NFC South: Andre Johnson
HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Indianapolis Colts' 27-24 victory against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium:
What it means: Reggie Wayne or not, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck simply knows how to win. Luck shook off a brutal first half that saw him constantly pressured, and his receivers didn’t do him any favors by dropping passes, but he rebounded to pick up his 10th come-from-behind victory in just 24 NFL games. All three of Luck’s touchdown passes were to second-year receiver T.Y. Hilton, who said he had to step up in Wayne’s absence. Luck was only 3-of-12 for 56 yards in the first half. He responded by going 15-of-28 for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. Hilton finished with seven catches for 121 yards.
Stock watch: Texans receiver Andre Johnson had his way against the Colts' secondary in the first half. Vontae Davis, Cassius Vaughn, Antoine Bethea and Darrius Butler all were burned by Johnson at one point in the half. Johnson had seven catches for 190 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. The Colts did a better job on Johnson in the second half, when he had two catches for 25 yards.
Special teams experience: It was interesting first half on special teams for the Colts. Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt blocked Adam Vinatieri's 42-yard field. D.J. Swearinger picked up the loose ball and ran it back 37 yards before Pat McAfee made the touchdown-saving tackle. McAfee dropped the snap on a punt two series later, gathered the ball, eluded the defender and got the ball off for a 55-yard punt. The play ended up not counting because the Colts had an ineligible player down field. It’s not over yet. McAfee managed to get the punt off on the next play despite Bryan Braman running into him. Replays showed the officials missed a roughing the kicker penalty on the play, because Braman didn’t touch the ball on the play. The Colts thought they recovered a Keshawn Martin fumble on a kickoff, but the play was reversed because the officials ruled that LaVon Brazill was out of bounds.
What’s next: The Colts return home to host the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 10.
It could have been a miserable week for both units, but the first-team offense finally showed signs it’s getting on track in Saturday night's 27-14 preseason loss to the Houston Texans. It took until the sixth preseason possession, but the first-team offense scored its first touchdown.
Even before that, the Saints looked good on their first two drives. But the first drive ended with Drew Brees getting hit and fumbling in the red zone. Brees completed 7 of 14 passes for 109 yards and the first offense moved the ball well after struggling in last week’s preseason debut.
The first-team defense didn’t have nearly as much success. The Texans scored 17 points against New Orleans’ starting defense. That was a big switch from last week when the defense was dominant against San Francisco.
Although the humidity in Oxnard should be much lower than Louisiana, fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams probably won’t notice the difference. He’s going to be looking to fix a lot of things -- and probably won't be in the best of moods -- after Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson made his defense look bad.
Some other observations on the Saints.
- I liked the way Sean Payton mixed the playing time for running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles with the first-team offense. All three made contributions and Ingram scored the lone touchdown for the first offense on a powerful 1-yard run.
- Zach Strief got the start at right tackle after the Saints released former starter Jon Stinchcomb. But Charles Brown also got some playing time and the Saints will soon have to make a decision on which of the two young tackles they want to start. On the Saints’ television broadcast, general manager Mickey Loomis said the team likes both Brown and Strief and “there’s no bad choice’’ for the starting job.
- Joseph Morgan, an undrafted rookie from Walsh College, continues to be one of the biggest surprises of the preseason. Right after Brees and the starters left, backup quarterback Chase Daniel hit Morgan on a 56-yard touchdown pass. Morgan returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason opener and is making a strong case for a roster spot.
- With free safety Malcolm Jenkins sitting out, Paul Oliver got the start. Things didn’t go well for him. He was beaten in coverage several times and missed an open-field tackle on Foster.
- Jonathan Casillas got the start over Scott Shanle at weak-side linebacker. Casillas was active, but maybe a little too eager to make a big impression. He got flagged for an unnecessary-roughness penalty for a late hit.
- The Saints have a crowded backfield, but there might be room for Patrick Cobbs, who was signed this week. He looked good as a runner and receiver late in the game. He's also got a track record as a strong special-teams player.
White finished third overall, despite the fact that AFC West colleague Bill Williamson and I each voted White as the league’s top receiver. The rest of the voters didn’t see it that way, and Houston’s Andre Johnson finished No. 1 overall.
The rest of the NFC South receivers didn’t get much attention. New Orleans’ Marques Colston received just one vote and that came from me. I honestly believe Colston is underrated. His numbers aren’t spectacular because the Saints spread the ball around so much.
I considered voting for Tampa Bay’s Mike Williams and Carolina’s Steve Smith. But let’s see if Williams can follow up a strong rookie season with another big year before we go putting him among the league’s elite. Speaking of elite, there was a time when Smith belonged in any conversation about elite receivers. But that time is not now.
I don’t think Smith is slowing down due to age. I think he simply has been stuck in a bad offense with horrible quarterback play. If new Carolina coach Ron Rivera and Rob Chudzinski can just get some decent play at quarterback, Smith can jump back to an elite level.
- The Saints reached the 10-win mark for the second straight year. The last time New Orleans had back-to-back seasons of double-digit wins was in 1991-92.
- The Saints have scored 30 or more points in five consecutive games for the second time in franchise history. The only other instance was from Oct. 6 through Nov. 10, 2002, when New Orleans topped the 30-point mark against Pittsburgh (32), Washington (43), San Francisco (35), Atlanta (35) and Carolina (34). Yep, the good, old Aaron Brooks days.
- New Orleans’ Drew Brees has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 24 consecutive regular-season games, dating back to Week 4 of last season.
- New Orleans safety Roman Harper forced his team-leading fifth fumble of the season in the first quarter Sunday. Harper is tied for fourth in the NFL in forced fumbles. He has 11 forced fumbles in his five-year NFL career. Harper also had a quarterback sack.
- Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman led the seventh fourth-quarter/overtime comeback victory of his career, five of which have come this season. He finished 15-of-25 for 266 yards, including a game-winning 41-yard touchdown strike to Kellen Winslow with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter. Freeman also added another 10 yards on the ground and a two-point conversion which gave the Buccaneers a seven-point lead. In the second half alone, Freeman was 11-for-16 for 214 yards and the score. With the 27th passing touchdown of his career, he passed Shaun King (26 from 1999-03) for the eighth-most passing touchdowns in team history.
- Tampa Bay rookie Arrelious Benn caught four passes for 122 yards. It marked the first 100-yard receiving game of his career.
- The Bucs are 7-2 in their last nine road games.
- The Bucs averaged 7.0 yards per play against Washington. It was the first time all season the Bucs have averaged at least 7.0 yards per play.
- For the second time in the past three seasons, the Falcons have posted 11 wins in a season. It is the first time in franchise history that the team has posted three straight winning seasons and 11 wins are tied for the third most in a single season in franchise history. The Falcons posted a franchise-best 14-2 record in 1998, went 12-4 in 1980 and posted 11-5 seasons in 2004 and 2008.
- Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan tied his career-high with his 22nd touchdown pass of the season. The third-year pro has thrown at least one touchdown pass in a career-best 12 consecutive games, and the Falcons own a 28-7 record when he finds a man in the end zone at least once. Since 2008, Ryan’s 60 touchdowns rank fifth in the NFC.
- The Falcons are the first NFC team with a 3,000-yard passer (Ryan), a 1,000-yard rusher (Michael Turner) and a 1,000-yard receiver (WR Roddy White) this season. The Houston Texans (Matt Schaub, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson) are the only other team to accomplish that feat in 2010.
- Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant has made 13 straight field goal attempts.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Since I wasn't able to watch the Saints against the Texans, I asked for your help. I asked those of you would could catch the game to send in your observations and you did. There were dozens of scouting reports in my mailbag. We can't run them all, but I picked some that seemed to represent the thoughts of many of you. Thanks to all who helped out.
Paul in Lafayette, La., writes: Observations on Saints-Texans game: You can write Mike Bell's name in permanent ink on the roster. The defense did a good job making adjustments. Both first- and second- team defenses allowed a TD on the first series but no point after that. The Saints have forced three turnovers in each of their two preseason games. That's a big change in New Orleans. Rod Harper is going to make it tough for the coaching staff to decide who becomes the Saints' sixth receiver. The goal line offense needs work. The Saints failed to convert on their first two opportunities from within the 10-yard line. P.J. Hill ended the drought with a two-yard run. Porter and Greer hold Andre Johnson to less than 10 yards per catch. Harrington did a decent job running the two minute offense (45 yards in 1:46 and got a field goal).Buck Ortega might only make this team if the Saints keep four tight ends. He hasn't had the best camp and failed to get out of bounds during the two-minute drill.
Archie in St. Bernard, La., writes: I thought the Saints played well. They struggled with penalties on special teams but they will fix that. I was really impressed with our running game. Mike bell had 100 yards rushing and a TD on only 10 carries, he stood out among all the rest. I felt that our D did good considering that we were in our base package throughout pretty much the entire game. Our dbs and lbs got after the football and created turnovers. We did let a few big plays happen but there offense was ranked 3rd overall last year and we were at their house. Our run defense was solid. We got some pressure on the QB, although I would like to see more sacks. Over all I give the Saints a B-. They could have done better. But it still was a very good performance. There is one problem though, we have to many talented wrs. Colston, Moore, Meachem, Henderson, and Arrington should make the final roster but that still leaves Courtney Roby who has been great in camp and returning kicks, and then there is Rod Harper who came out of nowhere during the offseason and has been very impressive in the preseason games. I know I'm still missing a few names but those 7 can all help out a lot. Is there any way at all that the Saints keep 7 wrs on the final roster? Or am I just kidding myself?
Cory in Baton Rouge, La., writes: About scouting on the saints-texans game:Rod Harper is making a case to the Saints organization. In the first preseason game he was as electric as someone from the af2 can look like in the nfl. And here again in the second preseason game he was a very interesting player to watch, returning a punt for a touchdown. I know this is the preseason and therefore there were limited personnel on the field but with some time and coaching he could be another coslton/moore diamond-in-the-ruff.In other news, Anthony Hargrove continues to make a statement and will, WILL, push Charles Grant eventually for the starting job. While he looked a little rough with the penalties, he is showing his talent and relentlessness. No wonder the coaches are high on him.Finally, we see adrian arrington make some very nice catches in this second game. This receiver group is deep but very talented. It will be interesting to see who is let go, especially considering the depth needed/wanted for the defensive backs and the safeties.
Benjamin in New Orleans writes: I found it incredible how dominate both of our lines were. Save for the first and part of the second drive the run, the offensive line blocked fantastic for the run and the pass.Obviously Mike Bell had a huge game for us, and those weren't just padded stats against a second team Houston defense. Bell ran with authority behind a line that blocked well all night.The turnovers the Saints have managed to produce to is remarkable. The attitude the defense was lacking last season came full force against the Texans.It's preseason and a bit early for jubilation and claiming all our woes bygone, but if the Saints have truly found the answer to their lack of defensive production and a solid run blocking line to give holes to our backs I don't see any team that we don't match-up well with.
Troy in New Orleans writes: Several serious observations: Never get excited about a pre-season game. Saints running game on track. Thomas ran well, Bell 10 carries, 100 yards. Saints against the run also on track: 35 yards rushing at the end of three. Not much more in the fourth. The Gregg Williams effect: three more decisive and timely turnovers. Robert Meachem: Most Improved player in NFL. Adrian Arrington: Watch out for him too .Did you notice: Joey Harrington looked effective with the ones, but when he went out, the threes had an immediate and unmistakable boost with Brunell.
|Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky
The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.
After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.
The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?
In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.
|Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.|
THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR
Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.
Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.
Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.
Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.|
Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.
Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.
THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS
Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.
Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.
|Matt Stamey/US Presswire|
|The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.|
Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton is
widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.
Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.
Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.
Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.
Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.
Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.
Steve Smith was suspended for the first two games of the season and had two others where quarterback Jake Delhomme threw for 72 yards (at Oakland) and 102 yards (vs. Detroit). Throw out those four games and Carolina receiver Steve Smith was almost a lock to get 100 receiving yards whenever he stepped on the field.
Smith tied (with Andre Johnson) for the league lead with eight 100-yard games. Atlanta's Roddy White tied for third with seven 100-yard games and Tampa Bay's Antonio Bryant was fifth with six 100-yard games.
Here's a look at the league leaders: