NFC South: Corey White


METAIRIE, La. -- One of the most frustrating examples of the lack of maturity and professionalism that so many New Orleans Saints veterans harped on this season was an inordinate amount of players showing up late to meetings or flights.

Though nobody was singled out individually, several players acknowledged Monday that there was an increase in fines for such things. At some point, coach Sean Payton even showed the team a chart illustrating that clubs with less team fines will often have more success.

"Look, all of those things become more heightened with losses," Payton said. "That wasn't unnecessarily higher than the norm. But there's an element to what has brought us success here. Success for a long period of time. And all of a sudden, when you have a season like this, you gotta look closely at, hey, let's make sure the little things are being taken care of. It's one of the topics we talked about in the team meeting."

Payton
Payton
Players insisted such indiscretions didn't reach the level of some of the issues being reported with young players being punished in Cleveland this past week. And players insisted that there were never any major concerns with a "poisonous" atmosphere in the locker room. In fact, offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "Considering the difficulty of the season, I thought the locker room stayed together really well."

But Strief said issues like that became very frustrating to him as a veteran leader who needs to police such things.

"I think the biggest problem is it wasn't taught that those things are not OK. It was assumed that you would know that," Strief said. "The perception sometimes from a young guy could be, 'Well, maybe being five minutes late didn't lose that game' -- which is true. But a bunch of guys with the mentality that the rules don't apply to them can lose that game. So that's why you talk about the 'little things.'"

"It's been higher this year than my first two years here. We had so many people late this year, guys late for planes. It's been so many issues with just basic stuff like showing up on time," said cornerback Corey White, who said he had never been fined himself. "Little things like that, I would hate to say that's the reason why we haven't had success on the field. But things like that you can control, you don't want to give 'em a reason to point to something out like that."

Payton and players have been equally frustrated with letting the "little things" slide on the field. Payton mentioned jumping offside on fourth-and-2 or losing the turnover battle in too many hard-fought games.

A few weeks ago, Payton's message to players was that they've become "that team" that they used to plan against, knowing they'd eventually beat themselves.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said that message also applied to the off-field issues.

"Coach Payton, we pride ourselves on being an organization that's not that organization," Vaccaro said. "You heard him say a couple weeks ago that we're 'that team' that's making those mistakes. Well, 'that team' he's talking about is doing things like [arriving] late to meetings, late to the planes, having rookies do this, rookies do that.

"You just don't hear about that with the Patriots, you don't hear about that junk with the Packers. And we're part of that group of a team that's built that culture. So we've just gotta get that out.

"Honestly, looking back on the season, those things, I don't think they determine the outcome of games. But at the same time, those little things are just stuff we didn't do last year. Last year, we didn't have any of that in this locker room. So you're gonna look to things like that when a season goes this poorly."

Though no specific instances were revealed, we do know of at least three player discipline issues that came up this season. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt was released by the team, reportedly because of missing or being late to meetings. Receiver Joe Morgan was suspended for two games for an unspecified team issue. And defensive tackle John Jenkins was left behind on a road trip for a game for an unspecified reason early in the year.

The good news, according to Strief, is that this should be "fixable stuff."

And as veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton said, a season like this will help drive home the point.

"One thing about football, what it does, it humbles you. So I think a lot of guys were humbled this year," Lofton said. "You've gotta do the things that put you in the position that got you here."

"Stay humble, stay hungry," White added. "That's the attitude we've gotta have next year."
METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team and has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts.

Stay tuned for his take on the Saints’ recent secondary shakeup and how they’ll match up with the Atlanta Falcons. Here are Greer’s thoughts on the leadership transition the secondary has gone through this season and how it has affected safety Kenny Vaccaro in particular:

“There's a huge transition, because what the men that were removed from that locker room (this past offseason) took was a culture. We had a sense of culture that was instilled during that 2009 championship season that we took long after that season was over. We knew how to hit, we taught everybody else how to tackle, the guys knew how to finish a play, how to intimidate and how to collectively weather the storm on the defensive side of the ball. And when all those guys who have had that culture are now gone, it’s up to the new guys who weren’t a part of that to create a new culture. And I think it’s been a process for them this year. There was a loss of leadership, but I think the biggest loss was the culture of accountability that we had for one another, especially in that secondary.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year safety Kenny Vaccaro was thrust into a leadership role that he may not have been ready for.
“We kept each other highly accountable, because I truly believe that Malcolm Jenkins knew what I was going to do, I knew what Roman Harper was going to do, we knew how to communicate with each other. I knew that on the sideline, if we were losing, Roman was going to be the guy that’s going to just calm us down. Malcolm was going to be the guy I really can’t talk to for a couple quarters. We understood that, and that formula worked for us. That formula worked for Kenny last year. That formula worked for Rafael Bush and Patrick Robinson, Corey White. We understood Corey was going to get in there and make a play, but then he was still young and he was going to make mistakes. We understood that, so we compensated and worked around that. Now all those guys right now are trying to find out who those guys are.

“You have to know your guys. You have to know their tendencies. I know that as soon as Patrick Robinson motions across, I have to make sure I get his attention, because he’s going to be locked in on his receiver. He can cover better than anybody in the league, but I know that when he’s coming across that I have to lock in and over-communicate with him. With Corey, I know he’s going to communicate with me. So it’s little things like that that I think as a secondary, they had a lot of questions to answer. Who was going to be that guy to step up and lead their pregame? Who was going to be that guy to help them weather the storm and really take control of the secondary when everything gets down? Who’s going to be that guy to overly communicate when they’re on the field making adjustments? And I think a lot of that, I think they invested that (newly-signed veteran safety) Jairus Byrd was going to be that guy. But once he got injured, all that sense of responsibility and leadership just got heaped on Kenny Vaccaro in a matter of days.

“Every young player that comes into the league goes through a maturity process, and it really helps when you have an older veteran to help you through that transition -- particularly that plays your position. When I was coming into the league, I had Troy Vincent, I had Nate Clements. Kenny has been thrust into this new leadership role, and there has been no type of transition. It just happened abruptly. Let alone, having the position change that Kenny had from a nickel-hybrid type player to a strictly strong safety. But keep in mind, I don’t question his ability at all. But knowing the psychology of the game, I understand that need for that player in there that has weathered the storm.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton’s fiery sideline demeanor has gotten more attention this season than ever before because he’s been captured on TV chewing out defensive coordinator Rob Ryan three times.

But to those who have been around the New Orleans Saints head coach for the past nine years, it’s nothing new. Payton long ago earned the nickname “Game Day Sean” from players -- or at least, his alter ego earned that nickname.

“It’s kind of a running joke as to the ‘Game Day Sean’ demeanor,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who also earned a tongue-lashing that was caught on camera after an interception earlier this season. “Because he can be so calm, cool, composed in practice, meeting room, that kind of thing. And then game day rolls around, it’s just like (Brees then waved his hand over his face to signal a transformation), ‘Don’t get on his bad side.’

Payton
Payton
“He’s intense. He’s just competitive. That’s the best way to describe it. Just ultra, ultra competitive. And fiery. And again, everybody’s fair game. I’ve gotten plenty of it over the headset that most people don’t see because it’s over the headset. ‘Turn that volume down.’ But that’s what you love about him. That’s what keeps you on edge in a good way. Obviously we’re out there to play well. We want to execute well. But you don’t want to be at the wrong end of one of those.”

We’ve also seen Payton chew out tight end Jimmy Graham and special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon, among others, this season. And the list goes on and on over the years. Remember Mike Bell wearing the wrong cleats during the Super Bowl? Or the “Juicy Fruit” incident when a sideline assistant accidentally brought him spearmint gum?

The Times-Picayune’s Katherine Terrell went in depth in this great piece on the “Game Day Sean” persona, talking to current and former players alike. Many of them said they try to hide from Payton when they make mistakes.

Cornerback Corey White shared a hilarious anecdote about this past week, when he knew Payton would be upset about his facemask penalty late in the 35-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. White said about 13 plays later, just as he figured he was in the clear, he heard: “Get me Corey White!”

"I'd never gotten a chewing out like that before, ever," White said. "If you know you've done something wrong, you might want to run to the locker room. You know you're going to get that chewing."

So where does that leave Payton and Ryan? It’s still not completely clear. I’ve talked to several sources on and off the record and gotten no indication there is a growing rift between the two -- as two reports indicated this past Sunday. And Payton passionately denied it after Sunday's game. But I also can’t completely dismiss the reports since Payton obviously can’t be happy with the results his defense has produced on the field this season.

Either way, it’s impossible to try to gauge the relationship based on how Payton acts toward Ryan on the sideline in the wake of a substitution penalty.

As Payton himself explained, he does that to everybody. Brees laughed when someone described Payton as being an “equal opportunity yeller” and said that’s the “perfect way to describe it.”

"That's me, man," Payton said Sunday. "Pick somebody. Pick Greg McMahon. Pick Corey White. Pick the game. Pick (assistant head coach) Joe Vitt. That's just me being fired up. It's more obvious when it's Rob because the camera's going to be on him more than it's going to be Greg McMahon or a player.

“Yeah, I get upset when there's 12 men on the field. That doesn't mean I'm looking for another defensive coach."
METAIRIE, La. – Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Jabari Greer is still keeping close tabs on the team and has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts.

Click here for Greer’s thoughts on the Saints’ struggles up until now. Here are his scouting reports on some of the Saints’ defensive backs, as well as a look ahead to Monday night’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens:

On the up-and-down play of safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Corey White: “This is the first year of both of these guys being THE guys, people who are solidified as starters and expected to make plays, especially Corey. So we’ve seen glimpses from Corey in which he’s made plays, and I definitely think [he can still be an asset]. I’m not too critical, because I understand how tough it is when nothing’s going right, we’re gonna search for someone to blame.

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Rob Carr/Getty ImagesThe Saints are familiar with Ravens receiver Steve Smith from his Carolina Panthers days.
“And I think the fans had such expectations for Kenny that he hasn’t met. But the thing is that Kenny has higher expectations for himself, and I’m sure that he is at the facility right now wondering what he can do to become a better player. Knowing Kenny, he’s extremely motivated to become great. And this slump that he’s having, I know it’s only for a time. I’ve talked to him, and I’m sure that he’s the worst critic. So even though I’ve expected him to have a better season, I think we also see the effect of just the shake-up of the secondary. He’s worn so many different hats. At the beginning of the year, when they signed Jairus Byrd, Kenny is looking to him like, ‘How do I get to that level? How do I become one of the best in the league?’ So with that being taken away, Kenny is thrust into a new leadership position in his second year. While he’s still learning who he is as a player, people are looking at him as the face of a secondary, saying, ‘Where do we go?’ People don’t understand how that impacts your game. But that’s why we get paid the big bucks.”

On defending the Ravens: “You know I’m familiar with Steve Smith. He has been so successful for such a long time, and he’s having a great season. I would think, depending on how the secondary looks this week, with Rafael Bush being put on IR, it’s interesting to see how they’ll shake things up. But if Keenan [Lewis] is healthy, I look for him being on Steve Smith. Steve Smith is a stutter-and-go receiver. I don’t mean the double move. I mean when he comes off the line, as soon as the ball snaps, he is going to hesitate to get you to sit back on your heels, and then he’s gonna run 100 miles per hour in the opposite direction. He lives off that. But the good thing about Keenan is he is one of the most patient, technique-savvy guys in the league. So he’s a great matchup for Steve Smith. Keenan’s gonna finish the play better than anybody.

“Now Torrey Smith is another guy that doesn’t take a long time getting out, either. He’s a one-cut guy; he’ll make one move and then go full-speed. So Corey or Patrick [Robinson] could be in that position, depending on what they do. If Patrick is playing Torrey Smith, it fits with his strength set. Patrick is patient; he’s a guy that is extremely fast and can stay with the best receivers. I think he’ll succeed in that matchup; he just has to make sure he keeps his eyes on Torrey Smith’s hips. And one thing I’ve noticed, even though Patrick took a lot of flak, if you watch last game or the last couple games, I haven’t see one catch in which Patrick hasn’t contested, whether it’s a catch and tackle or a pass break-up. He is playing at a high level right now. As an evaluator of corners, you want to see contested passes, you want to see that corner right next to the receiver as soon as he catches it.

“If Corey plays that position, then he has to understand they’re going to look for him. But Corey is strong, and he can battle with Torrey Smith on the short routes. He has to stay technique-sound and stay on Torrey Smith’s upfield shoulder. They both can do the job; they’re just gonna have to be aware that Joe Flacco’s gonna target them.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Veteran Jamarca Sanford would seem to be the most likely candidate to replace Rafael Bush as the New Orleans Saints’ starting free safety.

Sanford
Sanford, 29, is listed as Bush’s backup on the Saints’ unofficial depth chart. And the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder spent the past three years as a starter for the Minnesota Vikings, where he reportedly performed well in pass coverage.

The only real knock on Sanford is that he showed up in New Orleans a week ago -- signed mostly as a special-teamer and emergency backup.

But that’s what the Saints are down to now that Bush has been placed on injured reserve with a broken leg. Bush was the third Saints safety to land on IR, following veteran Jairus Byrd and rookie Vinnie Sunseri.

Sanford, a seventh-round draft pick out of Ole Miss in 2009, spent three games with the Washington Redskins earlier this season after being released by Minnesota. He has 269 career tackles, with two interceptions, eight forced fumbles and one sack.

The Saints have other candidates, but they all come with question marks, too:
  • First-year safety Marcus Ball has been with the team all year, but coach Sean Payton described him as more of a strong safety and special-teamer this week -- and Ball has struggled at times when he has played as a third safety on defense.
  • The Saints signed undrafted rookie Pierre Warren on Tuesday off the Vikings’ practice squad. Warren spent the summer with the Saints and made a strong impression as a playmaker in training camp. But he was ultimately released (ironically because of too much depth at safety), and he didn’t even stick long on New Orleans’ practice squad. It’s hard to imagine him stepping right into a starting role.
  • Cornerback Corey White is a wild-card possibility who played safety in college and dabbled at the position in nickel and dime packages during training camp. The Saints have more depth at cornerback, with Patrick Robinson, Brian Dixon, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and recently-promoted Terrence Frederick all capable of stepping up a rung on the depth chart. But the Saints already might need some of those guys to step up since starter Keenan Lewis is still battling a knee injury.
I was even more impressed by the New Orleans Saints' defensive performance after reviewing the tape of their 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints had some terrible lapses over the course of three drives in the middle of the game, so it wasn’t perfect by any stretch. Cornerback Corey White especially struggled at times, and the pass rush remains a work in progress.

But the Saints started fast and finished dominant. Their run defense was downright stifling -- thanks in large part to safety Kenny Vaccaro. And two of those touchdown drives came after bad breaks when the Saints nearly got off the field much earlier (a roughing-the-passer penalty against Junior Galette and Galette’s almost interception).

Here are more thoughts after breaking down the play-by-play:

Galette
Dominant finish: Galette’s sack for a safety midway through the fourth quarter might have been the defense’s biggest play of the season to date. He was lined up as a true 3-4 outside linebacker outside of end Cameron Jordan (something the Saints have done more often this season). The Saints ran a stunt, with Jordan consuming both the left tackle and left guard while Galette cruised inside on a delayed rush after the fullback went out for a pass.

However, that wasn’t the Saints’ only big play over the final 10:14 as they finally “finished.” Tampa Bay’s next series ended with a holding call and three straight incomplete passes. The pass coverage deserves most of the credit, since Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon couldn’t find anyone open. Keenan Lewis was especially good against Vincent Jackson on some of those plays. The Saints also got decent pressure on Glennon with a four-man rush.

Dominant/lucky start: The Buccaneers also went nowhere for the first 28 minutes of the game, gaining 94 yards with three points over their first five drives. The Saints got lucky a few times, since tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins dropped a pass on the first third-and-8, and both a 32-yard catch by running back Doug Martin and a 27-yard catch by Louis Murphy were nullified by illegal formation/shift penalties. Still, the Saints didn’t give up many legal big plays.

Robinson
And the Saints -- finally -- made their own badly needed big play when cornerback Patrick Robinson made an outstanding diving catch for an interception in the second quarter. Robinson had tight coverage on Murphy, located the ball in the air and made a terrific basket catch over his shoulders -- Willie Mays style. Glennon couldn’t quite step all the way into the throw because of blitz pressure.

Vaccaro lights fire: Vaccaro was flying all over the field as the Saints got off to that fast start, often cruising into the backfield on run blitzes. He missed once or twice, but throughout the day he helped stop Martin for gains of 3, minus-5, 1, 2 and 0. Vaccaro also flew in to hit Seferian-Jenkins to help break up two passes on the first two series. Vaccaro did, however, draw two penalties for illegal hands to the face on a blitz and illegal contact.

More run stuffs: Linebacker Curtis Lofton had at least three big-time run stuffs, Jordan had two, and linebackers David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson had one each as Tampa Bay finished with a total of just 66 rushing yards on 21 carries (and one of those was a meaningless 16-yard run by Martin as time expired in regulation).

The Saints did have one ugly breakdown when Bobby Rainey walked in for a 9-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Hawthorne looked like he might have been held, but the play was so well-blocked that it might not have mattered.

White
White’s struggles: The worst play for the Saints’ defense was a 20-yard TD pass to Murphy on third-and-7 before halftime. Blitz pressure didn’t get anywhere near Glennon. And White let Murphy get two full yards behind him in the end zone -- after first being flagged for holding Murphy earlier on the route.

White also gave up an ugly 32-yard gain to Jackson when he allowed too much cushion on a deep comebacker, then missed an easy tackle as Jackson got up to run. And White later whiffed on a tackle against Jackson that allowed him to gain at least 15 extra yards.

White didn’t get picked on too much in coverage, though, and he did have one nice breakup on a deep throw and one big hit on Martin after a short pass.

Other low points: Safety Rafael Bush was trailing on the easy 9-yard touchdown pass to Robert Herron in the fourth quarter, but Glennon had too much time to throw against a three-man rush. ... Bush also let Jackson get behind him for an unreal 34-yard gain that seemed to happen in slow motion when Glennon floated a pass across his body under heavy pressure on a second-and-20 play. ... Hawthorne also whiffed on a tackle against Martin after a check-down pass that turned into a 20-yard gain.

Other high points: Haralson and Galette should’ve made the play of the year with Galette’s near interception in the third quarter. Haralson shot past tight end Luke Stocker on a blitz to nail Glennon, who made a horrible decision to try and shovel the ball away (sound familiar?). The ball bounced off guard Logan Mankins' helmet and popped in the air, but Galette couldn’t hang on while Mankins grabbed at his feet. ... Lewis was matched up against Jackson often and held up very well. The only one of Jackson’s big plays that came against Lewis was a 17-yarder against too much cushion. ... End Glenn Foster had a handful of nice pass rushes -- often when he and end Tyrunn Walker were being used inside as tackles. ... Linebackers Ramon Humber and Kyle Knox had two big solo sticks on kickoff returns.
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson said it meant a lot to him when coach Sean Payton called him into his office two weeks ago and made a point to keep encouraging Robinson even though he was being demoted.

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
Bill Haber/AP PhotoSaints CB Patrick Robinson intercepts a pass intended for Buccaneers receiver Louis Murphy.
"That made me feel a lot better about myself, to be honest with you," Robinson said Sunday, repeating those two words with extra emphasis when he asked about the way Payton had a list made up of other NFL cornerbacks who had come back strong from being benched.

Sure enough, when the Saints needed Robinson again on Sunday in the wake of safety Jairus Byrd's season-ending knee injury, Robinson rose to the challenge.

Robinson snagged the Saints' first interception of the season during the first half of their 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also had at least one impressive pass break-up while serving as New Orleans' nickel back.

The performance wasn't perfect for anyone in the Saints' secondary -- and Robinson appeared to get lucky early in the game when quarterback Mike Glennon didn't notice a receiver running open behind Robinson after an apparent missed assignment.

But as Robinson said with cautious optimism, it was "a step forward."

"The last couple weeks, I've been playing too cautious. And I think that really hurt me, instead of just going out there and playing and believing in myself and my talent," said Robinson, a former first-round draft pick whose career has been filled with highs and lows. "You know, like everybody tells me, 'Oh, I'm talented, I'm talented.' But I have to believe in myself, too."

One of Robinson's most endearing qualities has always been his blunt honesty about himself.

But that wavering confidence is easily his most frustrating quality, as well.

It's been an issue that Robinson and teammates and coaches have always talked about. The speed, the athleticism, the playmaking instincts when a ball is in range are there. But the confidence -- and the aggressive, full-speed play that comes with it -- has come and gone.

"I think I think too much. I think I've been playing not to give up the big play," Robinson said. "And I think that really hurt me as a player, instead of just playing football, use my instincts and my talent. ...

"I practiced well, but it's hard for me to translate it to the game. And I finally did it today."

Payton agreed, saying he's been very pleased with Robinson's attitude and energy in practice "despite some adversity" and the way Robinson has continued to approach his weekly role -- even when it was just special teams.

"It's a tough game, and he has handled that well," Payton said. "I was really excited to see him make that play, and that was a big play for us."

Robinson switched roles a bit on Sunday, playing mostly inside in the slot. Typically in his career, because of his speed, he's always played on the outside even when rotating in as a third corner.

Fellow corner Corey White said those roles may switch from week to week. But he thinks the Saints' reliance on Robinson will continue.

"(The interception) was big for him, and he came up big for us," White said. "You like to see him make that play. He played very well, he's a great player, and it boosts his confidence a lot. And we're gonna need him all year."
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints left tackle Terron Armstead said he was “fully cleared” to return from the concussion that sidelined him during last Sunday night’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Armstead
Armstead was listed as “limited” during team drills in Wednesday’s practice. But he is confident he’ll play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Any symptoms of anything kind of went away pretty fast, so I had a feeling I was gonna be good to go for this week,” said Armstead, who took a knee to the helmet from Saints running back Travaris Cadet during the first quarter.

On the flip side, four players were held out of Saints team drills Wednesday. Running back Mark Ingram remained out with the broken hand that has sidelined him since Week 2 -- increasing the likelihood he won’t return until after the Week 6 bye, at the earliest.

Center Jonathan Goodwin did not practice because of a neck injury after he battled an ankle injury last week. And cornerback Corey White was held out of team drills with a foot injury. The severity of those injuries is unknown.

Fullback Erik Lorig (ankle) also remained out, as he has been all season. But safety Marcus Ball (hamstring) practiced on a limited basis for the first time this season.

Also limited for the Saints on Wednesday were linebacker David Hawthorne (ankle) and cornerback Patrick Robinson (thigh).
METAIRIE, La. – The answer to the New Orleans Saints' defensive woes was simple:

Simplify things.

After struggling with assignment and communication breakdowns during their first two games, the Saints cut out all of their on-field checks and adjustments – especially since they were playing at home with the crowd noise at a fever pitch. The result was a much cleaner, more efficient performance in Sunday’s 20-9 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

[+] EnlargeSaints defense
AP Photo/Bill HaberKenny Vaccaro and the Saints' defense sizzled against Minnesota on Sunday.
“Anytime you’re having communication issues, especially playing at home, anytime you can simplify it, that helps everyone just get your cleats set and just play fast,” Saints safety Jairus Byrd said.

"This week we tried to approach it like, one call, that’s it," cornerback Corey White said. "Whatever they come out in, we work it out, we play through that. And that helped us a lot. Get our cleats set and just play through it."

If that approach sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one of the biggest clichés in all of football.

But that cliché exists for a reason. And it’s one that has come up often with Rob Ryan’s defenses in the past.

For all of the praise Ryan has earned over the years for being a multiple, flexible, versatile “mad scientist” who will try to throw a variety of wrinkles at opposing offenses, he has also received his share of criticism for making things too complicated at times.

The trick is finding the right balance.

“It’s a fine line, but it can be blurry if the ends don’t justify the means,” coach Sean Payton said, presumably referencing the fact that the Saints' defense wasn't justifying those means by having too many assignment breakdowns in the first two games of the season.

“So it needs to be clear, it needs to be simplified. With that, you reduce variation and you reduce the variables that go into execution,” Payton continued. “So I thought we did a good job that way. I thought Rob and the staff did a good job. … I thought that was important.”

It will be interesting to see how the Saints toe that line going forward.

White, who played very well Sunday after being promoted back into a starting job ahead of Patrick Robinson, agreed that eliminating all of the checks was the biggest key to success for the Saints. But he disagreed with the notion that being too sophisticated causes problems.

“No, we’ve got a multiple defense and we’ve got a lot of smart players. So whatever [Ryan] gives us, he knows we can handle it,” White said. “And the first two weeks, we just didn’t execute third downs and specific situations.”

And Byrd said it’s important that the Saints don’t become too simple.

“You can’t stay the same, obviously. In this league, quarterbacks are too good where you can’t just be vanilla all the time,” Byrd said. “So we’ve got the baseline, now we just keep building slowly and keep building off of what we have.”

There was at least one player whose role wasn’t simplified on Sunday -- second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro, who went back to playing the multiple “star” role that he played so often last year.

That meant shifting between the strong safety spot, the slot cornerback spot and even some time as a linebacker.

“It’s fun, but mentally I’ve gotta lock in more,” Vaccaro said. “I’ve gotta think on every play what position I’m playing, because the way Rob calls it, you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”
METAIRIE, La. -- Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan reiterated Friday that the New Orleans Saints' early struggles are "on us" as a defense -- and "on me" in particular.

"Hey, those are the facts," Ryan said during his weekly visit with the media. "You don’t like to admit ‘em standing up here, but it’s the damn truth. ...

"We want to be great on defense, we want to be a little tiny part of our success. And we’ve been a big part of our failure right now. It’s not how we’re going to roll."

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSaints coordinator Rob Ryan on his defense after the Saints' 0-2 start: "We've been a big part of our failure right now. It's not how we're going to roll."
Ryan said that improvement will come through hard work and long hours of "looking for any kind of edge you can get."

It’s unlikely that drastic changes will be called for, since the Saints thrived on defense last season with the same coordinator and most of the same players. But there will almost certainly be tweaks.

The most likely switch is at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where the Saints replaced starter Patrick Robinson with Corey White during last week’s 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns. The Saints have not announced whether that will be a permanent change, but it’s obviously a possibility. Safety Rafael Bush could also see more snaps as the fifth defensive back in nickel packages -- the role he played for most of last season.

Some scheme tweaks could also be in store.

Even though the secondary is loaded with experienced veterans, it’s hard to ignore the fact that they have struggled with communication and assignment errors after releasing three longtime starters in the offseason (safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, and cornerback Jabari Greer).

When asked if that takes time to develop with new guys working together (like new safety Jairus Byrd and Robinson returning from a year-long injury), Ryan said, "Obviously it does."

"Those guys played with each other for a long time," Ryan said of Jenkins, Harper and Greer. "They know the system inside and out. So the communication was obviously excellent. But obviously these guys will take a little bit of getting used to each other and getting on the right page and the same page.

"That can also be helped with our plan. Doing things one way instead of three ways, and things like that. But we have to improve, we know that, we’re working on it and we have to get there."

When I asked Greer to scout the Saints’ secondary heading into this season, he agreed with the outside consensus that the Saints might be "as talented as they’ve been in a very long time." But he quickly brought up the importance of things like communication and chemistry with new players.

"Talent doesn't necessarily equal success," Greer said at the time. "Communication and leadership and understanding each other's roles, working together with each other's strengths and safeties covering up the corners' weaknesses, that equals success. And that is yet to be determined. ...

"Because given the departure of the veteran leaders in the secondary, that was the big question coming into the season. So I'm interested in seeing who's taking that leadership position, how they're going to rally the troops, and really how they're gonna communicate effectively."

Greer said typically the safeties take over that leadership role because they are known as the "quarterbacks" of the defense, responsible for making calls and checks.

Kenny Vaccaro has talked often about embracing that type of leadership role, even though he is in just his second year. But he said this week that leadership should be a collaborative effort rather than a forced one.

"I think the worst thing that can happen is when you anoint a guy and not just let him prove himself," Vaccaro said. "You don’t want to just give a guy that position. It’ll happen on its own, honestly. And I think we’ve got a lot of leaders in the secondary. So I don’t know if a guy will get kinged as a leader of the secondary.

"I think everybody has their own qualities, and we all just bring that together. ... We gather each other together."

Vaccaro said Jenkins (a former defensive captain) used to be known for his "powerful speeches" before games. He said that neither he nor Byrd is a "speech guy" and that they are both guys who prefer to lead by example.

"We talked about that (Wednesday)," Vaccaro said of him and Byrd. "We talked about we’re gonna have to just ride with each other and we’re gonna have to get out of our comfort zone. ... Definitely, though, I think we work all together."

Patrick Robinson's struggles continue

September, 14, 2014
9/14/14
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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).

Saints pin bad start on bad finishes

September, 14, 2014
9/14/14
7:30
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video
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."

Saints' Week 1 snap counts

September, 8, 2014
9/08/14
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A look at the New Orleans Saints' snap counts in their 37-34 overtime loss at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1:

OFFENSE (75 snaps)
Quarterback: Drew Brees 75
Running back: Pierre Thomas 34, Mark Ingram 20, Travaris Cadet 12, Khiry Robinson 12
Fullback: Austin Johnson 7, Parys Haralson 2
Receiver: Marques Colston 64, Brandin Cooks 52, Joe Morgan 49, Robert Meachem 19
Tight end: Jimmy Graham 66, Benjamin Watson 28, Josh Hill 10
Offensive tackle: Terron Armstead 75, Zach Strief 75
Guard: Jahri Evans 75, Ben Grubbs 75
Center: Jonathan Goodwin 75

Thoughts: It’s always surprising to see the low totals for the tailbacks -- but that’s unavoidable since they typically play one at a time. For the most part, they all made the most of their touches. Expect a similar distribution all year. ... Morgan clearly started the season as the No. 3 receiver with Stills out. Although he wound up with no catches, expect him to remain active ahead of Meachem and Nick Toon when Stills comes back. ... Haralson’s two snaps were pretty interesting -- especially considering he successfully served as a lead blocker on a touchdown run by Robinson on his first snap. Haralson, a linebacker by trade, said it was a new wrinkle the Saints added this week, and he had never played fullback at any level in the past.

DEFENSE (72 snaps)
Cornerback: Corey White 66, Patrick Robinson 64, Keenan Lewis 63
Safety: Kenny Vaccaro 72, Jairus Byrd 70, Rafael Bush 27, Vinnie Sunseri 2
Outside linebacker: Junior Galette 60, Kasim Edebali 10, Parys Haralson 7
Inside linebacker: Curtis Lofton 65, David Hawthorne 63, Ramon Humber 12
Defensive end: Cameron Jordan 67, Akiem Hicks 63, Tyrunn Walker 14, Glenn Foster 8
Defensive tackle: Brodrick Bunkley 33, Brandon Deaderick 26

Thoughts: White supplanted Bush as the Saints' nickelback -- not a huge surprise after White played so well this summer, but a change from last season. White was the Saints' third cornerback, but he wound up playing the most snaps because of minor injuries that temporarily sidelined Robinson and Lewis. ... Young backups Brian Dixon, Ronald Powell and Kyle Knox played only on special teams.

Know the enemy: Saints on Julio Jones

September, 6, 2014
9/06/14
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METAIRIE, La. -- The Atlanta Falcons' offense took on another dimension when they traded up 21 spots to draft receiver Julio Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2011. It's one of the main reasons why the Falcons won 23 games over the next two seasons.

Julio Jones, Bernard Pollard
John Bazemore/Associated PressThe Saints will aim to stop a healthy Julio Jones in their season opener against the Falcons.
And when they lost Jones to a foot injury over the final 11 games last year, it was perhaps the main reason why Atlanta fell to 4-12.

Now Jones is back healthy, and he'll be the main focus of the New Orleans Saints' defense when they open the season Sunday at Atlanta. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has a rare combination of size, physicality and dynamic speed. He's had an 80-yard touchdown in every one of his three NFL seasons so far.

The Saints have actually had success keeping Jones quiet during their five meetings. But he did manage seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 at New Orleans last year. And he did burn them for 128 yards and a score once as a rookie.

Here's what the Saints had to say about Jones this week:

Coach Sean Payton: "He's someone that you have to be aware of where he's at on the field every play. He has great size, great athleticism, he can run, he has fabulous hands. He's the type of player that on draft day, [when] you see Atlanta moving up, he's the type of player that merits that. It can appear from the outside as, 'Man, they are giving up a lot' but I think everyone who was involved in the process of scouting him, you recognize what kind of player he was."

S Kenny Vaccaro: "Great hands, explosive, good route runner. I mean, he just has everything you want in a receiver. I think if you're gonna build a receiver, you'd build Julio Jones. Kind of like Megatron [Calvin Johnson]."

CB Corey White: "An all-around just great receiver. Anything you can ask for in a receiver, you've got it. Speed, size, everything. He can run good routes, beat you over the top, he can do it all. We get a scouting report every week, and you've got colored dots on people, and a blue dot is the highest you can be. And he's like dark black. ... He's rare. He's up there top three [in the NFL] in my opinion, hands down."

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "He really is a fantastic football player. I think he caught seven balls on us on the first game last year, and we had him doubled every time. He's a terrific football player. He looks like he's at full speed on the four minutes I saw on 'Hard Knocks.' He looked really good on it."

CB Keenan Lewis: "That's a guy you don't want to get in a tussling match with, you just keep your distance and play your game."

S Jairus Byrd: "He's really cool to watch on film. Obviously you're studying for him, but there's definitely a level of respect for what he's able to bring to the game, just with his speed, his size, the plays that he makes."

Saints Camp Report: Day 20

August, 21, 2014
8/21/14
7:40
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METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints transitioned out of "camp mode" on Thursday with a glorified walk-through practice that was mostly dedicated to preparation for Saturday night's preseason game at the Indianapolis Colts. This is the one and only preseason game that will get that kind of treatment, since it's the one game where the starters play about a full half. The Saints had a scout team impersonating the Colt, and it was interesting to note that the one Colts offensive player they singled out was up-and-coming receiver T.Y. Hilton (with a player wearing a red No. 13 jersey). "I think when you look at this team, we were talking about this the other day, there are a lot of new faces, guys that are very impressive, that can run. Obviously we know the quarterback (Andrew Luck) has turned into the real good football player. He's got the arm to make all the throws. I think the offensive line has played well. When you put that together with the defense, you are seeing a young roster that has played well, and I'm sure they have high expectations."
  • Since the Saints' offensive and defensive units weren't really going full-speed against each other Thursday, there weren't a ton of highlight moments that stood out. But sure enough, cornerback Corey White managed to squeeze in another big play (almost a daily ritual in camp) with an interception against quarterback Ryan Griffin. Although White probably won't begin the season as a starter with Champ Bailey and Patrick Robinson now returning from injuries, he's certainly taken advantage of his increased practice opportunities. And he'll likely make his way onto the field in certain packages. "All of the reps have been good for me just to show the coaches what I can do on a constant, consistent basis," White said.
  • Receiver Brandin Cooks was back in practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the three previous days with a stomach virus/fever. When asked if Cooks will play against the Colts, coach Sean Payton said, "We'll see. … We'll see where he's at tonight and tomorrow. (The focus is) really just keeping him hydrated and getting his body weight up a little bit." … Guard Ben Grubbs was also back in practice after missing the past two and a half days with an undisclosed injury. The only other change from Wednesday's practice participation was the absence of safety Marcus Ball, which Payton declined to elaborate on. … Also noteworthy: linebacker Victor Butler and cornerback Rod Sweeting were doing more conditioning work with trainers off to the side of practice than we've seen yet.
  • Quarterback Drew Brees was asked Thursday about safety Jairus Byrd's standout performance in Wednesday night's practice -- particularly Byrd's impressive and deceptive interception against Brees in 7-on-7 drills. "Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "I didn't throw it exactly where I wanted to; I was trying to throw it to Nick Toon in the back, kind of retracing on a route, and Jairus was underneath it. No. 1, I didn't feel like he would really reach it, but he did. To actually come down with it was a whole (different) story. Usually that ball just gets tipped and goes out of the back of the end zone, but it was an impressive play."
  • The Saints don't have a full practice scheduled for Friday. They'll have a brief walk-through, and they'll also take part in an annual fan luncheon before traveling to Indianapolis. Saturday's game at 8 p.m. ET will be nationally-televised by CBS.

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