NFC South: New Orleans Saints

Colston's shutout both rare and normal

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t seem too surprised or concerned over the fact that receiver Marques Colston was held without a catch for the first time in 87 games played during Sunday’s 26-24 loss at the Cleveland Browns.

As rare as that was, Payton indicated that a receiver having a quiet day -- even Colston -- is pretty normal in a Saints offense that spreads the ball around so much.

And Payton is right.

The way the Cleveland Browns made it their mission to devote heavy coverage to the Saints’ receivers downfield reminded me of a handful of games from last season (at Chicago, at New England and at Philadelphia in the playoffs). In those three games combined, Colston caught a total of five passes for 42 yards.

And just like the Saints did in those three games last season, they eventually adjusted to the Browns’ defensive plan. The Saints’ offense finally started rolling late in the second quarter and through the second half with a heavy dose of tight end Jimmy Graham and the run game.

“We got a lot of sub-packages, but I thought by and large we threw it pretty well. The targets sometimes are going to be different,” Payton said. “Jimmy ended up having one of his better games. That happens with our offense. I thought Kenny Stills was able to have an impact coming back. [Robert] Meachem had some big plays for us.

“I thought as that game went on Drew [Brees] did a good job of finding the matchups that were advantageous to us.”

The Saints’ four receivers combined for a total of nine catches, 79 yards and no touchdowns -- with three catches apiece for Brandin Cooks, Stills and Meachem.

It’s still a bit surprising that Colston couldn’t even match that type of output. And it's worth noting that Colston’s snaps were cut down from 64 in Week 1 to 41 in Week 2 (second behind Cooks’ 55 snaps, but still ahead of 29 apiece for Stills and Meachem).

“We felt he played too many the week prior,” Payton explained. “Managing the amount of snaps these guys get and trying to keep them from getting north of 50, for instance. We have depth there. Obviously Brandin received more snaps yesterday. That’s something that we will pay attention to each week.”

Still, there’s no reason to expect that Colston will be scaled back in the Saints’ offense on a weekly basis.

After all, Colston had five catches for 110 yards in Week 1, though his late fumble proved costly. And Colston has talked all summer about feeling healthier than he has in two years.

But Sunday’s game was a reminder that even the greatest pass catcher in Saints history isn’t immune to being passed over in this deep, diverse offense.
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan pointed the blame for the New Orleans Saints' 0-2 start squarely toward himself and the defense during an interview on the WWL Radio coaches' show on Monday night.

Like Sean Payton did earlier in the day, Ryan pointed to the defense's inability to finish and to assignment errors that have plagued the team in certain situations.

"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Ryan said, pointing to the end of both halves in Week 1 at Atlanta and the final drive in Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We want to be a great defense, and great defenses always finish. And that's something you just have to point the finger at us, and we have to get corrected."

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Rob Ryan
(Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images"Every two-minute situation we've had this year, we've blown," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said.
Ryan said the defense has to do a better job of communicating. Obviously the most egregious example was a coverage breakdown on Cleveland's final offensive play, when cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White both covered the same receiver, leaving another wide open.

"These communication errors can't keep happening. Or we're just killing the team right now," Ryan said. "We know we're solely responsible for the two losses that we have. Our offense has been doing great, our special teams have been doing great.

"Hey, we have some good effort in places, and we've got some guys playing well. But as a unit that we take pride in, we've definitely failed us two weeks in a row."

When asked if the lack of practice time in the preseason for injured defensive backs like Jairus Byrd and Patrick Robinson is part of the problem, Ryan said nobody is saying that at all.

"We've limited our checks, and we still busted some things. So we can't have that. And that's not our style of play," Ryan said. "Right now, we need to develop our style of play and prove who we are. Right now we're not very good.

"We're gonna be great, we're gonna work at it. We've got the players, I know we've got the coaches here too. So together we've gotta do better quickly."

Some of the plays that irked both Payton and Ryan were obvious -- that final play and two pre-snap offside penalties (on Robinson in the first quarter and on Kenny Vaccaro on the final drive). It was Vaccaro's offside penalty that led to the moment when TV cameras captured Payton shouting and pointing at Ryan on the sideline.

Interestingly, both coaches also brought up a specific reference during their coaches' show interviews to a third-and-4 or third-and-3 play where the defense backed up and gave a receiver too much cushion.

Payton called it a "common sense thing we've got to correct." And Ryan said it was an "awareness issue you can't have," calling it "inexcusable" and "all on me."

Reviewing the tape, it appears that they might have been referencing a third-quarter play in which the Saints' defensive backs were still communicating right up until the snap as the Browns receivers motioned into a different formation, and Robinson backed up at the last moment before an easy 6-yard pass to Miles Austin.

Ryan was also asked about needing to get more of a pass rush out of the front four. He said that's absolutely needed, but he insisted he's confident the Saints can do that going forward.

And Ryan pointed out that the Saints defense wasn't exactly "gangbusters" in its first two games last year, despite a 2-0 start after two close victories.

Loomis' take: Saints general manager Mickey Loomis also spoke Monday at the Greater New Orleans Quarterback Club. Loomis said, "There's no way to sugarcoat being 0-2," but he stressed that they have been total team losses and can't be pinned on any one unit, as chronicled by The Times-Picayune.
METAIRIE, La. -- Adrian Peterson's return to the football field will come Sunday against the New Orleans Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Minnesota Vikings announced Monday that Peterson will return to work after he was held out of last Sunday's game following a grand jury indictment on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

"We're gonna have to prepare to play him, along with the rest of the team. That's the only thing," Payton said, keeping the focus strictly on football when asked Monday about the news of Peterson's return to the lineup.

"Obviously from a scheme standpoint, it's significant because of his ability," Payton said of the six-time Pro Bowl running back, who was named the NFL's MVP in 2012. "It's probably better to know that now than later in the week and try to prepare for all the different scenarios."

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
METAIRIE, La. -- A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

The Saints have had a handful of costly errors from every unit during their 0-2 start. The one common bond: They have to be smarter in their home debut Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.

Sean Payton said his biggest disappointment has been the struggles in "situational football," whether it be the blown coverage at the end of Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the missed blocking assignment on a sack or an offsides penalty on a field-goal attempt.

"That's the one thing that's stood out now, two weeks in a row," Payton said.

The most maddening yet was the blown coverage in the final seconds, when Cleveland receiver Andrew Hawkins broke wide open out of a bunch formation. Cornerbacks Corey White and Keenan Lewis both covered the same player, while Patrick Robinson was flagged for holding another receiver across the field.

“You gotta be able to handle bunch. You gotta be able to handle receiver motion,” Payton said. “I mean, shoot, when you play man-to-man like we do, you’re gonna get that.”

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro agreed, saying, “We’ve got smart players. It’s just disappointing that we're not playing up to our abilities. I put that on us.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Two thoughts immediately spring to mind following the news that New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram will be out for at least a month with a broken hand:

The negative: Geez, it sure feels like the Saints are in "anything that can go wrong" mode right now. They're 0-2, and they just lost arguably their most consistent player from the first two weeks.

The positive: If any team is equipped to handle such a loss, it's the Saints. They have great depth with both Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson available. Both guys are more than capable of filling the void. And because the Saints were in a running back timeshare anyway, Ingram was averaging only 14 touches per game.

It seems like a huge disservice to Ingram, however, to suggest the Saints will be OK without him.

After three turbulent years filled with injuries and inconsistency, things were finally coming together for the former Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick this season.

Not only was Ingram healthy and running great -- did you see some of those cuts he made Sunday at Cleveland? -- he was finally playing the versatile role he has yearned for.

Since the Saints traded Darren Sproles in the offseason, Ingram was freed up to play in more versatile packages instead of the base and short-yardage packages to which he was mostly relegated in years past. Both of Ingram's touchdown runs at Atlanta in Week 1 came out of a shotgun formation with four receivers and tight ends split wide.

Ideally, the Saints will have similar success with Thomas and Robinson, both of whom also have played very well in less predictable roles this season.

The Saints' entire run game has been thriving since late last season, when Ingram and Robinson had breakout performances in the playoffs. And coach Sean Payton has shown faith in the run game during the first two weeks. So there's no reason to expect a significant drop-off now.

But hopefully for Ingram, the broken hand doesn't set him back much.

He has been passionate about finally breaking through over the past two seasons. His emotional, competitive nature was on display last year on the field against the Dallas Cowboys and last week on the sideline against the Atlanta Falcons.

And on top of everything else, this is a contract year for Ingram, who's hoping to prove to the Saints and any other prospective employers that he's capable of carrying the load for a team.

Patrick Robinson's struggles continue

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said after Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, cornerback Patrick Robinson was hardly the only one with "muddy hands."

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
David Richard/AP PhotoSaints CB Patrick Robinson breaks up a pass to Browns receiver Travis Benjamin in the second quarter during Sunday's Week 2 game.
But no individual player will be more under the microscope going forward than the Saints' No. 2 cornerback, who was demoted to the role of nickel cornerback after two blown coverages in the first quarter Sunday.

"He's an easy target. I'm sure there's a ton of stuff he'll want to clean up. But there's a lot of muddy hands just to be singling out one player," Payton said. "He's gonna work to improve, and we've gotta look overall at how we're helping not just him, but the rest of those guys."

Payton later added he understands why the media had questions about Robinson. And the mid-game switch was reminiscent of Payton yanking left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup late last season.

But when asked if he might make a permanent switch, Payton said, "I'm not gonna discuss changes on Sunday after a game."

The Saints have other options -- but no sure things at a position that has become a much bigger concern than hoped this summer, when Robinson, Champ Bailey and Corey White were fighting for the role.

White was the one who replaced Robinson in base defense Sunday -- which could potentially become a permanent switch. And Bailey remains unsigned on the open market, so he can't be ruled out as a possibility.

The Saints have two rookie corners on the roster in Brian Dixon and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, though both are still developing players. Jean-Baptiste has been inactive for both games so far, while Dixon has been used on special teams.

Or the Saints could continue to show the faith in Robinson that they showed in him when he beat out Bailey for the starting job in the first place this summer.

Robinson, a first-round draft pick in 2010, has had a roller-coaster career because of inconsistent play and injuries. But players and coaches have always raved about his raw talent and athleticism.

It's Robinson's confidence and consistency that need work. And it's hard to imagine these first two weeks have helped with Robinson's confidence. He also got beat for two deep balls last week at Atlanta.

"Just got to keep working," Robinson said Sunday, according to The Advocate. "You've got to keep working to get it right. Well, I'm not sure it's going to come overnight -- just have to keep working on my assignments, my technique. Simple as that."

Robinson's struggles began on the Browns' second series, when he was flagged for a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a third-and-7 play, even though the pass intended for receiver Taylor Gabriel was overthrown. Then, five plays later, Robinson got beat by a double move on a 3-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin.

On the next series, after he had been demoted to nickelback, Robinson was flagged for a neutral zone infraction, which nullified a missed field goal by Cleveland.

Robinson did settle in better for the rest of the game -- at one point making a great play to bat away a deep pass. But he added one more defensive holding penalty on the Browns' final offensive penalty (which would have been more egregious if the Browns hadn't declined the penalty because of an even worse coverage breakdown across the field).

Jimmy Graham shows his worth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saints pin bad start on bad finishes

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- "Finish Strong."

It's one of the most famous expressions in the history of the New Orleans Saints -- the slogan for their 2009 Super Bowl season.

Well, it might be time to dust off those old T-shirts again. Because the Saints are a stunning 0-2 after losing each of their first two games in the final seconds.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and the Saints couldn't quite get a handle on the Browns and fell to 0-2.
That word, "finish," was practically the first one out of every player's and coach's lips Sunday after the Cleveland Browns kicked a game-winning field goal with three seconds left to cap a 26-24 victory over New Orleans. As quarterback Drew Brees said, the Saints are "literally" two plays away from being 2-0.

Yes, everyone recognized that the game was filled with plenty of ugly moments, including cornerback Patrick Robinson's early struggles and Brees' interception that was returned for a touchdown and an early 16-3 Cleveland lead.

But for the second straight week, the Saints were leading the game when the clock was down to single digits.

And there were no bigger regrets than the blown coverage that set up Cleveland's game-winning field goal or the sack that knocked the Saints out of field-goal range three minutes earlier.

"There's a fine line between winning and losing. A fine line," said Brees, who pointed out that last year, the Saints also had two up-and-down games to start the season but they made those plays in the final seconds and started 2-0.

"The challenge in this locker room this week is going to be to stay together, to be tight, to understand that the difference between us being 2-0 and 0-2 is making plays at the end. And that's both sides of the ball," insisted veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief, who pinned the loss as much on the offense as the defense. "We had opportunities two weeks in a row to close that game out. And we didn't do it either time."

There were no innocents in the Saints' loss Sunday. As coach Sean Payton said when asked specifically about Robinson's series of costly mistakes in the first quarter, "There's a lot of muddy hands to just to be singling out one player."

But in the spirit of not being able to finish, most of the blame from this one will fall on the secondary, which saved its ugliest miscue for last.

Cleveland won the game with a 14-play, 85-yard field goal drive after starting on its own 4-yard line. The dagger was the final pass -- a 28-yarder to wide-open receiver Andrew Hawkins with six seconds left at the Saints' 11-yard line.

The Saints went with a blitz and man coverage on the play, which Browns players said surprised them. And at least one Saints defender missed his assignment. Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Corey White both went to cover receiver Miles Austin out of a trips formation on the right side.

No one covered Hawkins.

To make matters worse, Robinson was also flagged for defensive holding across the field on the play -- a penalty the Browns declined.

"Little things like that are troubling," Payton said in the understatement of the day.

White said after the game that the Saints were still "trying to figure out" what went wrong on that play, but he didn't shy away from the responsibility.

"When it comes down to the last play, you've got to make it," White said. "It doesn't matter what happens before that. We always talk about, 'Next play.'"

There were some positives for the Saints' defense. Those missed tackles that plagued them last week at Atlanta were cleaned up quickly. And the Saints gave up a total of only 202 passing yards on Sunday.

But 76 of those yards came on the final drive.

"Obviously we've gotta fix something. That's two losses where we didn't finish," Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "We've just got to get together and do more, man."
Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns:

Unfinished product: The word “finish” was uttered by just about every player in the Saints’ locker room after they let another lead slip away in the final seconds. Yes, they had a lot of problems throughout Sunday’s loss. But as quarterback Drew Brees pointed out, they are “literally” one play away in each game from being 2-0. And last season, they started 2-0 in the exact opposite fashion with last-minute wins. … That didn’t help erase anybody’s frustration, but it hasn’t sapped this team’s confidence yet. Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted any "crisis" will only come from the outside.

Payton-Ryan exchange: The TV cameras caught Saints coach Sean Payton shouting and pointing at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sideline early in the Browns’ game-winning field goal drive. When asked afterward if that was normal, Payton responded, “Every game. Yeah, every game.” … Obviously we don’t see (or notice) that exact type of exchange on a weekly basis. But it certainly matches with Payton’s animated, emotional persona on game days -- especially considering the circumstances of the game.

Dansby’s secret info: According to Browns reporter Pat McManamon, Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said he heard the Saints’ line call on a crucial third-and-5 play at Cleveland’s 31-yard line late in the fourth quarter (that they were going to protect outside right). So Dansby said he knew he could get a free lane up the middle for a sack against Brees. Indeed, Dansby flew in untouched and knocked the Saints out of field goal range.

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W2W4: Saints at Browns

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

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

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

Here's What 2 Watch 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haden is an outstanding corner for the Browns, and No. 2 corner Buster Skrine is solid. But the Browns' own first-round draft pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert, struggled as the nickel back in his debut last week. As Pettine learned last year, even when the Saints start sloppy, they have a deadly quick-strike ability.
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan echoed the sentiment of his players Friday during his first visit with the media since the New Orleans Saints' 37-34 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Yes, problems need to be fixed. But no, confidence hasn’t wavered.

Among Ryan's strongest statements:
  • "I know we’re a better tackling team than that. I know we are going to play great and will be great."
  • "You watch. I guarantee we will be better."
  • "Look, that was a stinker for all of us, but nobody has to hit the panic button around here. We’re gonna work hard. We’re not used to losing, and we’re not gonna get used to it."

The Saints allowed a franchise-record 445 passing yards, and Atlanta’s total yardage of 568 was the second-highest in Saints history. Missed tackles were the biggest culprit, as players said after the game and throughout the week. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints missed 16 of them in Week 1.

Ryan said part of the problem was that in games like those, "when the momentum is going bad, the first thing to do is try to do too much. I think that as a play-caller, and I know that our guys did that on the field. We were diving at tackles instead of stepping to them."

Ryan, however, said he remains confident because he believes the Saints are "one of the best teams in the league fundamentally on defense." And he said no dramatic changes will be required. Ryan said the Saints have always stressed fundamentals in practice and will continue to do so.

"You obviously have to fix something. With that many points and that many yards, it’s shocking," Ryan said. "But we’ve all been there before. This isn’t new territory for any of us. I’ve been in this league a long time. Stick with what you do best. You prove it, you work on it. That wasn’t a real good game by us, and we are going to fix it and do better."
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints receiver Kenny Stills appears close to making his return from a quad injury Sunday at the Cleveland Browns. Stills practiced fully on Friday and was listed as probable on the Saints’ official injury report.

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

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

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

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

Know the enemy: Saints on Joe Thomas

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
METAIRIE, La. -- Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas is a rarity.

Offensive linemen usually fly under the radar. For that matter, so do Cleveland Browns players.

But Thomas has managed to be widely recognized and respected as arguably the NFL's best lineman for more than a half-decade. The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons, and he has never missed a game or a start -- 113 games and counting.

[+] EnlargeJoe Thomas
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherLeft tackle Joe Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons with Cleveland.
The former No. 3 overall pick out of Wisconsin was by far the highest-rated lineman on both ESPN’s #NFLRank project this summer and the NFL Network's top 100 list. He was ranked by ESPN as the 10th best offensive player in the league and finished 18th among all players on the NFL list.

Here is what the New Orleans Saints had to say about Thomas this week:

Right tackle Zach Strief: "Consistency. Look, there’s positions in this league that you need to show a flash to be recognized, and there’s positions where you need to never show a flash. And Joe Thomas, certainly from a pass-protection standpoint, they just kind of leave him out there. He’s had a carousel of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators and all those things. That's a tough position to be in. And yet, no matter what, he seems to be holding up.

"He’s been there a long time, never missed a start, never missed a game. There’s a lot of reasons why Joe Thomas gets the respect that he does. And he deserves all of it. ... He’s certainly an admirable guy to watch. I don’t get much out of him, because I can’t do a lot of the stuff that he does. We’re pretty different. But good player, good all-around player."

Tight end Benjamin Watson (a former Browns player): "We always joked that, 'Hey Joe, you’re walking right down to the Hall of Fame [in nearby Canton, Ohio].' And he very well may be. ... He’s a guy that prepares very well. He’s very technically sound. And the thing with Joe when you watch him is, he does everything the same, all the time. He gets in his stance the same way, he blocks guys the same way. And they just can’t seem to get off the block."

Outside linebacker Junior Galette: "He’s legit. He’s the real deal. I can’t think of another tackle that’s better than him. ... His athleticism, how smart and savvy he is, how patient he is. Everything, he has all of it. Whatever you’re looking for in a left tackle. He can stop whatever moves, speed, bull [rush]. But we’ll see this week. ...

"I feel like I’m up there, as well. You know, [Michael] Jordan always wanted to go against the best guys. The same mentality I have. I’m hungry, I want to challenge the best guys and see exactly where I’m at."

Coach Sean Payton: "They have a real good offensive line. Their left tackle and center [Alex Mack] are guys that are Pro Bowl players. Joe’s someone who’s very consistent in his pass sets and pass protection. He’s been a very, very durable and reliable player for them, as well. So when you go against someone like him, you’ve gotta have obviously your rush moves in place, you’ve gotta really play with good leverage. He’s an outstanding player."

Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick: "Smart player. He’s a seasoned vet, so he knows all the tricks. He’s just a solid guy, moves his feet well, can set down, sink his hips, moves really well. Just knows what he’s doing."

Defensive end Cameron Jordan: "Knowledgeable. Has good feet. Able to settle down and be calm. So it’ll be fun going against him."
METAIRIE, La. -- By Wednesday, the New Orleans Saints' defensive backs made it clear they were tired of hearing about and talking about their tackling woes in Sunday’s 37-34 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

As The Times-Picayune chronicled, at one point during interviews, cornerback Keenan Lewis just started blurting out the word, "Tackle," regardless of the question he faced.

But Lewis and his teammates certainly weren’t done trying to get their tackling issues fixed.

Lewis spent extra time on the field, working on his tackling technique against a blocking sled -- something he said he used to do in the past.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro called his tackling problems in Week 1 "ridiculous" and said (per The Advocate), "I had a hard time sleeping this week because of the film we put out there."

Everyone remained confident that tackling is a correctable problem. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require extra emphasis in practice -- especially as the Saints prepare to face a Cleveland Browns offense that stubbornly runs the ball with a pesky zone-blocking scheme in the Mike Shanahan style.

"Absolutely there is (an emphasis in practice)," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We have individual periods out here where it’s strictly fundamentals. You’re working location, landmarks, leverage, where you’re fitting. The No. 1 thing is population of the ball. All of those things we work on. And we have to."