NFC South: Garrett Hartley

McMahon on Hartley: Tough, but common

December, 20, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints special teams coordinator Greg McMahon spoke for the first time about kicker Garrett Hartley's release when coordinators were made available to the media on Friday. Naturally McMahon, who has been with Hartley since he first arrived in 2008, said it was a difficult move.

Hartley
"Hey, I love Garrett Hartley. And as we talk around here, we'll walk together forever," McMahon's aid of a popular phrase the Saints have used to describe members of the Super Bowl championship team an organization. "And that doesn't just come and go. He's a good man, he's a great man and a heck of a football player."

McMahon, however, said that such moves are the nature of the NFL business -- especially when it comes to kickers.

"Golly, if you just look around the league, very few guys are like (longtime former Carolina Panthers kicker) John Kasay where they stay with that team forever," McMahon said. "If you look around the league at some of the guys that have been on a team, then they go through a tough time, then all of a sudden they resurface. So it happens. No different than probably a golfer, or anybody else. You've just got to kind of push through it. And heck we're at this run right now and just thought it was the best thing, Coach (Sean Payton) felt like it was the best thing for our team."

Sure enough, more than half of the current kickers in the NFL have kicked for more than one team in their careers -- including 7 of the top-10 leaders in field goals made this year.

When asked if he thinks Hartley will get another opportunity somewhere, McMahon said, "Absolutely. Absolutely."
Drew Brees and Cam NewtonAP PhotoDrew Brees' Saints won the first meeting handily, but Cam Newton's Panthers won't be intimidated.

Round 2 of the NFC South heavyweight battle between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints takes place Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Saints won Round 1 by knockout, 31-13 two weeks ago at the Superdome in New Orleans. They made the NFL's second-ranked defense look less than average and totally shut down the Panthers in the red zone, where they had been so effective.

Will this be a repeat? Or will the Saints' road woes continue?

The division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs are on the line between these 10-4 teams, assuming the winner follows up with a win in the regular-season finale. ESPN.com Panthers reporter David Newton and Saints reporter Mike Triplett are here to break it down.

Newton: So, Mike, as I recall, you said in the press box after the first meeting between these teams that New Orleans should be able to sweep the series. After Sunday's loss to the Rams, a loss that strengthened the argument that the Saints don't play well on the road, has your opinion changed?

Triplett: Well, David, that game was so long ago that there's no way I can be held to anything I said at the time. Seriously, though, it is tough to make any definitive statements about the Saints right now. They clearly looked like the superior team against the Panthers two weeks ago, but it's impossible to ignore how poorly they've played away from home. And now you have to imagine that their confidence will be shaken when they hit the road again -- even if they don't express that publicly.

I do think the Saints have the higher ceiling among these two teams. And if they both play up to their potential, that means the Saints can win. But when you throw in all the demons they'll be facing (the road, potentially bad weather, a team that can run the ball and force turnovers), it becomes a toss-up.

I'll throw the same question back at you. After the Panthers' Jekyll-and-Hyde display the past two weeks, which team shows up on Sunday?

Newton: Hmm. So long ago? Interesting bail, Mike. Not sure I'd call it Jekyll and Hyde either, because the Panthers have lost once in their past 10 games. I'd say the Saints are more Jekyll and Hyde with their home-versus-road issues.

But you're right, Carolina was horribly outclassed in the first meeting. The thing about that is a lot of teams have been outclassed in New Orleans. That's why I don't think it was a devastating loss. And the Panthers were able to bounce back, even if it was against the Jets. Where the loss could work in their favor is they know where they have to adjust. They began to adjust in the second half, when they held New Orleans to 10 points. There's no sense of panic or fear they can't turn things around this time. I sense they are relishing the opportunity to prove themselves.

I see the Saints have released their kicker and replaced their left tackle with a rookie. Not really the stuff you expect from a Super Bowl contender at this time of the year. What do you read into that?

Triplett: It was definitely a unique shake-up at this time of year -- especially the switch at left tackle. And I think both moves are pretty telling of where Sean Payton's mind is at during this playoff push. He was pretty candid after the St. Louis loss, admitting that he still doesn't fully know the makeup of this current team, and that he can't just count on getting the same results as in past years. And all season long, he has been hyper-focused on making sure he's leaving no stone unturned in improving in all areas. Drew Brees has made that point a few times when discussing what's different with Payton after his suspension.

I think Payton believes this team has championship potential -- but also sees how close the Saints are to letting a good opportunity slip past them.

How about on-the-field adjustments? What are the one or two areas where you see the Panthers being able to clean up mistakes that doomed them in the first meeting?

Newton: The biggest cleanup has to be with the secondary. They weren't physical against the Saints' receivers, letting them get into their routes too easily and run free. There also was a bit of miscommunication, particularly in the second quarter, when Brees had the Panthers on their heels with three touchdown passes. The Panthers rectified things a bit in the second half with a few timely blitzes -- more than normal for them -- to force Brees to move in the pocket and get out of his rhythm. I suspect you'll see a bit of that as well this time. But mainly I see them challenging the front four for more pressure, particularly at left tackle, whether it's Charles Brown or somebody else.

I'm still perplexed by the wide differential in New Orleans' scoring at home versus the road (32.9 versus 18.4) and the turnover ratio going from plus-5 at home to minus-5 on the road. I've heard the coach-speak explanation. Now I want to hear the Mike-speak.

Triplett: Wish I were smart enough to figure it out. I think the main difference is that they become a "superhuman" team at home, as former linebacker Scott Shanle explained it earlier this year. On the road, they're simply human. They've actually had the best regular-season road record in the NFL dating back to 2009 (24-15). This didn't really turn into an epidemic until this year. But I've got to think it's messing with their confidence now, too, in addition to the crowd noise and the weather conditions they sometimes have to deal with.

This game will be even more of a test than most road games. The Saints have definitely been affected by cold weather and wind and rain over the years, which makes sense since their strength is the passing game. The worse the weather conditions on Sunday, the more it has to favor a Panthers team that can run the ball so effectively.

Earlier this year, I thought the Saints were looking more prepared than ever to win a game like this, thanks to the patient offense we saw in wins at Chicago, against San Francisco and at Atlanta, plus the most physical defensive front they've had in the Payton era. Lately, I'm less certain.

Hartley thanks Saints, fans on way out

December, 18, 2013
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METAIRIE, La. – Kicker Garrett Hartley made some gracious parting comments on Twitter on Wednesday night after being released by the New Orleans Saints a day earlier. Hartley spent parts of six seasons with the Saints, beginning in 2008. It was a dramatic but turbulent tenure that included the four biggest field goals in franchise history during the team’s Super Bowl run in 2009.

“I would like to start off by saying I have been blessed with the opportunity that the @Saints & ownership have given me,” Hartley tweeted. “The memories that were made with this team will live in my heart forever! I can't say enough for my teammates and their support. …

“And finally the Who Dat Nation. Y'all's passion for the game and this team are second to none.. It's been an honor to wear the Black & Gold.”

 
Sean Payton's decision to release kicker Garrett Hartley on Tuesday was both expected and stunning at the same time.

You could certainly see the move coming. Payton hinted at it after Hartley missed two field goals in the New Orleans Saints' 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. And Hartley has arguably been having the most up-and-down season of his roller-coaster career.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Hartley
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsGarrett Hartley, one of the holdovers from the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV team, slumped down the stretch this season.
Yet it's still a bold move, especially considering that it comes in Week 16 of the season. And I think that speaks to exactly where Payton's mindset is right now. He knows this team has championship potential, but he also knows the Saints are on the verge of letting this season slip away from them.

No, the kicker alone won't decide the Saints' fate. But as I wrote Monday, Payton is clearly intent on making sure he doesn't leave any stone unturned as he tries to make this team as playoff-ready as possible. He was as candid as ever on Sunday and Monday as he admitted that he still doesn't quite know what this current Saints team is made of -- and that he knows he can't rely on the results from past years like 2009 and 2011.

Payton made a similar decision when he yanked left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup during the Rams loss. It remains unclear if he'll make a permanent change there, but Payton insisted Monday that several players are being closely evaluated right now. Everything is, starting with Payton's own coaching decisions.

I don't see this as panic or overreaction from Payton. It's just the latest example of the attention to detail that quarterback Drew Brees has described as the No. 1 trait he has seen from Payton since the coach returned from his 2012 suspension.

It began in the preseason with big and small changes alike (the defensive coordinator, the run scheme, the offseason workout program). And it has continued throughout the year.

As for Hartley, it's tough to see him depart after he has handled so many extreme highs and lows so well over the years, from being suspended to being a playoff hero to being benched to being injured. Payton stood by him through some other low patches in the past, and Hartley has obviously formed a close bond with longtime teammates.

But it's also understandable why the move was made after Hartley had shown so much inconsistency on the field this season. The two misses at St. Louis (from 36 and 26 yards) were ugly kicks. And Hartley missed six of his past 14 field-goal attempts.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 15

December, 16, 2013
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ST. LOUIS -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome.

Playoff scenarios: As bad as the Saints’ loss was at St. Louis, they can quickly make up for it with a win Sunday at Carolina. If the Saints (10-4) beat the Panthers (10-4), they would clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed. But if the Saints lose, they’ll need a win and a Panthers loss in Week 17 to claim that No. 2 seed. And while we’re looking at worst-case scenarios, the Saints still haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet. They need to win one more game or hope for some losses by other teams.

Brown
Jobs in jeopardy: Two starters are on shaky ground after their performances Sunday. Left tackle Charles Brown was pulled during the third quarter after coach Sean Payton said he “saw enough” of Brown struggling against pass-rusher Robert Quinn. It will be interesting to see if Payton puts Brown back in the starting lineup against Carolina -- a team Brown played well against in Week 14.

Meanwhile, kicker Garrett Hartley’s job could also be in jeopardy after he missed two field goal attempts (one of which was blocked). Payton mentioned the field goals first when listing the areas that bothered him after the game Sunday. And the Saints brought in a handful of kickers for tryouts last month when Hartley was struggling. Could this have been the last straw?

Road woes: Payton and quarterback Drew Brees finally admitted that their road performances have become a serious problem. Previously, the Saints had bristled at questions about their road record. My take is that they were obviously aware of their road issues but always confident they could fix them. Sunday, I think they were genuinely shocked at how poorly they played and how flat they were in a lackluster atmosphere at St. Louis.

“No one in here is blind or ignorant that we have not played as well on the road,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “When you get interviewed in this league, you don’t send out panic. That doesn’t mean that when we’re together and our doors are closed that we’re not looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ ... The fact of the matter is that there’s no time for figuring anything out right now. It’s you figure it out now or you go home.”

What went wrong: I’ll break down the specifics in my film studies this week, but it was pretty obvious that there were four problem areas that doomed the Saints: 1. Turnovers (Brees’ first interception and his fumble were due to pressure from Quinn, but the second interception was a poor decision). 2. Pass protection. 3. Missed tackles (more than we’ve seen all year, especially early; safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Corey White and linebacker Parys Haralson missed three bad ones on long touchdown plays). 4. Missed field goals.


NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."
NEW ORLEANS -- As if New Orleans Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley didn’t have enough pressure on him already heading into Sunday’s game, there he was, facing the game-tying and game-winning field goal attempts in the final 2:06.

And true to his history, Hartley delivered in the clutch, drilling a 42-yarder and a 31-yarder to seal New Orleans’ 23-20 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

Hartley
“I would definitely say (this past week) tested me,” admitted Hartley, who had missed four of his past six field goals, prompting the Saints to bring in several kickers for workouts this past week to update their emergency list. “And it was time to show everyone, I guess, how thick my skin is.”

Hartley said he would have been just as happy if the Saints had won on a safety -- which nearly happened with 1:56 remaining. But he admitted it was funny the way things worked out, that he got to prove himself in such a big moment after such a high-profile slump.

It was similar to the way things worked out in 2009, when Hartley was slumping late in the regular season before making the game-winning kick in the NFC Championship Game and three big kicks in the Super Bowl.

“It was really funny that this happened the way it did today, because on the way to the stadium I was actually on the phone with John Carney, just kind of picking his brain a little bit,” Hartley said of the former Saints kicker, who became his mentor. “And the same thing he told me in the NFC (Championship) Game, when it’s coming down to the wire, you just take yourself out of it. You can’t control anything else other than if you’re given the opportunity. And that’s just the way things unfolded, and this one definitely is a little bit sweeter than most.”

Teammates were happy for Hartley, but they insisted they weren’t surprised.

In just six NFL seasons, Hartley has been through more ups and downs than most veteran kickers. He’s had a four-game suspension because of a banned stimulant, a performance-based benching and an entire season lost to a hip injury. Each time, he has bounced back.

“I told him that we believe in you and that you are our guy. We all did,” saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the support throughout the week. “Garrett has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but he has made a lot of big kicks for us. I think that is just the life of a kicker.”

Kudos to Saints coach Sean Payton for feeling the same way. Payton insisted this past week, that he remained confident in Hartley based on his history. And he didn't have an itchy trigger finger, like he did with some kickers and punters earlier in his tenure.

That faith paid off in a big way Sunday.

Locker Room Buzz: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS – Observed in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers:

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Rewarding win: After the Saints beat the 49ers for the first time in three years, some players admitted it mean a lot for them to prove they could win a physical matchup like this. Others insisted they treated it just like any other big game. But everyone agreed that the way this game played out – overcoming adversity to win in the final minutes – was even more rewarding than a game like last week’s 49-17 rout of Dallas, when they were nearly flawless. “This game means more,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “These are the ones that just sharpen you.”

Rewarding kicks: Saints kicker Garrett Hartley certainly admitted that his two field goals in the final 2:06 were more rewarding than most after the personal adversity he faced in recent weeks, missing four of his last six kicks. He said he had just been talking to mentor and former Saints kicker John Carney on the way to the game about blocking everything else out and doing his job.

Colston’s record: Naturally, Saints receiver Marques Colston didn’t overplay the significance of setting the franchise record for receiving yards and yards from scrimmage. He said he’ll probably take time to reflect on it after the season. “Obviously there were more important things going on at the time,” Colston said.

Greer’s injury: Saints coach Sean Payton said cornerback Jabari Greer’s knee injury looks serious, but added that the team was awaiting tests to get the final diagnosis.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints kicker Garrett Hartley admitted Wednesday, “I know that my career has been a roller-coaster ride.” However, he insisted that he is not going through a “slump” and isn't dealing with any confidence issues after missing four of his past six field-goal attempts.

Hartley also said he won’t overreact to the fact the Saints brought in a group of five kickers earlier this week to refresh their list of potential backups in case Hartley’s struggles continue.

Hartley
“This is my sixth year now. It’s not my first rodeo. It’s not my first time down this path,” said Hartley, a postseason hero in the Saints’ Super Bowl season, who has also dealt with a benching, a suspension and a season-long injury during his career. “It’s going to work every day. Keep doing what I’ve been doing. My leg feels great. I’m striking a clean ball. Bouncing back, even after a game like [last Sunday’s, when he missed from 37 yards], when obviously I didn’t strike the ball well and I know why. It’s a simple fix. Back to work and get ready for Sunday.”

The group of kickers the Saints brought in this week included veterans Neil Rackers and Shayne Graham. But Hartley said he didn’t see that as the team trying to “light a fire” under him.

“No. No. It’s standard protocol, just as any other position would be,” Hartley said. “This is about what they feel they need to do, and by all means, that’s OK. I know what I need to do as well, and this is still my job. ...

“I know that my career has been a roller-coaster ride. By now, going into my sixth year, it’s, ‘Hey, this is what the deal is, this is how I go about it.’ And obviously I’m just going to put myself in position to go out there and execute come Sundays. That’s all I can do.”

Hartley has made 16 of 22 field-goal attempts this season. His funk started when he missed three consecutive kicks during Weeks 8 and 9. But he had appeared to right the ship when he nailed a career-long 55-yarder and a 43-yarder in the second half of that Week 9 game, a 26-20 loss at the New York Jets.

Coach Sean Payton insisted Wednesday that he still has “a ton of confidence” in Hartley’s ability and explained that the kicker workouts are a common practice in the NFL.

"We'll do this. We had safeties in as well. We'll have other positions in as well,” Payton said. “Typically, we'll bring in players that are on our short list to validate a grade, make sure we feel the same when they leave. ...

"[But] Garrett has done it in so many big spots. I've got a ton of confidence in his ability, and I'm glad we did back in '09. And I think the same thing applies this year."

In 2009, Hartley served a four-game suspension to start the season after testing positive for a banned stimulant, and then he struggled with his consistency when he finally won the job back in December. But he went on to become a postseason hero, making the game-winning field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship Game and making three long field goals in the Super Bowl.

However, in 2010, Hartley struggled again and temporarily lost his job before bouncing back. Then in 2011, he missed the entire season with a hip injury.

Last year was about the only ordinary season of Hartley’s career. He made 18 of 22 field-goal attempts. For his career, Hartley has made 76 of 93 field-goal attempts (81.7 percent).

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 9

November, 4, 2013
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An review of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 26-20 loss to the New York Jets on the road in MetLife Stadium:

Missing Ivory? I focused my postgame stories on the Saints' inability to stop former running back Chris Ivory and their inability to establish a run game of their own. So it's hard to ignore the question: Do they miss Ivory? I still say the answer is no. If he had stayed in New Orleans, he'd certainly have some highlight moments, like he did in the past. But he would also have quiet days, like he did in the past, for a Saints team that doesn't feature the run as often or as well as the Jets.

[+] EnlargeNew Orleans' Drew Brees
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees was sacked twice in the final 20 minutes.
The trade made sense for the Saints, since their backfield is still overcrowded and they got good value in return for him (a fourth-round pick). But obviously the Saints need to figure out how to establish a more consistent run game, from their play calling to their blocking to the runners themselves.

Protection breakdown: The Saints became one-dimensional when they trailed by nine points throughout much of the second half. And the offensive line didn't hold up well under the pressure. Over the final 20 minutes, quarterback Drew Brees was sacked twice, guard Jahri Evans and center Brian de la Puente were flagged for holding, and guard Ben Grubbs was flagged for illegal hands to the face. Brees was also pressured into some incomplete passes, and the Saints failed to score a second-half touchdown.

The Jets do have one of the NFL's most disruptive defensive fronts. But the Saints' pass protection has been more up and down than usual this year, with most of the pressure coming up the gut.

Defensive breakdown: The Saints' run defense also broke down too often Sunday, allowing Ivory to bust loose for gains of 52, 30 and 27 yards. It was obviously unsettling, since the Saints had made it their primary focus to stop the run against a Jets team that doesn't throw the ball very well. The Saints now rank 26th in the NFL in run defense this year, allowing 121.3 yards per game.

However, I still don't see this as a huge area of concern going forward. The Jets are the first team all year that really dominated the Saints with the run game. And most of their damage came on those three long runs. Ivory gained only 30 yards on his other 15 runs.

Hartley's redemption: One of the best things that came out of the Saints' second-half offensive struggles is that it gave kicker Garrett Hartley the opportunity to make two high-pressure field goals from 55 and 43 yards. Before that, Hartley had missed three consecutive field goals -- including a 43-yarder wide left in the first quarter against the Jets. The two made field goals should help him settle back into a groove.

Film study: Reviewing Saints' offense

October, 29, 2013
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Some observations on the New Orleans Saints' offense after reviewing the tape of their 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills in Week 8:

Brees at his best: Drew Brees’ 42-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenny Stills in the fourth quarter has to be one of the most underrated plays of the NFL season to date. It went mostly unnoticed, since the Saints were already well ahead in the game – and since Brees’ brilliance is so often taken for granted. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless.

Brees dropped back to pass on third-and-20, but he was quickly flushed from the pocket when Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus beat guard Jahri Evans inside and end Mario Williams broke free on a stunt move. Brees barely escaped Dareus’ lunge, and then he ran forward and stepped into a deep throw to Stills in the end zone that traveled about 45 yards in the air.

Stills’ effort was great, too. He “boxed out” cornerback Nickell Robey and timed his leap perfectly to win the one-on-one battle.

Plenty more from Brees: That was just one of five touchdown passes for Brees against the Bills – moving him into first place in NFL history with eight five-touchdown games. He also hit Lance Moore with a 15-yarder, Stills with a 69-yarder and tight end Jimmy Graham for touchdowns of 15 and 13 yards.

Brees had great pass protection on all four of those throws. Running back Pierre Thomas did a nice job of picking up the blitz on the pass to Moore on third-and-4 in the first quarter. And fullback Jed Collins picked up a nice block on the 69-yarder to Stills, which looked like a blown assignment by Buffalo’s secondary. Stills got wide open after crossing routes with receiver Nick Toon on the left side.

Graham’s touchdowns both were good, hard throws into a small cushion between a linebacker and safety. Graham finished both of them by breaking a tackle to reach the end zone.

Hit and miss: The Saints weren’t perfect in pass protection against one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts. They allowed four sacks and were flagged for holding three times. There were no real “repeat offenders,” though. Left tackle Charles Brown got beat once on a power inside move by end Jerry Hughes. Guard Ben Grubbs got pushed back once by defensive tackle Kyle Williams, leading to a sack when Brees stepped up in the pocket. Collins and tight end Benjamin Watson got beat by end Mario Williams once. And safety Da’Norris Searcy got a free run at Brees on a blitz between Evans and right tackle Zach Strief.

Brown, Collins and center Brian de la Puente drew the holding flags.

Running strong, mostly: The Saints’ run game was also hit-and-miss. But I really liked the variety. The Saints handed off to Thomas out of passing formations a few times on shotgun draws, and they also tossed to him a couple times to get him out wide. That was very effective at times and helped Thomas gain a season-high 65 yards on 14 carries (an average of 4.6 per carry). Thomas also had two more nice gains on screen passes.

Thomas’ best run, however, was more traditional. He gained 13 yards off right tackle in the third quarter when the Saints perfectly executed their outside zone-blocking scheme. Strief, de la Puente, Brown and Watson all delivered great solo blocks against Buffalo’s four-man front, allowing Evans and Grubbs to run free into the second level of the defense and pick up blocks. The Saints scored a touchdown on the next play.

As I wrote Tuesday morning, however, the Saints continued to struggle with negative runs. One came on an apparent missed assignment on third-and-1 run in the first quarter. Grubbs pulled, and Kyle Williams cruised right between de la Puente and Brown to stuff running back Khiry Robinson. Grubbs also got pushed back by Kyle Williams on a 1-yard loss by Thomas in the first quarter. Kyle Williams and Dareus won a few of those battles up front throughout the day, but the Saints ultimately came out ahead.

Quiet Colston: Saints receiver Marques Colston was quiet for the third straight game. But I’m still not ready to suggest that we’re seeing the beginning of a drop-off at age 30. The Bills clearly made him a priority in coverage, and they made two big-time plays to keep Colston out of the end zone. One came when safety Jairus Byrd met Colston near the goal line and separated him from the ball with a big hit after Colston got a step behind Robey. The other came when Colston again had a half-step on Robey, but Robey got a fingertip on the ball to knock it off course.

CBS announcer Dan Dierdorf and some on Twitter suggested Colston had “alligator arms” on that play. But that’s not how I saw it. Colston had his hands up to make a basket catch over his shoulder, and Robey’s tip sent the ball forward.

Colston’s progress is clearly worth monitoring going forward. I’m sure he must be losing a step in his eighth NFL season. But speed and separation were never the strengths of his game. And I haven’t seen him looking noticeably slower or gimpy on the field. He made a nice low catch and a nice high catch on Sunday, finishing with three receptions for 18 yards. I expect more big games to come – obviously not on a consistent basis, though, in this offense.

Brees’ false starts: I don’t know the rules well enough to describe why Brees got busted twice for false starts with his hard counts. The first time he was under center, and his body jerked a little while he was yelling his cadence. The second time, he was in the shotgun and put his hands up to receive the snap, then pulled them back down. Clearly the officials were determined to rein him in more tightly than most crews.

Hartley’s misses: I’ll throw these special-teams gaffes in with the offense. I haven’t had a chance to talk with kicker Garrett Hartley or holder Luke McCown yet to see if anything went wrong on Hartley’s two missed field goals, but it didn’t look that way on film. The 47-yarder in the first quarter had height and distance but took a snap-turn to the left in midair. The 38-yarder in the second quarter was drilled, but it was a hair too far to the left from the beginning.

Escalators and the NFC South

February, 19, 2013
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One of the many reasons the New Orleans Saints are in a difficult salary-cap situation is that six of their players triggered escalators that will cost the team nearly $4 million in 2013.

Kicker Garrett Hartley earned a $1.432 million escalator and safety Malcolm Jenkins earned a $1.25 million raise. The other Saints to hit escalators were receiver Lance Moore ($100,000), tackle Zach Strief ($300,000), tight end Jimmy Graham ($700,000) and defensive tackle Tom Johnson ($195,000).

I’ve also got the numbers on escalators that were triggered elsewhere in the NFC South. In most cases, the escalators were based on players meeting specified playing-time levels in 2012. But, in some cases, the escalators were triggered by playing time in previous years.

Atlanta’s Michael Turner, who could end up being a salary-cap casualty, had his base salary escalate by $1.4 million. Defensive end John Abraham triggered a $1 million escalator. The other two Falcons to earn escalators for this season are defensive tackle Corey Peters ($600,000) and cornerback Asante Samuel ($200,000).

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy had his team’s largest escalator ($775,000). Receiver Brandon LaFell earned a $700,000 escalator and offensive lineman Garry Williams will pick up an extra $125,000.

The Tampa Bay players to hit escalators were offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah ($250,000), tackle Demar Dotson ($500,000), receiver Mike Williams ($800,000), offensive lineman Ted Larsen ($700,000), safety Cody Grimm ($625,000, which was based on his 2010 playing time) and fullback Erik Lorig ($425,000).

NFC South links: EJ Manuel eyes Panthers

January, 24, 2013
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Atlanta Falcons
The team is in talks with the state of Georgia over the level of public financing for a new $1 billion stadium, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports -- with Gov. Nathan Deal saying he wants the figure to be lower than the $300 million upon which the team previously agreed with the state convention authority.

"Everything is designed to go out there and win. We had our chances. Just a few plays here and there,” said Falcons' third-year linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who tells team website reporter Daniel Cox that he's already preparing for next season.

Carolina Panthers
Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel told the Charlotte Observer that he "would be a good fit" as backup for quarterback Cam Newton; Derek Anderson, Newton's understudy in 2012, is a free agent and could follow former Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland.

Former Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner is on the verge of a deal to become the Arizona Cardinals' defensive line coach, he tells the Rock Hill Herald.

New Orleans Saints
Saints players including linebacker Curtis Lofton and kicker Garrett Hartley passed out gifts and posed for photos at spots around New Orleans as part of a charity campaign pegged to the city's celebration of hosting its 10th Super Bowl.

Sean Payton is relying on "closure," as the Times-Picayune reports the coach's top priority during his first visit with the media was to clearly try to put the bounty controversy in the rearview mirror.

San Diego-based Integrated Sports Marketing, the promoter being sued by Drew Brees’ charitable foundation, says it was Brees -- not the firm -- that failed to meet obligations involving the quarterback’s signature celebrity golf tournament, reports the Union-Tribune.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bucs brass gathered in Mobile, Ala., ahead of Saturday's Senior Bowl has been focused on defensive backs, but, after star cornerbacks Dee Milliner of Alabama and Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State, pickings are slim -- which means the team might need to get creative, the Tampa Tribune notes.

Officials in the Bucs' ticket office have been contacting season-ticket holders to inquire if they would move their seats. Jose Patino Girona of The Tampa Bay Tribune explains the reason why.

Wrap-up: Packers 28, Saints 27

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints28-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Saints played their best game of the season, but still fell to 0-4. I won’t categorically say the season is over, but it’s close to that. It’s going to take an awfully big miracle for the Saints to bounce back and make the playoffs.

The win that wasn’t: The Saints actually had this game won -- momentarily. With just under three minutes left, Garrett Hartley converted a 43-yard field goal that would have given the Saints a 30-28 lead. But the field goal was erased by a holding call. That set up a 53-yard attempt that would have tied for the longest of Hartley’s career. He never got to attempt that kick because the Packers jumped offside. That moved the field goal attempt to 48 yards. Hartley’s kick was wide left. The Packers got the ball back and ran out the clock.

Can’t blame Brees: There’s a school of thought out there that quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t stepped up enough in a season in which the Saints are without suspended coach Sean Payton. I’m not sure how much more Brees possibly could have done against the Packers. He completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted.

Tying the record: Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 47th consecutive game. That ties him with Johnny Unitas for the longest such streak in NFL history. Brees will get a chance to break that against the team that drafted him and later dumped him.

Colston shows up: Wide receiver Marques Colston had been very quiet in the first three games. He wasn’t quiet against the Packers. Colston had nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

What’s next: The Saints will host San Diego at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next Sunday night.

Halftime thoughts on Saints-Chiefs

September, 23, 2012
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The New Orleans Saints aren’t dominating, but they’re winning 10-6 at halftime against Kansas City.

When you’re 0-2, that’s a good step. The Saints still have a full half to go and nothing is guaranteed. But, if they can keep playing this way, they’ll keep their season alive. If they somehow let this slip away, they’re 0-3 and in deep, deep trouble.

But, if you go just by what we’ve seen in the first half, the Saints should be safe. Their defense, which struggled mightily in the first two games, suddenly is playing well. Give the Saints some credit for that, but it also needs to be pointed out that Kansas City’s offense has been dismal.

The New Orleans offense still hasn’t gotten into the rhythm it was in for the past few years. Quarterback Drew Brees has been under a lot of pressure by a defense that’s known for its ability to bring a lot of pressure.

The Saints really had a chance to pad their lead at the end of the first half. But what was first ruled a touchdown catch by Pierre Thomas was reversed. Brees was then sacked, forcing a field goal attempt. Garrett Hartley missed that field goal.

The Saints need to keep playing defense the way they have been. More importantly, they need to do a better job of protecting Brees and getting the offense on track.

Feel free to share your thoughts on the Saints in the comments section below. I'll be back with a wrap-up soon after the game ends.

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