NFC South: Cameron Jordan

One of the most popular questions I get asked about the New Orleans Saints year in and year out is who might have a “breakout year.” This year, the answer is easy:

Defensive end Akiem Hicks.

But I’m hardly the only one who sees that potential in the third-year pro who started to break out last year in his first full year as a starter with 4.5 sacks and 56 tackles.

Fellow Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan raved about Hicks on Tuesday, calling him a “monster” in the most flattering way possible.

“Akiem is a monster. That dude is a monster,” Jordan said, according to The Times-Picayune while the two young defensive ends attended a community face lift at the NFL Yet Center in New Orleans. “I’m usually big towards a lot of people, and he makes me feel regular. Which makes regular people feel small?”

The Advocate also wrote Tuesday about Hicks’ potential for a breakout year.

Applauding NBA’s decision: Jordan and Hicks both applauded the bold decision made by NBA commissioner Adam Silver to ban Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life on Tuesday -- and the support for that decision that was shown by Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson. Sterling was punished severely after the NBA said he acknowledged making racist comments.

"It's kind of what I expected from our organization because of the way I've been treated since I've been here and the way I see our organization handle business," Hicks said, according to The Times-Picayune. "It's something that was expected from our organization. So it's nice to see."

Meanwhile, Saints running back Mark Ingram took to Twitter to show his appreciation for the decision:

 

Moore adjusting in Pittsburgh: ESPN.com’s Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown talked with former Saints receiver Lance Moore about how he’s adjusting to catching passes from new quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- whom Moore said has a stronger arm than Drew Brees.

He certainly wasn’t being critical of Brees. Moore admitted that it was “scary” for him to leave his prolific partnership with Brees in New Orleans and added, “I count my blessings every day to be able to play with somebody like a Brees or a Roethlisberger.”

Latest mock drafts: ESPN NFL draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay rolled out their latest mock drafts on Tuesday in these posts that require Insider access. Kiper stuck with Insider Indiana receiver Cody Latimer for the Saints at No. 27 in Round 1. McShay made a slight adjustment Insider with a new cornerback, this time going with Ohio State’s Bradley Roby. Click on the links for the expanded thoughts on the picks.

Rogers, Williams give back: Former Saints running backs George Rogers and Ricky Williams were among a star-studded collection of former Heisman trophy winners who got together over the weekend to build a new home for Habitat for Humanity and lead a football clinic for underprivileged childern in the Dallas area.
New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan expects to see a much improved Atlanta Falcons team when the two longtime NFC South rivals meet in Week 1 this season at Atlanta.

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But Jordan, who is known for being the biggest wise-cracker in the Saints’ locker room, couldn’t resist throwing a jab at a Falcons offensive line that was much maligned in 2013.

“[Receiver Julio Jones] will be back healthy, and that’s always a steamroller you have to worry about,” Jordan said, according to The Times-Picayune. “I’m sure they did something with their O-line, hopefully. I don’t know if you could call that an O-line last year. Roadblocks. Speed bumps.”

Indeed, the Falcons have made their offensive line one of their biggest offseason priorities – perhaps inspired by the 2.5 sacks Jordan had against them in their Week 12 matchup last year. Atlanta added new line coach Mike Tice and new linemen Jon Asamoah and Gabe Carimi while preaching the importance of becoming stronger and more physical up front.

As for Jordan and the Saints’ defensive front, it’s hard to imagine them performing much better than they did last year under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

But Jordan said he’s fired up about building off of his breakout season, which led to 12.5 sacks and his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Jordan pointed out that he has had five different defensive coordinators over the past five years, dating back to his college days at Cal.

“I’m so comfortable with the uncomfortable,” said Jordan, who spoke with reporters while visiting Morris Jeff Community School on Thursday. “I don’t even know how to retain information anymore. It’s going to be nice to just get back and say, ‘Oh yeah, we did run this defense last year.’ There’s actually familiarity to it. …

“I’ve just been focused on trying to perform for my team and put us in the best position to be a winning team. That’s just what’s really important to me, trying to get a Super Bowl ring. I don’t have one. Some of the other guys do. I’m sort of jealous.”
The New Orleans Saints' players are officially back to work for the start of the 2014 season. Monday marks the beginning of the team's offseason conditioning program.

Participation is optional and limited to strength and conditioning activities. Typically the full squad will get together for a team meeting on the first day.

The morning chatter on Twitter had a "first day of school" feel to it:

 

On-field practice sessions are scheduled to begin the week of May 27 and last through June 19. The team's mandatory three-day minicamp is scheduled for June 10-12.

The Saints have not yet announced their starting date for training camp, which will begin at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia sometime in late July.
The New Orleans Saints have to decide by May 3 whether they want to extend the contracts of their 2011 first-round draft picks -- defensive end Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram -- through the 2015 season.

Jordan’s extension is expected to cost $6.969 million for 2015 and Ingram’s $5.211 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider John Clayton, who wrote about the looming fifth-year extensions around the league.

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This is the first year that these fifth-year extensions will kick in after they were added to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement in 2011. And as Clayton pointed out, that 2011 draft class happened to be one of the best in years.

Therefore, several teams are expected to retain their players -- which will put a dent in the talent available in next year’s free agency class around the league.

Extending Jordan is a no-brainer for the Saints. He was a first-time Pro Bowler last year in a breakout season with 12.5 sacks. He is arguably the Saints’ top defensive player as he heads into his fourth NFL season. And he doesn’t turn 25 until July.

Ingram is less likely to be extended at that price – even though the Saints remain high on his future and could consider re-signing him to a more affordable extension.

Ingram, 24, finished strong last season with an impressive performance in the playoffs. And his role in the Saints’ backfield could increase slightly this year now that the Saints have traded away veteran Darren Sproles. However, Ingram will still be in a timeshare with fellow running backs Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson.

Too early to draft Brees’ successor: Also in Clayton’s mailbag, he said it’s still too early for the Saints to draft a successor for quarterback Drew Brees. I completely agree -- as I’ve written several times this offseason. I expect Brees to keep playing at a high level for at least three or four more years.
Much has been made of how the New Orleans Saints are pushing millions of dollars in salary-cap costs into future years. And it's true -- the Saints will again be feeling the pressure of a tight cap squeeze in 2015.

But a closer look at the numbers shows the Saints will be in about the same position in 2015 that they were in this year. And the two years before that.

Not better. But not worse.

And after what we've seen over the past three offseasons, does anyone doubt the Saints' ability to live on the edge of the salary cap?

It helps quite a bit that the NFL's cap is expected to keep soaring. This year, the cap rose from $123 million to $133 million for every NFL team. And analysts project similar increases during the next two years as the revenues from recent TV deals kick in.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe cap hit for Drew Brees will increase from $18.4 million in 2014 to $26.4 million in 2015.
As of today, the Saints have a total of 39 players under contract for 2015 at a combined salary-cap cost of $124.7 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, that doesn't include any figures for tight end Jimmy Graham or defensive end Cameron Jordan. Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract this offseason, while the Saints are expected to lock up Jordan later this spring with a one-year option for 2015 (see below).

Those new deals should push the Saints' 2015 cap costs closer to $140 million for 41 players. And that projection will continue to rise as the Saints sign more players or restructure more contracts. Remember, a team's salary cap figure during the offseason includes its top 51 salaries. So even 10 minimum contracts would raise that number to $145 million by the start of the 2015 league year.

So the Saints will have to find more creative solutions to get back under the cap again next offseason. But there is no sense of impending doom or disaster. Just more of what we've been seeing in recent years.

Here's a breakdown of some of the more interesting cap issues facing the Saints in 2015 and beyond:

The big leaps: Two contracts will have huge salary-cap increases in 2015 -- quarterback Drew Brees and newly-signed safety Jairus Byrd. Brees' cap cost will go from $18.4 million this year to $26.4 million next year (because his salary and bonuses will increase from $11 million to $19 million). And Byrd's cap cost will go from $3.5 million to $10.3 million (largely due to a $6 million roster bonus).

Free agents: The good news for the Saints is that most of their core players are already under contract through 2015 (once they get those new deals in place for Graham and Jordan, that is). Other than those two, the top players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next year are running back Mark Ingram, linebacker Victor Butler, safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Patrick Robinson.

Graham is expected to sign a long-term contract at some point that should average at least $10 million per year, likely with lower cap costs in the early years. (NOTE: Graham is already counting $7.05 million against the Saints' cap this year because of his franchise tag, so a new deal wouldn't affect the 2014 cap much.)

As for Jordan, the Saints are expected to exercise a fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive end this spring that will likely cost somewhere between $6 and $8.5 million for a one-year deal in 2015. If they exercise that option, Jordan can't become a free agent until 2016.

Big decisions: Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are both scheduled to receive big roster bonuses in 2015 that could force the Saints to make a decision on their status. Lofton has a roster bonus of $4.5 million due in 2015, plus another $2.5 million in salary and workout bonuses. If he continues at his current level, Lofton could well be worth a total of $7 million. But his contract was clearly designed for that to be a “prove it” clause. Hawthorne, likewise, is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in 2015, plus $2 million in salary.

Smaller bounces: The other cap jumps in 2015 are more modest. Marques Colston, Keenan Lewis, Zach Strief and Pierre Thomas are all scheduled for increases between $1 million and $1.4 million. No one else on the roster is scheduled to go up by more than $500,000.

Raising the dead: If you're wondering why the Saints' total cap figure for 2015 isn't higher, remember that they don't have any “dead money” counting against their 2015 cap yet. This year, the Saints have nearly $13.8 million in “dead money” counting against their cap from the pro-rated signing bonuses of veterans that were released before the end of their contracts (Will Smith, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore, Garrett Hartley, etc.).
The New Orleans Saints' Pro Bowlers made the most out of their Hawaiian vacation on Sunday night when they wound up on the winning side of the NFL's annual all-star game.

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All five Saints Pro Bowlers (quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cameron Jordan) started for Team Rice, which came back in the final minute to beat Team Sanders, 22-21.

Brees threw an 8-yard touchdown pass to Graham in the second quarter to help the cause. Brees floated up a jump ball for his go-to guy, and Graham went up in front of Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes to snag it. Graham then finished with his trademark dunk over the goal post, even though San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle tried to contest it (who says these guys aren't trying?)

Earlier, however, Brees threw an interception in the end zone while targeting Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The pass was tipped by Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis and picked by Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry.

At least he wasn't alone. There was a total of six interceptions and eight turnovers in the game.

Brees left the game after his touchdown pass and finished 9-of-19 for 81 yards. Graham caught five passes for 51 yards. Jordan later added a sack against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for a 13-yard loss and got a hit on Newton that forced an incomplete pass.
It helps to have friends in high places. All five New Orleans Saints Pro Bowlers will play for the same team on Sunday night after Saints quarterback Drew Brees helped hand-pick his own roster during the two-night draft. Brees was a co-captain for “Team Rice,” led by Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.

Brees said Rice allowed him to make the first pick for their team on Wednesday night, which he used on tight end Jimmy Graham (the second overall pick Wednesday behind Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck).

“That’s my guy, and I knew he wouldn’t disappoint me,” Graham said during the NFL Network telecast.

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan joined Team Rice about an hour later. And Saints guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs were selected by Brees on Tuesday night.

The NFL made several tweaks to the Pro Bowl format this year to try and drum up interest in the annual All-Star game – including the way rosters were chosen via “schoolyard draft” instead of by conference. But the Saints wound up playing together anyway, so there is no added intrigue when it comes to them competing against one another.
There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints' defense in their 23-15 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They held Seattle to 277 yards, 103 passing yards and just 13 first downs. I was particularly impressed by defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Roman Harper (more on them later).

However, I have to start this season's final film study with what went wrong on Marshawn Lynch's two long touchdown runs -- which ultimately sealed the Saints' fate for the 2013 season:

Beast Quake, the Sequel: Lynch's 31-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game in the final minutes was awfully reminiscent of his legendary 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run against the Saints three years ago. The only differences were that this time Lynch cut back around the left end instead of cutting inside to the right, and this time he only made one defensive back (Keenan Lewis) look silly in the open field.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch, Keenan Lewis
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints weren't able to contain Marshawn Lynch when they had to in the fourth quarter.
In the Saints' defense, they couldn't afford to give up any more ground to Seattle in that situation (down by 8, 2:48 remaining, no timeouts left and the Seahawks entering field goal range). So they probably sold out more than they should have to try to stuff Lynch for a loss or no gain. The Seahawks were in a jumbo package, and the Saints had 10 men in the box. Jordan actually got great penetration up the middle, forcing Lynch to cut outside to the left. But Lynch's cutback was nasty, and it gave him tons of open space since linebacker David Hawthorne, safety Malcolm Jenkins and Lewis had all cheated toward the inside.

Seattle's blocking was huge, too. Tight end Zach Miller stood up outside linebacker Junior Galette at the line of scrimmage. And receiver Jermaine Kearse took out Jenkins with a perfectly executed crack-back block. Lewis eventually caught up with Lynch around the 14-yard line, but he didn't have a great angle, and Lynch didn't budge as he easily batted away Lewis with a stiff-arm.

More Lynch: The Saints did a nice job against Lynch at times, but he burned them often enough as he racked up 140 yards on 28 carries. Lynch's first big highlight was a 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. This time, the Seahawks were in more of a passing formation, and the Saints were in their nickel defense. But the result was the same when Lynch used another nasty cutback to the right side to make several Saints defenders over-pursue (including Hawthorne, cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush). Harper then missed a tackle from the side near the end of the run.

Lynch made just about every Saints defender look foolish at least once. He's known for his power, but his speed on those cutbacks was even more impressive in this game. Hawthorne, Jenkins, Galette and Akiem Hicks each whiffed on him once in the open field (Hicks and Galette on the same play in the fourth quarter).

Jump balls: The other play that stood out as an absolute killer for the Saints was receiver Doug Baldwin's 24-yard catch on third-and-3 on the play right before Lynch's last touchdown. The Saints' defense had been completely shutting down Seattle's offense throughout the entire second half. But on this play, Wilson essentially tossed one up for grabs, and Baldwin went up and got it over White. Baldwin then made a fantastic effort to hang on to the ball and stay in bounds as White tried to jar the ball loose.

White's coverage was decent, but he was a step behind after jamming Baldwin off the line of scrimmage. So Baldwin had the chance to turn and locate the ball, while White did not. Wilson completed an almost-identical jump-ball pass to receiver Percy Harvin against White for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first half, which led to a field goal.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Harry How/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin was shaken up after a collision with Rafael Bush. Harvin would eventually leave the game with a concussion after another rough hit.
Big shots: Another big passing play for the Seahawks came on their opening drive, when Saints safety Bush was flagged for unnecessary roughness against Harvin while breaking up a third-down pass. It was the right call, since their helmets collided at full speed. But it was a tough break since Bush was leading with his shoulder and Harvin appeared to crouch down into the hit as he braced for impact. That's the risk that safeties like Bush take in today's NFL, though, when they launch above the strike zone.

Harvin later had to leave the game after another brutal hit when his head struck the ground after an incomplete pass in the end zone. This time the Saints weren't penalized, though. Safety Jenkins came over and shoved Harvin as he was coming down, but Jenkins appeared to ease up a bit and led with his hands. Their helmets never made contact.

Wilson's best: Wilson didn't have a great game, but he showed off what makes him so dangerous on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On second-and-15, he scrambled away from pressure. And just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage, he tossed a pass to wide-open receiver Kearse for a 25-yard gain. It was exactly the kind of play that Saints defenders had warned about before both meetings with Seattle this year, but Lewis and Hawthorne both got burned by abandoning their coverage to run up toward Wilson.

It can be a no-win situation for a defense, though. Because on the next play Wilson appeared to be in even more trouble deep in the pocket, but he scrambled free and turned on the jets for a 7-yard gain.

Jordan sensational: Jordan had a lot of monster performances this year, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. But this one ranks up there with his best. He was outstanding all game long, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. At different points, he chased down both Wilson and Lynch in the open field (earning a 0-yard sack on the play against Wilson and stuffing Lynch for a 4-yard loss). He stood up tight end Miller to force no gain by running back Robert Turbin. He forced a holding penalty on another run play. And he pressured Wilson into at least two key incomplete passes, among other highlights.

Two of the plays mentioned above (a forced incompletion and the sack) came on back-to-back plays inside New Orleans' 10-yard line, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal.

Harper's best for last? Harper's future with the Saints is in doubt since the 31-year-old has become more of a part-time player, and he is due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses. But as I've written in the past, I wouldn't be shocked to see him come back at a reduced rate. And Saturday's performance against the Seahawks makes that possibility even more attractive. Harper had probably his best performance of the season, flying around as fast and aggressively as he did in his Pro Bowl prime.

Among his highlights: blowing up left tackle Russell Okung to disrupt Lynch and force a 2-yard loss on third-and-6 in the third quarter; chasing down Wilson in the open field and pulling him down by his shoulder (narrowly avoiding a horse-collar penalty) for an 8-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter; crashing down on Harvin after a quick out pass for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter; and sticking Baldwin in the open field for a 6-yard gain on third-and-9 in the first quarter.

Other highlights: That goal-line stand in the second quarter started with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But the entire Saints defense swallowed up Lynch for a 5-yard loss -- starting with safety Jenkins and followed by Hicks and Jordan. … Defensive tackle John Jenkins was credited with a sack when he snagged Wilson as he tried to scramble up the middle. … Lewis had a nice pass break-up against receiver Golden Tate on a third-and-2 stop in the fourth quarter. … Linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley also stood out on a handful of solid run stops and pressures.

Graham named first-team All-Pro

January, 3, 2014
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New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was named a first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press on Friday in a nearly-unanimous vote. He received 49 of 50 votes. Guard Jahri Evans was named to the second team.

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There was no second-team quarterback since first-teamer Peyton Manning received all 50 votes. Otherwise, Saints quarterback Drew Brees would have had a great shot at that honor.

I don’t have any real quibbles with the Saints’ representation on the team. Defensive end Cameron Jordan would have been a worthy top-four choice, but there is a ton of talent at his position (J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, Mario Williams and Greg Hardy).

Graham was an obvious selection, leading all NFL players with 16 touchdown receptions this year and leading all tight ends with 86 receptions and 1,215 receiving yards.

Evans’ name recognition probably helped him secure a spot on the second team, after he was a first-teamer in each of the past four years. But he also earned his spot with a strong second half of the season after battling injuries early in the year. Although the Saints’ line had some overall pass protection issues, Evans continued to be solid in that area, as well as versatile in his run blocking and getting out in front of screen passes.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

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

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

METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints were well represented with five Pro Bowl selections: quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Jordan is the only first-timer of the bunch, and his selection was well-deserved during a breakout season. The third-year pro has 12.5 sacks, which ranks fourth in the NFL. And he has arguably been the MVP of the defense, which has undergone a remarkable makeover this year.

Earlier Friday, Jordan admitted he was excited about the idea of being selected to his first Pro Bowl – but said he’d rather skip it in favor of a trip to his first Super Bowl.

“To make it would be a pretty good thing -- I can't lie. It'd be a nice thing to say I popped into Hawaii,” Jordan said. “But the ideal situation is I'd rather be freezing in New York than being lei'd in Hawaii."

The biggest snub on the list, in my opinion, is cornerback Keenan Lewis, who has been every bit as important to the defensive resurgence as Jordan. Lewis, who arrived as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers, has been a true No. 1 corner, being matched up weekly against the opponent’s top receiver in man coverage. And he’s a huge reason why the Saints have gone from 31st in the NFL in pass defense last year to second this year.

As I wrote earlier, however, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Lewis left out since he hasn’t gotten much national recognition this year, and since there are so many big names at the position. The same goes for outside linebacker Junior Galette, who also missed the cut despite 10 sacks this year.

Brees and Graham are no-brainer selections, putting up monster numbers as usual this season.

Evans and Grubbs were bigger question marks heading into Friday’s announcement, since they both battled some inconsistency during the first half of the season for an offensive line that is having a down year overall. But they are both well-established veterans and former Pro Bowlers who get to flash a lot of versatility for one of the NFL’s top offenses. They’re excellent in pass protection, athletic enough to get out in front of screen passes and solid as run blockers.

This year’s Pro Bowl was the first under a new format where players are selected regardless of their conference. And teams will be picked via a “schoolyard” draft by team captains in January. That means Jordan might be trying to get past Evans and Grubbs to sack Brees in the game -- assuming they’re not all in New York together that week.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.
Vincent Jackson and Cameron JordanGetty ImagesVincent Jackson and the Bucs would love to keep Cameron Jordan's Saints out of the playoffs.

Technically, Sunday’s regular-season finale between the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers is meaningful for only one team.

The Saints (10-5) haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, and they still have an outside shot at the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Coach Sean Payton and players have said they plan to treat this like a playoff game. And they certainly need to get some momentum back after back-to-back losses at St. Louis and Carolina have threatened to derail their playoff hopes.

However, the Buccaneers (4-11) would love to end their season on a high note by playing spoiler against their NFC South rivals inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Bucs have a history of doing that, with December wins at New Orleans in 2009 and 2010.

ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup.

Triplett: Tell me what kind of effort you expect from the Bucs in this one. Are they still passionate about winning this late in the season? Fired up about the chance to possibly keep New Orleans out of the playoffs? Fighting for coach Greg Schiano's job?

Yasinskas: Mike, the one thing the Bucs haven't done this season is quit. Even during the 0-8 start, the effort was still there. I don't know that the players are playing to try to save Schiano's job as much as they are simply playing for pride. I have no doubt they'll show up on Sunday. The Bucs aren't big fans of the Saints, and they'd love to play the role of spoiler. That said, I don't know that the Bucs can hang with the Saints in the Superdome.

Do you think the Saints will be playing with anger because they're in this position?

Triplett: It's hard to guess what kind of emotions will be most prevalent. There could be anger. There could be determination, knowing they can't afford another loss. Or there could be a deflated feeling, since they never expected to be in this position. One way or another, though, they'll have to figure out a way to channel those emotions. As receiver Lance Moore said, if the Saints can't bring their best effort to this game, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs. And it obviously helps that they'll be back in the Superdome, where they're 7-0 this season -- often dominating opponents.

How do you think Mike Glennon will handle that dome atmosphere? Has he reached that stage yet where people like to say he's "not a rookie anymore"?

Yasinskas: About a month ago, people were starting to say Glennon didn't look like a rookie. But that's changed in recent weeks. He has had some rookie moments in the past four games and his numbers have dipped. I don't think Glennon is regressing. I think he just ran into some good defenses and struggled against them, and he has received no help from the running game. The deck would seem to be stacked against him coming into the Superdome against a New Orleans team with a lot on the line.

Mike, tell me about the New Orleans defense. Before you joined us and I was still covering the whole NFC South, I visited Saints camp this summer and had very real doubts that they had the right personnel to run Rob Ryan's defense. As it turns out, this is a very good defense. Why has Ryan's defense worked so well?

Triplett: How could you not have seen this coming?! Obviously, you're right -- the Saints' defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season, especially considering all the injuries you witnessed in summer camps. The success is due to a combination of Ryan's coaching and talent emerging. End Cameron Jordan is having a bona fide Pro Bowl season as a power rusher. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a true No. 1 corner who was a great pickup in free agency. Outside linebacker Junior Galette, end Akiem Hicks and safety Kenny Vaccaro are young players who have emerged (though Vaccaro is now out for the season).

But Ryan deserves a ton of the credit. He's creative and adaptable, switching from a true 3-4 defense to build around his best players. And he mixes things up from week to week and even snap to snap. Players love that, because they're all involved in certain packages. And they love his personality and attitude, saying he has made the game "fun."

Tell me about the evolution of the Bucs' defense. I thought they lived up to the hype when I saw them give the Saints all they could handle in Week 2 (with both legal and illegal hits). How are they playing heading into this game?

Yasinskas: The defense is the least of Tampa Bay's problems. An anemic offense is what held Tampa Bay back all season. Overall, the defense has played very well.

After finishing last in the NFL against the pass last year, the Bucs went out and got cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson, and they have made the secondary respectable. But I think the two best players on this defense are in the front seven. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy are having huge seasons. These guys have what it takes to be Pro Bowl regulars, and this defense should only keep getting better. Still, facing the Saints in the dome is a tough task for any defense.

The thing I've always admired about Drew Brees and Sean Payton is how much they spread the ball around. How have the receivers beyond Marques Colston and Moore panned out this season?

Triplett: The Saints' receivers have actually been more up and down this year than at any other time in the Payton-Brees era. At times, Colston and rookie Kenny Stills have had some big moments, and Stills looks like a great find who has actually supplanted Moore as the Saints' No. 2 receiver. And the Saints still have good depth with Moore and Robert Meachem. But they rely most on tight end Jimmy Graham and backs Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles in the passing game.

Some defenses have done a good job of getting physical with the Saints' receivers and Graham downfield (including Carolina last week) -- which is the best way to slow down New Orleans' offense. But all bets are off inside the dome. Almost all of those quiet receiving days came on the road.

Double Coverage: Saints at Rams

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
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Drew Brees and Zac StacyGetty Images, USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and the Saints are piling up numbers, but Zac Stacy and the Rams may give them trouble.

While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.

The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.

In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.

Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?

Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).

There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.

Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?

Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.

As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.

One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?

Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).

I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.

Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?

Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.

But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.

While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?

Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.

Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?

Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

December, 11, 2013
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What an impressive turnaround for the New Orleans Saints' defense. During their 31-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, they seemed to correct all the mistakes that plagued them six days earlier at Seattle. They were much more disciplined, especially in pass coverage. They were both physical and fundamentally sound. And at times, they were dominant, with pass-rushers Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan combining for five sacks.

I wrote about the Saints' standout efforts in pass coverage on Tuesday. Here are some more observations after reviewing the tape:

[+] EnlargeCameron Jordan
AP Photo/Dave MartinCameron Jordan and Junior Galette combined to sack Cam Newton five times.
Down goes Newton: Galette got three of the sacks, and he also pressured Newton into an incomplete pass. Jordan got the other two sacks, and he also pressured Newton into two incomplete passes and forced an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty.

Both players were clearly outstanding, but it was also a group effort. Almost every sack came when Newton got stuck deep in the pocket. He couldn't find an open receiver because of the coverage and wasn't able to step up in the pocket because of a solid push up front or because of blitz pressure.

All five sacks came on third downs. The biggest of them all was Galette's sack on the Panthers' first drive, which forced them to settle for a field goal. And fittingly, Galette and Jordan worked together for that one. Galette shot past right tackle Byron Bell with a strong swat of his hands. That forced Newton to step up in the pocket -- but then Jordan came after him from the other side. So Newton ran back toward Galette, who brought him down.

Solo stops: I can't remember the last time I noticed so many impressive solo tackles by the Saints defense. The best was safety Malcolm Jenkins' hit against Newton on a read-option run that knocked him for a 2-yard loss inside the Saints' red zone. Fullback Mike Tolbert was heading out to block Jenkins, but Jenkins made him whiff when he knifed inside. Then Jenkins hit Newton around his knees to flip him up off the ground. That play ultimately led to Carolina settling for another field goal on its second possession.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis also made a terrific tackle against receiver Steve Smith for a 3-yard loss on a receiver screen in the second quarter. Lewis fought off a block attempt by receiver Brandon LaFell and practically shoved LaFell into Smith while making the tackle.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro made two nice open-field tackles. Linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson each made standout solo stops, as well.

Disciplined effort: Last week, the Saints' defense probably had more undisciplined breakdowns at Seattle than they had in the first 11 games combined -- in both pass coverage and run containment. This week was like night and day in both areas.

Galette -- who got burned by a couple run plays at Seattle -- did a very impressive job of staying home on the edge of the line during the Panthers' read-option plays. One time he snuffed out a short pass intended for DeAngelo Williams. Another time, he was so busy spying on Williams that he let Newton scramble for a 6-yard gain -- but it was still evident that he was doing his job.

Other times, the Saints clearly had a spy hovering back behind the line of scrimmage to keep Newton from running free (Lofton at least once and Hawthorne at least twice). Newton still managed to beat a couple blitzes with long scrambles (finishing with six runs for 48 yards). And Carolina's trio of running backs gained 80 yards on 17 carries. But the Saints were solid enough in that area -- much better than some previous nightmares against the Panthers.

Meanwhile, in pass coverage, the Saints repeatedly avoided the Panthers' attempts at pick plays. The best example came when Lewis and Vaccaro switched receivers on the fly near the goal line in the fourth quarter, and Vaccaro prevented Smith from catching a touchdown pass. Lewis also shoved off potential blocks from receivers twice to shut down short pass attempts. And in general, the Saints held up well in coverage throughout the game instead of overreacting to play-action fakes like they did against Seattle.

Conventional D: I'm interested to ask defensive coordinator Rob Ryan if he always planned to use his base defense against Carolina -- or if he decided after the Seattle game that he needed to go back to basics. The Saints actually opened up in a true 3-4 defense, with outside linebackers Galette and Haralson even standing up on the edges on second and third down (something they've rarely done this year). And they spent most of the game in their favored nickel package with three safeties on the field.

They did roll out a four-safety package at least once, on a third-and-6 -- but it didn't turn out well since the Panthers' blockers were able to clear a big hole for Tolbert on a 7-yard run.

Things that didn't work: The Saints' defense wasn't perfect, especially early when they allowed Carolina to convert 4 of its first 5 third-down attempts. Jordan and Haralson hesitated on the first third-down play, clearly leery of the read-option fakes, which allowed LaFell to get wide open for an 11-yard pass. Newton burned a blitz for a 19-yard run on third-and-6. Newton burned a three-man rush by eventually finding Smith open on a third-and-9. And Tolbert ran through that big hole mentioned above. ... The Saints ultimately played bend-but-don't-break on those first two drives, though, so it turned out OK.

The Saints should have pitched a touchdown shutout. But they finally let Carolina score on a fourth-and-17 play in the fourth quarter. The Saints only rushed three, which gave Newton time to scan the field, escape the pocket and find Smith in the end zone while throwing on the run (a hard strike that was easily his best throw of the night). Lewis was covering Smith, and he had decent position at first. But then he took his eyes off Newton once Smith reached the end zone and had his back turned when the ball showed up.

The Saints' special teams also had an ugly moment on Ted Ginn Jr.'s 32-yard punt return in the first quarter. The Panthers set nice blocks on Isa Abdul-Quddus and Travaris Cadet. Then Abdul-Quddus whiffed while trying to come back across and make a tackle. Then it looked like safety Roman Harper may have been blocked in the back while trying to make a tackle (either way, the block cleared him out of the way). Then linebacker Kevin Reddick ran into a blocker and linebacker Ramon Humber took too shallow of an angle. That left punter Thomas Morstead as the last line of defense -- and he did make the tackle, but he did it by wrapping his arm around Ginn's head and drawing a 15-yard penalty.

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