NFC North: New Orleans Saints

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints announced their respective lists of inactives for Monday’s contest at Soldier Field.

The Bears go into the matchup without kicker Robbie Gould (right quadriceps) and free safety Chris Conte (back), along with cornerback Terrance Mitchell, offensive lineman Michael Ola, defensive end Trevor Scott, defensive tackle Brandon Dunn and quarterback David Fales.

Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette and left tackle Terron Armstead are both active after being listed as questionable, and both are big assets for New Orleans. Galette, who suffered a knee injury last week, is the Saints’ best pass-rusher.

The biggest surprise among the Saints’ inactives is cornerback Corey White, who has been a starter for most of the season. The Saints are expected to shuffle up their secondary, with strong safety Kenny Vaccaro likely shifting back into the nickel role where he thrived last year. Cornerback Terrence Frederick and safety Jamarca Sanford could see elevated roles.

Chicago defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff returns to the starting lineup for the first time since the club’s Nov. 23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s been active the last two games due to a knee injury.

Conte, meanwhile, will miss his first outing since Chicago’s loss on Oct. 19 to the Miami Dolphins.

Conte suffered his back injury during the third quarter Dec. 4 in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Prior to that, Conte left the club’s loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving because of an eye injury. Conte has been diagnosed with two concussions this season, in addition to missing time with sprains of both shoulders.

Rookie Brock Vereen will start at free safety in Conte’s place.

The Saints activated veteran Robert Meachem as their fourth receiver after releasing Joe Morgan earlier this week. Recently-promoted rookie receiver Seantavius Jones is inactive.

Also inactive for the Saints: cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Ronald Powell and Moise Fokou, defensive tackle Lawrence Virgil and offensive tackle Nick Becton.
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has been through more highs and lows over the past decade than most of the current New Orleans Saints coaches and players.

But, Ryan, too, said Saturday that this season has marked a new low.

"Oh, it’s new," said Ryan, who had never had a winning season as a defensive coordinator with the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns or Dallas Cowboys before he came to New Orleans and thrived last season. "Have I had a couple bad seasons? Yeah. Have I had one this bad? No."

[+] EnlargeJonathan Stewart
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesPoor performances by his defense, like in the 41-10 loss against Carolina on Dec. 7, have left Saints coordinator Rob Ryan exasperated.
The Saints are down to 31st in the NFL in yards allowed after rising to fourth last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information's efficiency rating, they're by far the worst defense in the NFL this season. They are last in the NFL in third-down stops, and they rank 29th in pass defense, run defense and takeaways.

And last week’s 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, especially, was rock-bottom. Ryan called the defensive performance "terrible," "inexcusable" and "ridiculous."

Ryan said the defense "just didn’t show up" -- and that includes "schematically, playing-wise, effort-wise." But he said that lack of emotion and nastiness hasn’t been the problem all season.

"That has not been us, and it’s not going to be us ever again," Ryan said. "We’ve been here for two years, and that performance was not right."

Ryan put the blame for this season's struggles on himself a few times Saturday, specifically saying the late-game breakdowns have to fall on the defensive coordinator.

When asked if he needs to be better at putting players in the right position or at lighting a fire under them, Ryan said, "Well, I mean, hell, if it takes Knute Rockne’s speech, we’ve tried 'em all. Hell, I’ve tried crying at 'em, I’ve yelled at 'em, I’ve cussed at 'em. But bottom line is if you’re the coordinator and it’s not going well, then you start with you, and that’s the way it is. And that’s my fault, because right now this defense hasn’t played up to par, and it’s killing us."

And Ryan didn’t disagree with the need for personnel changes -- which could include a shakeup in the secondary.

"Right now we’ve lost some games, we haven’t held our end up on defense, and whatever has to happen, hell it has to happen," Ryan said. "We can’t give up 41 points and expect everything to stay the same. I mean, who the hell wants 'em to? So that’s bullcrap. So whatever has to happen, we have to change, and it has to be done now.

"We’ve gotta come out with a great game this week, playing a high-powered offense (the Chicago Bears on 'Monday Night Football') with a great quarterback, a great receiver and a great back. We gotta be ready to go. And we will, we’re ready."

When asked specifically about safety Kenny Vaccaro being "benched" after Ryan had praised him so much in the past, Ryan said, "I don’t know about that benching. I mean, that’s you guys (in the media) benching him."

"However it is, I know one thing, last year we had him doing a lot of different things, but in my opinion Kenny was the best safety in football," Ryan said, referencing a comment he made during Vaccaro’s standout rookie season. "I think this year, like all of us, me included, we haven’t been that same person.

"Hell, we’re breaking down at the end of games, which we’ve never done. That’s completely on the defensive coordinator. We go from the best tackling team in football to the worst, hell it’s not gonna look right. And that’s what’s happened. But we have to get better than that, we will get better, and we’re all committed to this. It’s every player, it’s every coach, and we’re just working as hard as we can to get it right."

But as Ryan also emphasized several times during his weekly press conference:

"We’re sick of saying that. We have to start doing it."
When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday. Where: Soldier Field, Chicago. TV: ESPN.

Call it the Disappointment Cup, Underachievers Bowl, The Battle of We’re-Not-What-We-Thought-We-Were teams. But any way you bill it, Monday night’s game between the New Orleans Saints (5-8) and Chicago Bears (5-8) at Soldier Field makes for an intriguing matchup, even if Bears receiver Brandon Marshall believes ESPN should take the teams off "Monday Night Football."

Despite New Orleans’ dismal record, there’s still plenty of incentive to win, considering the Saints remain alive in the playoff hunt. The same can’t be said of Chicago, but how this club finishes should go a long way toward determining the extent of upcoming changes this offseason, whether in personnel, the front office or the coaching staff.

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down the matchup:

Wright: Team leaders have called the Saints' effort in the loss to the Carolina Panthers unprofessional, which frankly is odd considering the Saints are still playing for a postseason berth. How is the team handling the situation moving forward because it has the easiest remaining schedule in the league based on average DVOA of opponent?

Triplett: First of all, the Saints’ remaining schedule is pretty meaningless considering the opponent hasn’t mattered much this year. When the Saints have shown up, they’ve beaten the Green Bay Packers by 21 points at home and played great in a win at Pittsburgh, among others. When they haven’t, they’ve been blown out at home by Carolina and Cincinnati, among others. And that’s the point the leaders were getting at when they talked about professionalism. As veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief put it, you can’t just show up and expect to win. They have to treat every game with the same season-on-the-line intensity that they showed in those good games.

Clearly they still have a high ceiling, but the consistency hasn’t been there. The loss to Carolina this past week was extremely disturbing, and it led to a major roster shake-up. There’s clearly no excuse for a lack of urgency at this point.

I obviously haven’t been too impressed by what I’ve seen from the Bears in their recent national TV appearances. And I know how much they’ll miss Marshall. But I still see a lot of talented playmakers on that offense and think they could cause big problems for a Saints defense that is struggling in all areas. Am I wrong?

Wright: No, you’re correct. But it all comes down to execution, and we haven’t seen any evidence the Bears can do that on a consistent basis, which has been the group’s main problem all year. Even without Marshall in the lineup, there are still plenty of weapons in running back Matt Forte, receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. My expectation is the Bears will lean on Forte early and try to use him to set up play-action so the Bears can go deep to Jeffery or hit Bennett down the seam or on intermediate crossing routes. Forte is the key here, and one of the main issues we’ve seen with this offense is the Bears never truly commit to establish the rushing attack, which eventually forces them to be one-dimensional, thus much easier to defend.

New Orleans and Chicago play similar offenses, which should make for an intriguing matchup. What has gone wrong with the Saints, offensively?

Triplett: The Saints’ offense has been good at times, especially since they now have a consistent run game to balance their prolific passing offense. The two problems that have crept up most are turnovers and the disappearance of the downfield passing game.

Drew Brees has been sharp at times. He’s on pace for another 4,900 passing yards and he’s leading the NFL with a completion percentage of 69.3. But he has turned the ball over way too many times in big spots (12 interceptions and two lost fumbles). A big part of the problem is that he’s pressing too much to do it all by himself with the Saints’ defense struggling so badly. Their other star, tight end Jimmy Graham, has also been too up-and-down.

And defenses have done a great job of taking away deep passes and forcing the Saints to patiently work their way down the field. The Saints are decent at that; they lead the NFL in third-down efficiency. But that also increases the opportunity for mistakes.

When I look back on past Saints-Bears matchups, I think of the Cover 2 defense that forced the Saints to patiently work their way down the field (something they finally did successfully last year). Is that still the case -- on their good days, at least?

Wright: Mike, I don’t think so. They’ve moved away from playing Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 style of defense and become more of a traditional under 4-3 that plays a variety of coverages on the back end based on that week’s game plan. Against a quarterback such as Brees, the Bears would probably play more Cover 2 early on to force him to slowly move the ball down the field. But if the Bears can’t generate consistent pressure with the front four, they’ll try to manufacture pressure via the blitz. Chicago fares well against average quarterbacks protected by average to below average offensive lines. But when this team comes up against the top quarterbacks and good offensive lines, they struggle tremendously, and the main reason for that is the inability to consistently generate pressure with just the front four. When Chicago can’t do that, it dials up the blitz. But if the rushers can’t get home -- which is often the case -- it puts this team’s horrid secondary in coverage situations it can’t handle.

How “real” is this rift between Sean Payton and Rob Ryan, and how do you think the situation will affect how the Saints perform the rest of the way?

Triplett: Both guys went to great lengths to downplay it and insist they have a ton of respect for each other. And I haven’t heard otherwise from sources I’ve talked to. So I think that story was overblown at least a little bit. And the sideline shouting matches are typical of Payton, as he has explained, so I also don’t read much into that.

But there’s no question that Ryan must be sitting on an extremely hot seat with a defense that is by far the worst in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information’s efficiency rating. This defense was supposed to be a great strength after they finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed last year, and they’ve totally imploded with everything from a lack of a pass rush, a lack of turnovers, a woeful run defense, missed tackles and assignment breakdowns in the secondary. That doesn’t all fall on Ryan, but the results are unacceptable.

That offensive line has become New Orleans North. Was sorry to see Brian de la Puente wind up on injured reserve. How are Jermon Bushrod and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer faring?

Wright: I guess the answer to that question depends on perspective with regard to Bushrod. New Orleans didn’t mind letting Bushrod walk for a reason, in my opinion. The Bears overpaid Bushrod to anchor that offensive line, but the truth is he has struggled, especially during the second half of the season. Going into the team’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Bushrod produced four consecutive games with negative ratings, according to Pro Football Focus, and that registers among the worst in the league. As for Kromer, it’s difficult to determine how he’s faring because nobody really knows how much input he has in what’s going on offensively. Even though Kromer holds the title of offensive coordinator, head coach Marc Trestman actually calls all the plays. The truth is it would be nice if Trestman relinquished those duties over the team’s final three games to see what Kromer can do. Just based on interviews with Kromer, it seems his philosophies differ a little from Trestman’s. I definitely sense Kromer is more committed to establishing the run than Trestman is.

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints defense was borderline dominant in last week’s 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. But they admittedly didn’t do a good enough job of containing quarterback Cam Newton when he took off running.

Newton had five runs of 8 yards or longer, including a touchdown – three of them on scrambles and two on designed runs.

Now the Saints are preparing to face a quarterback Sunday that they consider even more of a dangerous running threat in the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick. Although Kaepernick has been sacked a stunning 14 times over the past two weeks, he’s still extremely elusive. He has run for 274 yards this year, and the Saints have warned that he can also use those legs to keep plays alive and throw down the field.

[+] EnlargeColin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Tony AvelarThe Saints will try to keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket, which is easier said than done.
Here’s what the Saints have been saying this week about Kaepernick and being better against the next dual-threat quarterback:

S Kenny Vaccaro: “He’s a good quarterback, man. Very talented, very blessed. He’s got huge arm talent, can make plays with his feet. I think one of the best things he does, he gets them in good runs, he can make checks. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. … And impressive ink – tattoos (something the two players share in common, which is one of the reasons Vaccaro often is confused for the lookalike quarterback).”

LB Curtis Lofton: “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in this league that can beat you with his arm or beat you with his legs. So we have to shut him down. [Kaepernick and Newton] are very similar. And when they get out of the pocket, usually bad things happen. So it’s just gonna be a collective effort from everybody to keep him in the pocket and not let him scramble.”

OLB Junior Galette: “I feel like [Newton] is a little bit different than Kaepernick. Cam wants to actually stay in the pocket more and be one of those traditional quarterbacks, as opposed to Kaepernick, if he doesn’t see his read, he’s taking off. …

“I know myself last year (against the 49ers), I’ve gotta do a better job of keeping him in the pocket. There were a lot of plays. He had one where he ran out the pocket and threw it to Frank Gore. Frank Gore was wide open because one of our linebackers left Frank Gore in coverage. He dropped the pass, but that could’ve been a heartbreaking play for us. And we know we’ve got to do a better job of just keeping him in the pocket and making him a quarterback that can beat us with his arm instead of beating us with his feet.”

Vaccaro: “I think they’re a little bit different. I think Cam’s one of the hardest quarterbacks to take down. I think Kaepernick runs a little bit better to me, as far as when he gets in the open field and gets that stride going. But, yeah, I see some similarities. … A couple times we had miscues on blitzes, didn’t have an edge. That one time [Newton] scrambled for a touchdown, that was all on us. He just took advantage of what we did wrong. [Kaepernick] can do that. So you’ve got to make sure you stay in your rush lanes. You’ve gotta always have two edges and just push the pocket up the middle.”

Coach Sean Payton: “The one thing you see on tape is he has real good arm strength. He can move. He can extend plays. We’ve seen that from him. He’s done a great job with that. … He’s done a great job of reducing turnovers again this year. They’re toward the top of the league. I think he poses a threat that is challenging, especially when we’re playing a team coming off a tough loss. We know the type of game we’re going to get. These guys are going to be ready to play.”

NEW ORLEANS -- The rest of the NFC South left the door open too long, and the New Orleans Saints might have just stormed through it Sunday night with a dominant 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Of course, it comes with plenty of qualifiers. The Saints (3-4) still need to prove they can do this consistently, and they absolutely need to prove they can do it on the road, where they're 0-4 this season -- especially since they have to turn around and play at the Carolina Panthers (3-4-1) on Thursday night with the division lead hanging in the balance.

But the Saints made a pretty dramatic statement Sunday night about both their potential and their resilience.

[+] EnlargeCooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie receiver Brandin Cooks had a breakout performance Sunday for the Saints, who reconnected with their mojo in time for a division showdown with Carolina.
"It's like my grandfather always said." Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "He said there's three types of people or three types of teams in this world: those that make it happen, those that watch it happen and there's those that wake up one day and say, 'What the heck happened?' I feel like all this year we've been waking up and saying, 'What the heck happened?' It's about time we made it happen."

That should put a fright into the other teams in the shaky division. If they couldn't put New Orleans away when it was stumbling all over itself, what are they gonna do now that the Saints have their mojo back?

Brees' performance was especially promising. It was easily his most dominant game of the year (311 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions). And it came on the heels of what Brees called one of the "five worst feelings" he's ever had after a football game when his late interception keyed a collapse at the Detroit Lions.

The list of folks either criticizing Brees or at least questioning whether he was starting to slow down at age 35 had been growing this season. I personally suggested he and the team had lost their killer instinct last week after they let their third lead in the final two minutes this year slip away.

Brees' response? He stepped on the Packers' throat once Aaron Rodgers blinked first -- and was slowed by a third-quarter hamstring injury -- in what was supposed to be a back-and-forth shootout.

"He was outstanding tonight," Saints coach Sean Payton said forcefully -- almost defiantly -- after dismissing the notion that Brees has been off this year. "He was magnificent. He was spot-on."

But Brees was hardly alone. Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards (the most by a Saints back since Deuce McAllister in 2003). Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks had a breakout game with 94 receiving yards, a receiving touchdown and a rushing touchdown. Tight end Jimmy Graham caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter alone after being shut out in the first half.

And the defense found a whole other level of resilience, not only bouncing back from the 2-4 start, but also bouncing back from a 70-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Randall Cobb on the opening possession and a 67-yard pass from Rodgers to Eddie Lacy on the second possession.

The game changed in the third quarter when it was still tied at 16 and, three plays after Rodgers was hurt on a scramble, Saints cornerback Corey White tipped away a Rodgers pass in the end zone that was intercepted by linebacker David Hawthorne. Later in the half, the embattled White intercepted one of his own. Prior to Sunday, Rodgers had thrown just one pick all year.

There were a lot of people asking in the Saints' locker room whether this was the kind of victory that could give them a confidence boost.

On the contrary -- it was the kind of victory that proved they never lost it.

"I don't think we ever lost our confidence," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "We've been having some bad breaks. We haven't been playing complete games. And when we play a complete game, this is what it's about.

"Last week, we played 56 minutes and didn't finish. This week we played 60 minutes and finished."

Packers vs. Saints preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24

Recent history suggests we could be in for a lot of points in prime time when the New Orleans Saints (2-4) host the Green Bay Packers (5-2) on Sunday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The past three meetings between Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers have averaged more than 70 points per game, with more than 2,000 total passing yards and a combined 19 touchdown passes.

For that trend to continue, the Saints need to recapture their missing mojo. While the Packers have been among the hottest teams in football during a four-game win streak, the Saints have been maddeningly up-and-down all season, even in their victories. New Orleans is 2-0 at home this year, though, and it has won 13 straight prime-time home games by nearly 20 points per game.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Rob, the Packers have always reminded me a lot of the Saints in that they look untouchable when their offense gets hot. Is their offense playing as well right now as it ever has in the Rodgers era?

Demovsky: It's close, Mike. But several players this week said they're still not quite to where they were in 2011 when, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang put it, they "could do whatever they wanted." But there's no question Rodgers is dialed in. His only interception, which came in the opener, went off the hands of Jordy Nelson. And here's why the offense might be close to resembling Rodgers' MVP season of '11: He's starting to spread the ball around more. The offense isn't just Nelson, like it was the first three weeks. In Sunday's win over the Panthers, Rodgers hit nine different receivers. That's the way he operated in 2011.

What's the difference with the Saints' offense right now than when it clicks like it has so often in the past?

Triplett: I'll give you the same answer. It's close. Brees and the Saints have still looked excellent at times, and they lead the NFL in yards per play. But they've shot themselves in the foot too much with a total of 12 turnovers and seemingly one bad stretch in every game. Sunday, Brees threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns through three quarters at Detroit. Then they collapsed in the fourth quarter, including a really bad interception.

But all of the elements are still there. Brees has been mostly sharp and accurate with short passes, and he finally rediscovered the deep passing game Sunday. His biggest problem: He has thrown seven interceptions while under duress. The run game has been as good as ever during the Brees-Sean Payton era. They need Jimmy Graham healthy, but he's on the way. They need consistency more than anything else, and playing at home should help kick-start things.

What kind of a defense will the Saints be facing on Sunday night? Green Bay has reminded me of the Saints on that side of the ball with so much inconsistency over the years.

Demovsky: Up until Sunday against the Panthers, it was a defense that was reliant on taking the ball away. The Packers had 11 takeaways (including eight interceptions) in their four previous games but they finally played a solid defensive game where turnovers weren't the overriding difference. Yes, they did have one interception against Carolina, but it wasn't the reason they shut down Cam Newton & Co. The Packers forced three-and-outs on four of the Panthers' first five possessions. If there's an area where they're still a little shaky, it's against the run. They finally climbed out of last place in rushing defense, but not by much. They're 31st this week.

What's been the bigger issue for the Saints on defense: their secondary or their lack of a pass rush, which was supposed to be a strength?

Triplett: The two go hand in hand. The defensive line is a disappointment because, as you said, it was supposed to be a strength and the Saints are loaded with talent with outside linebacker Junior Galette and ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. Instead, they've just been OK. But they remain the greatest reason for optimism, and they just played their best game last week at Detroit.

The secondary is a much bigger concern. Top cornerback Keenan Lewis remains excellent, but they've struggled badly at the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots with a variety of players. They lost safety Jairus Byrd to a season-ending injury, and fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro has battled inconsistency and some uncharacteristic missed tackles. This matchup against Green Bay's offense is daunting, to say the least.

You mentioned that the Packers aren't relying solely on Nelson, which is interesting. The Saints have actually done an OK job keeping the most dangerous weapons in check (Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, etc.). But they've been in big trouble against deeper offenses like Atlanta's and Dallas' because they spread the Saints thin and burned them underneath. I know Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy could cause problems. Do they go even deeper than that?

Demovsky: The emergence of rookie receiver Davante Adams has gone a long way toward diversifying their offense. Even if teams want to sit back in Cover 2 and roll one safety toward Nelson and the other toward Cobb, they now have Adams, who has good size and speed. Rodgers has looked to him more often of late, and he has a touchdown catch in two of the past three games. If they can get their tight ends involved, then they might be virtually impossible to stop, but so far they haven't gotten much from that spot.

The Packers' two losses have come in loud environments -- at Seattle and at Detroit -- and the Superdome certainly fits into that category. Despite all of their struggles this season, why should the Packers be worried about playing the Saints down there?

Triplett: That could be the great equalizer for the Saints. They're much more dangerous at home -- and for some reason almost unstoppable in home night games. Obviously the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. It's truly one of the loudest venues in the league. And that helps both the offense and the defense quite a bit because of communication. Plus they've got the fast track to work with and no weather conditions, which suits their style (though it won't hurt Green Bay's offense). And players also said they get into the idea of playing in that prime-time showcase knowing everyone is watching. As Brees said, "You feel like you want to kind of back up the reason for them putting you on [that stage]."

On his conference call with the Detroit media Wednesday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton clicked off “eight asterisks” on the paper in front of him.

Those would be the direct ties between the Saints and the Detroit Lions, including Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and running backs Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Jed Collins and all the way to position coaches.

Will that help either team Sunday? Tough to say, but Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Saints reporter Mike Triplett will tell you all you need to know for this week’s matchup.

Rothstein: Let's start with Drew Brees. Without Lombardi, he has his lowest passer rating and QBR in a few seasons. Is Lombardi part of the reason for that, or is it something else with the veteran quarterback?

Triplett: Brees’ performance has been under the microscope around here, as you might imagine with the Saints off to a 2-3 start. Especially since he just had his worst performance of the season before the bye with three interceptions against Tampa Bay (two of them trying to force the ball while being hit). But even on that “bad” day, Brees threw for 371 yards and two touchdowns and led the team back from an 11-point deficit to win 37-31 in overtime.

Overall, I still think Brees has been really sharp. He was leading all full-time starters in completion percentage through four weeks. He’s just been “taking what the defense gives him” and settling for shorter throws to tight end Jimmy Graham, rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and the running backs. If Graham can’t play with a shoulder injury, the Saints will have to rediscover their downfield passing game.

As for Lombardi, it’s hard to say Brees misses him since he still has Payton and longtime offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. around. But I do think Lombardi is really sharp and I was glad to see him get his shot there. What has he brought to the offense -- and how will he adjust if Calvin Johnson can’t play?

Rothstein: It's been interesting because the offense has been quite mediocre this season after years of being one of the best units in the league under Scott Linehan. Part of that goes to protection, as Matthew Stafford has been pummeled (21 sacks and counting through six games). But the run game has stalled and Stafford still appears to be gaining comfort in the offense. The offense has been the big question around here, but only this week has Lombardi's play calling really come into question. Head coach Jim Caldwell was asked about it and supported Lombardi.

The play calling hasn't really been the issue. It has been the protection and Stafford. I thought he adjusted well with Johnson either hobbled or out. Golden Tate has been dynamic in this offense, taking those short and intermediate routes and busting them for big gains. He's sixth in the league in yards (495) and fourth in yards after catch with 257 -- and the highest-rated receiver on the team. He, not Johnson, has been the player to really move the ball for Detroit so far this season.

If Johnson doesn't play, screen passes will once again play a role, as will getting the ball to Tate in space. But, unlike last week against Minnesota, the Lions are going to have to put up points to win this game. That goes into my next question. The Saints haven't seemed to generate much pass rush. Is that because of injuries in the secondary or overall skill?

Triplett: The Saints' missing pass rush has probably been the biggest surprise this season. They have real bona fide talent up front that just hasn't been producing the way it did last year (Pro Bowl end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette and end Akiem Hicks). Maybe offenses have been game-planning especially for them (quicker throws, double teams, etc.) But the Saints know they have to simply produce better, and this is the strength of their defense that they're really going to count on to turn their season around. It sounds as if the Lions might provide them an opportunity to get something started, but, if Detroit's been watching film, it'll know those quick throws to Tate and the screen game could be effective against a Saints secondary that hasn't tackled well in the open field.

How big of a weapon has Bush been in that regard? This will be the first time the Saints have faced him since they traded him in 2011.

Rothstein: Bush has been useful for the Lions, but I'd argue he was more effective last season, when he was a 1,000-yard rusher, than he has been this year. Part of that has to do with a fairly anemic Detroit run game, but he also has his lowest yards per reception since 2011 (7.1). Bush is still an effective player and has not lost much of his speed, but Linehan used him differently than Lombardi has. If Detroit is able to fix its run issues, he should still be extremely effective, and he has been helpful for the Lions, but he hasn't been as much of a game-changer this season as he was last season.

The Lions have talked a lot about Brees' ability to avoid sacks. How does he manage to do that?

Triplett: Normally I would say it’s because Brees dissects the field so well and makes smart, quick decisions. But, as I said, that wasn’t the case with two of his interceptions in the last game when taking the sack would have been the smarter choice.

In general, though, Brees has always been good about stepping up into the pocket (either the cause or the effect of the Saints investing heavily in Pro Bowl guards over the years). And he does make smart, quick decisions. His favorite receiver is always the “open man” instead of getting locked into targets. And even though he throws for 5,000-plus yards every season, he also has set the NFL record for completion percentage twice. This is still a West Coast-style offense at its heart.

It sounds as if he won’t have it easy against this Lions defense, though. I was pretty stunned to see the numbers so far this year. Where did this performance come from?

Rothstein: It starts with the front four, which has three first-round picks up front, led by Ndamukong Suh. The havoc it can provide allows the secondary and linebackers to play a bit freer. The Lions have an emerging star who is strong in coverage in DeAndre Levy at linebacker. The secondary has been the surprise, but coordinator Teryl Austin has done a great job playing each guy to his own strengths, including multiple nickel packages. He has really refined these guys into an impressive group.

Vikings vs. Saints preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19

It has been a turbulent start to the 2014 season, to say the least, for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-1) and New Orleans Saints (0-2) as they head toward their Week 3 matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Minnesota’s issues run much deeper than football. Star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted on a felony child-abuse charge in Texas; on Wednesday, the Vikings put Peterson on their exempt list, barring him from games and practices.

The Vikings deactivated Peterson for their Week 2 game, a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots.

The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to use their home opener to rally back from two stunning, last-second losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: How much did the Vikings miss Peterson on the field last Sunday? And how do they try to fill that void this week?

Goessling: Against a Patriots team that appeared vulnerable against the run, they missed Peterson considerably. He didn't have a great first game of the season in St. Louis, but a large part of what Peterson brings to the offense, even when he's not being terribly productive, is the number of looks he opens up for others simply by the attention he commands from defenses.

Matt Asiata caught a touchdown pass last week and is a decent between-the-tackles runner. They also like rookie Jerick McKinnon, though they haven't gotten him involved in the offense yet. But no matter what the Vikings do, they're not going to be able to replace Peterson. They have some good weapons in their passing game, and they'll have to make them work. Without Peterson, though, the Vikings' offense looks a lot less intimidating.

The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram. How will that change their offense this weekend?

Triplett: It's basically the exact opposite of what you just described. Ingram has been off to a fantastic start -- probably playing the best of his career. But he's also more replaceable than Peterson because the Saints have such good depth at running back. Veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year pro Khiry Robinson are both off to good starts this season as well. And they're more than capable of increasing their workload.

Most important, the entire Saints run game has been thriving since late last season, which has helped all three of their backs. The Saints are tied for fifth in the NFL with 156.5 rushing yards per game, and they’re ranked second with 5.7 yards per carry. Normally those numbers translate to victories.

What other parts of Minnesota's offense will the Saints need to prepare for? It looks like Cordarrelle Patterson has given the Vikings a new dimension. And can Matt Cassel match points with Drew Brees if needed?

Goessling: You're right about Patterson adding some new wrinkles to the Vikings' offense. He has taken the baton from Percy Harvin, in the sense that the Vikings can use him out of the backfield, get the ball to him on screens and employ him as a kick returner. The one area where Patterson still needs to improve, actually, is as a receiver. He struggled mightily last week while trying to get separation from press coverage, and while his route-running has improved, he's still learning how to be a reliable option for Cassel.

As for Cassel's ability to match points with Brees ... boy, I don't know. The Vikings had trouble protecting him last week, and he threw a couple of bad interceptions when he wasn't able to look off defenders. If it turned into that kind of game, I'd be a little worried about the Vikings' ability to keep up.

One of the ways the Saints' offense could get rolling, obviously, is Jimmy Graham. Is there any recipe to slowing him down right now? What would your advice be to the Vikings about how to cover him?

Triplett: Well, don't ask the Browns. They tried a little bit of everything last week, including Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and corner Buster Skrine at times. And Graham just exploited the size mismatch.

When teams have had success against Graham, they had to devote more than one resource. The Patriots pressed him with corner Aqib Talib and played zone behind him; the Seahawks bracketed him, often using Earl Thomas as a spy; and the Eagles chipped him with defensive ends off the line. The problem, though, is that exposes teams to all of the Saints' other weapons, including their much-improved run game and dynamic new receiver Brandin Cooks. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's almost immune to double-teams.

So where is the Vikings' defense most vulnerable?

Goessling: Especially against a team that can spread them out like the Saints can, I'd have to say it's the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the top cornerback, but he was playing with a groin injury last week, gave up four catches and got flagged three times. Captain Munnerlyn gave up a touchdown, and the secondary depth is a concern. As you mentioned, the process of stopping Graham is a group effort, and the Saints have so many options that the Vikings could have trouble keeping up, especially if they have as much trouble getting to Brees as they did to Tom Brady last week.

Speaking of defensive vulnerabilities, the Saints' defense looks to have taken a significant step back in the first two weeks of the season. First, where has the pass rush gone, and second, do you see a quick fix for the defensive issues?

Triplett: I definitely expect vast improvement by the Saints' defense. The talent is there, from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. All have actually played well this season. But the Saints were done in by things such as missed tackles in Week 1 and blown assignments and penalties in Week 2. All extremely frustrating -- but correctable -- issues.

The biggest concern is the depth at cornerback. The Saints might have to make a change at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where teams have been picking on Patrick Robinson. A more consistent pass rush would certainly help in that department as well.

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints officially ruled out receiver Lance Moore (hand), running back Mark Ingram (toe), safety Roman Harper (knee), defensive linemen Brodrick Bunkley (calf) and Tyrunn Walker (knee) for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

The only mild surprise on that list is Bunkley, who practiced on a limited basis the past two days. The others were all held out of practice all week. Cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip) and defensive end Tom Johnson (hamstring) are listed as questionable after practicing on a limited basis all week.

None of the injuries should be too harmful to the Saints, who dominated the Miami Dolphins 38-17 last Monday night without Moore, Harper, Ingram, Bunkley and Johnson in the lineup. The Saints have so far proven to be deep enough in each position group to absorb those losses -- though they’ll be especially thin on the defensive line if Johnson is not back near 100 percent.

With Moore out last week, the Saints continued to rely heavily on top targets Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles. Backup receivers Kenny Stills and Nick Toon each played slightly bigger roles, with the rookie Stills catching a career-high four passes for 38 yards and Toon catching his first NFL passes for 18 yards on a key third-and-12 play in the first quarter. Tight end Benjamin Watson also caught his first touchdown pass since he joined the Saints this summer (a 4-yarder in the third quarter).

That was Watson's only catch in the game, though. And deep threat receiver Robert Meachem had zero catches. So even with Moore out of the lineup and quarterback Drew Brees throwing for 413 yards, the Saints still didn’t have enough balls to go around for everybody in their deep offense.

Video: Mike Ditka suffers minor stroke

November, 16, 2012

ESPN NFL analyst Mike Ditka, who played for the Chicago Bears and coached both the Bears and New Orleans Saints, suffered a minor stroke.

Countdown Live: Saints-Packers

September, 30, 2012
Join our NFL experts as they break down the NFC clash between the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:25 p.m. ET. See you there.

In the union’s continuing attempt to take the bounty appeals decision out from under the auspices of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFLPA has filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana. This suit is on behalf of three of the four suspended players -- Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove. Jonathan Vilma has asked for similar relief in two lawsuits; the first of which -- his defamation lawsuit against Goodell -- Goodell moved to dismiss Thursday. The following is the essence of Thursday’s filing by the NFLPA:

The suit is an application to overturn the suspensions issued by Goodell based on what the NFLPA claims to be inherent and unfair bias by Goodell and all others involved in the process. It states in part: “The investigation and arbitration process that the Commissioner’s public relations machinery touted as 'thorough and fair' has, in reality, been a sham."

Further, the NFLPA argues:
(1) The NFL violated the CBA by refusing to provide the players with access to critical documents or witnesses;
(2) Goodell launched a vast public relations campaign defending the punishments he intended to arbitrate, rendering him incurably and “evidently biased”; and
(3) Goodell lacked proper jurisdiction to rule on this case, as the system arbitrator -- law professor Stephen Burbank -- has exclusive jurisdiction to arbitrate the “pay-for-performance” conduct here.

The latter argument -- that this matter is a cap issue rather than a conduct issue -- was brought before Burbank last month and denied. It currently is on appeal to the NFL appeals panel, a group of three arbitrators still not formally constituted a year after its creation in the new collective bargaining agreement. Now, in addition to the appealing Burbank’s ruling, the union argues Goodell may not seize Burbank’s exclusive jurisdiction merely by labeling the matter "conduct detrimental."

The NFLPA claims it is not asking the court to "second guess" Goodell on the sufficiency of the NFL's evidence; rather, it is asking it to vacate the suspensions based on the "sham process from which it was born."

The suit’s basic argument states: "It becomes more apparent with each passing day … that the NFL’s objective was not to follow the CBA and provide a fair process, but to validate a biased investigation and to deprive the Players of any meaningful ability to defend themselves against a preordained result."

As I have discussed and written about here, my sense is this will be an uphill battle for the players. Goodell’s power over player conduct -- both the NFL and the system arbitrator have determined this to be conduct -- is well-established and secure in the new CBA. The issue of “fairness” is a relative one; it is the court of Goodell, not a court of law. Federal labor policy favors employers and especially employers resolving differences through a collectively bargained agreement rather than going outside that process into a court.

I admire the creativity and persistence of the NFLPA and its increasingly busy legal team -- the enduring theme of football this offseason is billable hours -- but ultimately they are trying to circumvent a process that they agreed to in the swirl of negotiations to achieve other gains in the CBA.

Halftime: Lions 14, Saints 10

January, 7, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — A few thoughts at halftime from the Superdome, with the Lions up 14-10:

  • The New Orleans Saints averaged 42 points per home game during the regular season, so the Detroit Lions should be thrilled to have limited them to 10 in the first half Saturday night.
  • Two turnovers might be the difference between the Lions' lead and a potential Saints lead. The Saints have driven into scoring possession on every possession. Marques Colston lost a fumble at the Lions' 18-yard line, and quarterback Drew Brees lost a fumble at the Lions' 37-yard line. The Lions weren't able to covert either touchdown into a score, but there is value in simply ending a Saints possession given how prolific their offense is.
  • The teams have combined for 466 offensive yards, including 256 by the Saints. Brees has completed 17 of 21 passes, but the Lions' defensive line broke through a few times late in the second quarter to either rush throws or hit him. That contact will add up as the game moves to the second half.
  • Despite the Saints' best efforts, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has gotten the ball five times to receiver Calvin Johnson. Included in those catches was a 13-yard touchdown, in which Johnson split a double team in the corner of the end zone.
  • Remember, the Saints haven't lost at home this season. They'll get the ball to open the quarter. To maintain momentum for an upset, the first five minutes of the third quarter will be crucial for the Lions.
  • The Lions played part of the second quarter without cornerback Chris Houston, and safety Louis Delmas also left the game briefly. Both were back for the final series of the half.
  • OK, now back to our NFL Countdown Live chat.

Countdown Live: Lions-Saints

January, 7, 2012
Join our NFL experts for the playoff showdown between the Detroit Lions and the New Orleans Saints.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8 p.m. ET. See you there.

Countdown Live: Bears-Saints

September, 18, 2011
Join our NFL experts as they break down the match up between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. See you there.