, ranked in order of how likely I think they are to make the 53-man roster:

1-3. Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Brandin Cooks. All are locks. No need to discuss them.

4. Nick Toon. After those three, I think Toon has the best chance to make the roster. The Saints are still high on Toon's potential, even though he failed to take advantage of his midseason opportunity for playing time while Lance Moore was injured last year. And I don't believe Toon was in the "doghouse” when he got benched during the second half of the season. He was the fifth receiver, and the Saints typically keep only four active on game days.

However, Toon will have to make sure he proves in training camp that he's ready to step up into a greater role -- and that he indeed could be an eventual successor to fellow big man Colston. Otherwise, the Saints might turn their attention toward someone like Coleman in that "redshirt” role.

5. Robert Meachem. I think Meachem has at least a 50-50 chance of making the roster. But like I said above, he must earn one of the top four spots and be considered essential on game days. That's possible, since Meachem is the best blocker on the Saints' roster and a savvy veteran who knows the offense. But if someone like Toon or Morgan proves just as useful during the preseason, Meachem's job could be in jeopardy.

6. Joe Morgan. Morgan, meanwhile, probably needs to beat out Meachem to make the team since they play similar roles. The addition of Cooks might have hurt Morgan more than anybody, since Morgan's best asset is his deep speed (he averaged a whopping 37.9 yards per catch on 10 catches in 2012!). Morgan is now on a one-year, veteran minimum deal after missing all of last season with a torn ACL.

Morgan still has great potential (at this time last year, he looked like a lock to win the Saints' No. 3 receiver job). He's just facing much stiffer competition now.

7. Brandon Coleman. Among the youngsters, I think Coleman has the best chance of sneaking onto the 53-man roster -- or definitely landing on the practice squad -- because of his unique size and high upside. He'll have to prove he's worth the investment it in camp, though.

8. Andy Tanner. Tanner was also hurt by the arrival of Cooks. A reliable possession receiver with deceptive speed, Tanner actually cracked the active roster in Week 1 last year before he was quickly demoted back to the practice squad. When the Saints released Moore, it looked like Tanner might have an opportunity. But now it might require an injury to create an opening.

And unfortunately, Tanner, who is extremely popular among teammates and coaches, is no longer eligible for the practice squad.

9-11. Chris Givens, Charles Hawkins, Seantavius Jones. All three will likely be competing for practice squad jobs. But you never know. The Saints have given plenty of opportunities to relative unknown receivers and running backs in the past.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. broke down the top four or five needs for every NFL team heading into the draft.

Kiper has a good feel for the Saints’ needs. He listed cornerback and receiver as his top two. I would reverse the order, but I agree with his thinking. As he pointed out, even though the Saints signed future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey to compete for the No. 2 cornerback job, they still need to develop more young talent at the position.

That’s really the case for all of the Saints’ draft needs. They’ve got a veteran penciled in at just about every starting position. So there’s nowhere that they should feel forced to reach for any specific position.

But there are several areas where they could use an influx of young talent to rotate into the mix right away and develop into future starters. Chief among them are receiver, cornerback, the entire offensive line, inside linebacker and outside linebacker.

I’ll break down each position in a more in-depth series leading up to the draft.

Worth a click:
  • Second-year Saints offensive tackle Terron Armstead spoke with SiriusXM NFL Radio’s Alex Marvez and Gil Brandt. Among the topics he discussed, he said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette is “hands down” the best NFL player he’s faced so far, in part because of his “unorthodox style.” Saints right tackle Zach Strief talked to me about the same thing last year, saying Galette’s style makes him unpredictable.
  • The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas caught up with Saints receiver Robert Meachem after he signed his new deal with the team. Meachem talked about the pride he takes in his blocking – and why it helps him wear down defensive backs. Meachem’s blocking has long been his most underrated skill set – and it’s a key reason the Saints keep bringing him back. His 20-plus yards per catch last season didn’t hurt either.
  • CST’s Mike Nabors caught up with Saints receiver Marques Colston in this video interview. Pretty much everything about Colston has been underrated on a national level during his eight-year career.
Sean Payton was asked Wednesday about one of the few longtime veterans still remaining on the New Orleans Saints' roster -- receiver Marques Colston. Payton praised the way Colston finished strong last season despite continuing to battle soreness in his foot, among other injuries.

Colston
Colston, 30, has battled a number of nagging knee injuries over the years. And his production was down a bit last season. But it speaks highly of him that the Saints remained committed to him while parting ways with so many other aging players. Colston is due $5.6 million in salary and bonuses this year.

Payton said the key for the Saints will be to keep Colston fresh.

"He played some of his better football late in the season. So he battled some soreness in his foot, and that wasn't easy, but he's such a target and competitor inside," Payton said. "I think the key is just monitoring his snaps during training camp. The thing you have to start doing with a player like him during the season with regards to practice time. I know he's someone inside who's very strong-handed, very disciplined with his routes. He knows all the positions, so he's been a very consistent, steady player at this time."

Colston missed one game last season with a knee injury and also appeared on the injury report at times with foot and back ailments. The foot injury has been nagging for at least two years now since he had a plantar fascia issue. But that can be spun both ways:

On one hand, you could say Colston has been injury-prone. On another hand, you can say he has consistently shown an ability to play through nagging ailments.

Colston finished last season with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns. It was the first time since 2008 that he finished with less than 1,000 yards or seven TDs. But as Payton said, he did finish strong. Colston caught 28 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns over the final four regular-season games. He then caught 11 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in the playoff loss at Seattle.

Payton didn't expand much on some of the Saints' other injuries. But he was generally positive when asked about players such as Kenny Vaccaro, Patrick Robinson and Victor Butler, who finished last season on injured reserve.

"They're rehabbing. All of it is going well," Payton said.

That's not surprising since all three players are expected to fully recover in plenty of time for offseason practices.
A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2014 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team’s need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Marques Colston. Age 30, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $5.6 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $8.3 million.

Kenny Stills. Age 21, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $495,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $543,613.

Lance Moore. Age 30, signed through 2015. 2014 salary and bonuses: $3.8 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $5.07 million.

Robert Meachem. Age 29, unrestricted free agent.

Nick Toon. Age 25, signed through 2015. 2014 salary and bonuses: $570,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $671,903.

Joe Morgan. Age 25, restricted free agent.

Analysis:

As I wrote in my latest mailbag, I don’t think the Saints need to upgrade with a new “No. 1 receiver.” But they certainly need to start re-stocking the shelves with their longtime veterans getting older. And they could use a dynamic downfield threat somewhere in the mix.

Colston and Stills will be back as the Saints’ starters, which is a solid 1-2 punch. Although Colston had more quiet stretches than usual last year, I think he’s still playing at a high level. I never agreed with the notion that he was “slowing down” significantly last year. Speed and separation have never been the keys to his game -- he’s more about catching contested throws with his physicality, range and great hands. He finished with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns, and I think he can continue that production level for another couple years.

Stills, meanwhile, should only grow after his impressive rookie debut (32 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns). The Saints used him often as a deep threat since he drew single coverage. But he’s a big target who can do a little of everything, which is why he became a primary starter this past year.

Beyond those two, however, this position is filled with uncertainty, starting with Moore. Although Moore has been a huge part of the Saints’ offense since the beginning of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, he has become a part-time player, and he’s due to make a lot of money in 2014. I was surprised by the way the Saints used Moore this past season as a No. 3 receiver behind Stills. He did, however, finish the season strong. So it’s possible they may discuss a pay cut that could keep him in New Orleans.

Meachem’s future is also uncertain since he’s an unrestricted free agent. He didn’t play a huge role in the offense last year (16 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns). But he did still average 20.3 yards per catch, and he’s an asset as a blocker (he’s the receiver in their heavy run formations). So it’s possible he could come back and play a similar role in 2014.

Morgan appeared to have a lock on that deep threat/blocking role last summer before he suffered a season-ending torn ACL. Assuming the Saints re-sign him as a restricted free agent, he’ll have a chance to earn that same role again this summer. But he has now missed two seasons with major injuries, so he needs to prove he can shake off the rust. That’s a lot of “ifs” for a guy who might cost around $1.5 million or more, depending on the RFA tender.

I think Toon will get another chance to crack the Saints’ rotation this year. Although he struggled during his big audition against the New York Jets last year with two dropped passes, the Saints are still high on his future. He was inactive for most of the season because he was the No. 5 receiver, and the Saints typically only keep four active. … However, the physical Toon will have to impress this summer to beat out Meachem or Morgan or any potential newcomers.
METAIRIE, La. -- Thanks for all of your New Orleans Saints questions on Twitter this week. Send ‘em my way anytime to @MikeTriplett:
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How the Saints handle trash talking

January, 29, 2014
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I don't really know what the New Orleans Saints' policy on trash talking is -- since it really hasn't been much of an issue with this team over the years. They've especially gone against the grain at the receiver position, which is usually home to the league's brashest personalities. Saints receiver Marques Colston, whose actual nickname is “The Quiet Storm,” is about as low-profile as star receivers can get. Veteran Lance Moore likes to come up with creative dance moves to celebrate touchdowns, but he's otherwise fairly reserved publicly. And it's generally been the same for cornerbacks like longtime veteran Jabari Greer.

Tight end Jimmy Graham has brought a little more of that competitive fire to the Saints in recent years. And it reached a boiling point when he got into it with several Seattle Seahawks players before their playoff game earlier this month. There have also been a few dust-ups with the division rival Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers over the years. And Saints coach Sean Payton himself is certainly a fiery competitor. But for the most part, trash-talking has never been a big issue that the Saints have had to rein in or address publicly.

On a scale of red (not allowed), yellow (within reason) and green (go for it), I'd say Payton's stance on trash talking is probably a yellow.
I took a few extra days before getting to this week’s film study because we had so much postseason reviewing and offseason previewing to do. So apologies if anyone was already trying to move on from the New Orleans Saints' season-ending 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

This definitely ranks as the most unusual offensive review I’ve ever done. On a day when it felt like the Saints got shut down, they still ran off 70 plays and racked up 409 yards (which is why this recap is so lengthy). Many of the Saints’ drives got off to impressive starts before being scuttled by a variety of breakdowns.

I’m still not very critical of the play calling. The run game was working brilliantly in the first half (aside from Mark Ingram's devastating fumble), and the wind was wreaking havoc with Drew Brees' early passes. I give the Saints credit for staying as patient as they did offensively.

But the weather conditions and Seattle’s outstanding defense conspired to keep them from scoring throughout the game.

Ingram
Ingram’s fumble: If it’s possible to say this game came down to one play, this was it. The Saints had patiently waited out the first quarter when they were operating against the wind. Then on the first play of the second quarter, Ingram fumbled after a 4-yard gain up the middle.

Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett deserves all the credit for the play. He fought through a double-team by guard Jahri Evans and right tackle Zach Strief, which is probably why Ingram didn’t see him coming. And Bennett hit Ingram square on the ball and forearm with his helmet.

Bennett had an outstanding game against the Saints all day. He also forced a sack by beating Evans up the middle in the third quarter (with an assist by end Cliff Avril).

Graham silenced: This was one of the biggest talking points after the game as Saints tight end Jimmy Graham finished with just one catch for eight yards, so I paid close attention to how he was defended.

I was surprised to see that he wasn’t being harassed as much as I would have thought. The TV announcers kept saying Graham was being hit on every route, but that wasn’t true at all.

There were a few times where Graham was jammed in press coverage by a cornerback or safety -- and one example where cornerback Richard Sherman had his hands on Graham all the way into the end zone about 12 yards past the line of scrimmage in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, Graham was allowed free releases off the line.

The bigger issue was that there was constantly safety help shadowing Graham from behind.

Graham
Seattle free safety Earl Thomas made two outstanding pass breakups against Graham while flying in from behind with perfect timing -- one in the second quarter and one in the fourth. It was obvious that Thomas was spying Graham quite a bit. On a play late in the fourth quarter when Brees targeted Graham in the end zone, Thomas came flying in and collided with fellow safety Kam Chancellor, briefly injuring both players.

Graham appeared to have decent inside position on Chancellor on that touchdown attempt, but Brees’ pass fluttered too far over Graham’s head. There was another play in the fourth quarter where Brees, under duress, nearly threw an interception on an off-target throw intended for Graham; the Saints were lucky that Chancellor dropped it.

For the rest of the day, though, it really seemed like Brees just opted to throw to other targets and matchups that he liked better (probably because of the way he was reading the safeties).

Screens silenced: This was another glaring issue for the Saints. I counted eight screen attempts by the Saints, and almost all of them failed -- either because of a dropped pass or terrific awareness and athleticism by Seattle’s defense. The only one that gained positive yardage was a 9-yard pass to Darren Sproles on third-and-13. The Saints also got a huge break on a screen pass on first-and-20 in the fourth quarter because Seattle end Chris Clemons snuffed it out so aggressively that he was called for defensive holding on Ingram.

Ingram and running back Travaris Cadet each dropped screen passes. Once, Brees threw over Sproles’ head because of pressure by Avril. Once, linebacker Bobby Wagner blew up guard Ben Grubbs to hit Sproles for a 3-yard loss. And two other times, Grubbs and Strief weren’t able to get out into the open field quickly enough to block Chancellor.

Colston
Colston’s bad pass: The incomplete pass that was most discussed after the game was Colston’s ill-fated lateral attempt on the final play. As has been well-dissected, Colston probably should have just stepped out of bounds with eight seconds left. Instead, he turned and tried to execute a trick play the Saints had installed a week earlier -- firing the ball across the field toward Cadet.

Colston was too off-balance as he spun around and actually threw the ball about five yards forward. Even if he had perfectly executed the throw, Cadet would have had to make at least two defenders miss. However, the Saints were in desperation mode at the time. Several sequences earlier in the game were even more costly (see below).

Stalled drives: A few other drive killers worth noting:
  • When the Saints finally started throwing the ball down the field in the second quarter, Brees was uncharacteristically off-target on three straight incompletions. The first got “caught up in the jet stream” and sailed about 10 yards over receiver Lance Moore's head. The second was slightly high for tight end Josh Hill and the third slightly behind Colston.
  • Brees
    The Saints had some great momentum going in the third quarter when they had second-and-4 from the Seahawks' 45-yard line. But then Seattle’s defense showed up in a big way. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Wagner made a great effort to shoot past center Brian De La Puente and trip up Sproles for a 1-yard gain. And Brees couldn’t find anyone open on fourth-and-3 when he rolled right, eventually throwing incomplete to Moore under pressure from Avril.
  • The Saints also had decent momentum going early in the fourth quarter when Strief was flagged for holding on second-and-4 (nullifying a 30-yard completion to receiver Kenny Stills). The next two passes on second-and-long and third-and-long were the near-interception to Graham under pressure and Thomas’ impressive pass breakup against Graham, forcing a punt.
  • The Saints were lucky to reach Seattle’s 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining after receiver Robert Meachem caught a tipped 52-yard pass. But on the next play, they backed up because of a delay-of-game penalty. One play later, they had to waste a timeout with the play clock expiring again. Coach Sean Payton said noise was an issue on one of them, but he took the blame for not getting the plays in fast enough. After two incomplete passes, the Saints missed a long field goal attempt on fourth-and-15.
Great runs: As mentioned above, the Saints’ run game started great, picking up right where it left off against Philadelphia. In the first half alone, Ingram had gains of 17, 11 and 12 yards. And Khiry Robinson had runs of 13 and 17 plus a catch-and-run of 13 after a big-time stiff-arm against linebacker Bruce Irvin. Both runners showed vision, elusiveness and power, routinely breaking tackles. Robinson’s 17-yard run came after he rolled over McDaniel without touching the ground and spun forward for 12 more yards.

Fullback Jed Collins, Grubbs and Evans probably stood out most often for their run-blocking, but all five linemen and tight end Benjamin Watson were strong in that department. It continued in the second half -- including Robinson’s 1-yard touchdown run and Ingram’s 2-point conversion run in the fourth quarter.

As for whether Robinson should have been credited with a fumble in the third quarter, it was too close to call. He was slightly off balance because of a hit by Bennett, and his forearm appeared to touch the ground before he fumbled. The call on the field probably wouldn’t have been overturned either way.

Great throws: Brees had some rough moments, but he did get into a nice rhythm at times, completing 24 of 43 passes for 309 yards with one touchdown (to Colston in the fourth quarter) and zero interceptions. His two best throws were his back-to-back throws of 23 yards to Hill and 25 yards to Colston that he dropped into zone coverage late in the third quarter to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown. At one point in the fourth quarter, Brees did a sensational job of escaping heavy pressure and dumping off a 15-yard gain to Colston. I wrote during our in-game chat that if the Saints wound up coming back to win, that play might be the one on all the highlight shows.

The Saints’ pass protection was mostly solid, though Seattle blitzed only three times -- once on the touchdown throw. Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead had a nice game as his development continued.
Drew BreesJoe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints trailed 16-0 through three quarters on Saturday in Seattle.
SEATTLE -- The story of the New Orleans Saints' 2013 season can be told in one succinct sentence: They couldn't win at Seattle.

They call this place the Emerald City. But it might as well be made of Kryptonite as far as the Saints are concerned. Their season came to a screeching halt here Saturday with a 23-15 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.

And really, there could not have been a more fitting place for the Saints' season to end.

For the second time in six weeks, the Saints were done in by the two elements that caused them the most problems all season long: a stifling pass defense and some nasty weather conditions.

Drew Brees and New Orleans' prolific passing offense were nonexistent in the first half. And by the time they finally showed up in the second half, they were already down 16-0. Their late rally was exciting -- but ultimately, too little, too late.

"In the end, against a team like this, in their place, in this situation, you gotta play closer to perfect than we did," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said.

So now the Seahawks move on to the NFC Championship Game. And the Saints move into the 2014 offseason, where their top priority has to be figuring out a way to make sure they play more of these January games inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next year.

That's where the Saints make opponents look this hapless and hopeless. That's where the Saints force their opponents to play perfect -- just like Seattle does in this stadium that looked like a life-sized snow globe for much of the first half, with sheets of rain blackening the sky.

Brees didn't love the notion that the Saints need to play at home to reach the Super Bowl. But he also couldn't deny the basic truth of the situation.

"If you're saying what's the difference between being on the road here today versus had we been back in New Orleans in the Dome, obviously it's quite a bit different," said Brees, who threw for 34 yards in the first half and 275 in the second half. "I think we can beat anybody, anywhere, anytime. It just hasn't happened for us the times that we've come here. But, yeah, obviously there's a huge advantage to home-field advantage. I mean, we were 8-0 at home this year."

I've covered this Saints team since the beginning of the Brees-Sean Payton era, and I don't think I've seen a combination of opponent and elements that have caused more fits than the Seahawks inside of CenturyLink Field.

"I'd say it is [the biggest challenge we've faced]," Brees said. "The conditions have a lot to do with that. And they're a very stout defense, in all regards -- front four, linebackers, secondary. As complete a defense as there is in the league. I mean, there's a reason that they were top-ranked in so many categories.

"And playing here at home, with that crowd, there's a lot of reasons why they're one of the best."

Last week at Philadelphia, the Saints finally proved they could indeed win a playoff game on the road.

But winning at Seattle proved to be a whole other challenge that they couldn't overcome this year. This one wasn't quite as ugly as the 34-7 shellacking on "Monday Night Football" last month. But it was awfully close for the first 30 minutes.

The Saints were actually happy with their game plan afterward, and I don't really disagree. They stayed patient throughout the first quarter, when the weather was at its nastiest and the wind was in their face. And they were down only 6-0 in the second quarter when they had the ball with the wind at their back.

But then running back Mark Ingram fumbled on the first play of the second quarter -- the game's only turnover and by far the costliest moment of the night. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch scored on a 15-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 lead two plays later.

"Every time I carry that football, I'm carrying the team's dreams and aspirations. And I let them down at a critical moment in the game. And that's unfortunate," Ingram said. "But I worked my butt off, fought hard, and it just wasn't enough today."

That's kind of how the whole team felt. They just weren't good enough on this day.

The Saints' offensive performance was ugly at times. Brees' first pass attempt down the field to a receiver in the second quarter sailed about 10 yards over Lance Moore's head; Brees said it got "caught up in the jet stream." A few of his other early passes were off target while the ball was slick and he was wearing gloves. Receivers dropped several passes.

Brees eventually started getting the ball downfield, but the Seahawks' defense took away both tight end Jimmy Graham (no catches until the final minute) and the Saints' screen passing game throughout the day.

The Saints deserve credit for their resilience, though. The defense was outstanding for most of the second half, forcing five consecutive punts, which allowed the offense to creep within 16-8 and actually get down to Seattle's 25-yard line with 4:09 remaining.

But then those imperfections crept up again. A delay-of-game penalty. A missed 48-yard field goal attempt by Shayne Graham (his second miss of the day). A breakdown by the defense on Lynch's 31-yard touchdown run.

Even when the Saints had one last miracle chance left after an onside kick in the final seconds, receiver Marques Colston threw a forward lateral instead of just running out of bounds to stop the clock.

A fitting finish on a day when the Saints were so far out of their comfort zone.

"Obviously, we planned on playing it differently. At the end of it, we weren't able to make enough plays," Payton said. "But I'm proud of the way our guys competed. We weren't able to get it done, and we just go from here. It's tough. It's always tough when you get this far and you're not able to finish.

"Obviously, it wasn't enough for what we aspire to do."

Ugly finish to Saints' ugly loss

January, 12, 2014
Jan 12
12:15
AM ET
SEATTLE -- The New Orleans Saints missed several opportunities in a 23-15 season-ending loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. But one that stood out among the most inexplicable was the last play of the game -- receiver Marques Colston’s forward lateral.

Colston could have stepped out of bounds at the Seahawks' 38-yard line with about four seconds remaining. Instead, he turned toward the middle of the field and fired a forward lateral toward running back Travaris Cadet. The penalty came with an automatic 10-second runoff.

Afterward, Colston declined to speak with the media. And coach Sean Payton didn't offer an explanation, saying only, "We'll look at the film. Next question."

It's unclear if Colston lost track of the clock or if that was the play that was called when the ball was snapped with 11 seconds remaining. Either way, nobody was about to pin the Saints' mistake-filled loss on that one play.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints receiver Marques Colston was named this year’s winner of the team’s Ed Block Courage Award, as voted on by his teammates.

The award is given to the player who “best exemplifies the principles of courage and sportsmanship, while also serving as a source of inspiration.” Colston has battled through foot and knee injuries during different points of this season, finishing with 75 catches for 943 yards and five touchdowns in 15 games played.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by my teammates for the Ed Block Courage Award,” Colston said in a statement released by the team. “It shows that they have seen everything that I do to be available for them on gameday. I also appreciate all that our athletic training staff has done for me throughout my career here to keep me on the field as much as possible whether it is in rehabilitation or preventative measures.”
NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Just like it played out in the NFC South standings this season, it was a neck-and-neck battle for supremacy between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers when it came to ESPN.com’s All-NFC South team. Ultimately, the Panthers edged the Saints with 10 representatives, compared to New Orleans’ nine.

I don’t have many arguments with the list. The two Saints I would add are safety Kenny Vaccaro and guard Ben Grubbs, but I understand why it was a close call with both players. I think the safety position was the hardest to judge by far, with four candidates in a virtual deadlock for two spots (Vaccaro, Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell and Atlanta’s William Moore). The outside linebacker position was also ridiculously stacked, with the Saints’ Junior Galette missing out only because Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Carolina’s Thomas Davis were so sensational. Galette was easily a top-10 defensive player in the division, but he played the wrong position.

I was glad to see that Saints end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton received proper recognition for the Saints’ remarkable defensive performance this year -- especially since the defense overall was much more stacked than the offense in the NFC South this year (with a total of 12 players to account for various fronts).

I was pretty stunned at the lack of dominant skill-position players this season. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams was the division’s leading rusher with just 843 rushing yards. The Saints who made the list on offense -- quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston, right tackle Zach Strief and guard Jahri Evans -- were all worthy selections. The same for punter Thomas Morstead.

METAIRIE, La. – Everybody on the New Orleans Saints’ roster participated fully in Thursday’s practice – including starters Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Terron Armstead, who were limited on Wednesday.

Saints coach Sean Payton explained that the team decided to limit Brees’ snaps on Wednesday on account of his bruised right knee because “we just felt like we had a day to do that.”

Apparently the team took the same approach with a handful of players following a physical 17-13 loss at Carolina last week. Brees, Colston (back), Evans (knee) and Armstead (shoulder) all played through the entire game at Carolina.

Also upgraded from limited to full participation on Thursday were backup safety Rafael Bush (ankle) and backup linebackers Keyunta Dawson (calf) and Kevin Reddick (shoulder).

Of that group, Bush is the most important since he could see several snaps in nickel packages now that starting safety Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season with an ankle injury. Bush has been sidelined for the past three games, but he said he is optimistic about his progress.

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