NFC South: Houston Texans
Some observations from the New Orleans Saints’ 34-27 preseason victory against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Saturday night.
- There’s no doubt the defense is a concern. But let’s keep a few things in mind. Houston is one of the league’s better offenses, the Saints were starting backup linebackers and, most importantly, the defense doesn’t have to be great when you’ve got Drew Brees and this offense. The Saints fell behind 14-0 quickly, but Brees put the Saints right back into the game. Brees and the offense are good enough to keep the Saints in any regular-season game.
- With starting linebackers David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton sidelined by injuries, the Saints started Jonathan Casillas in the middle with Scott Shanle and Will Herring on the outside. Lofton has a high-ankle sprain and Hawthorne is recovering from knee surgery. There’s no guarantee they’ll be ready for the start of the regular season. At the start of training camp, I thought Herring wouldn’t be on the opening-day roster and Shanle would be pushed into a backup role. Casillas is an outside guy, who was forced into the middle because there really was no alternative. Veteran Barrett Ruud recently was brought in via trade and played in the second half, but I’m not sure he has much left. If the Saints have to go a few games into the regular season with that trio starting, they’ll have big problems. I’m thinking there’s a linebacker (or two) on another roster at the moment that could end up with the Saints shortly.
- I did see some individual bright spots on the defense. Second-year defensive end Cameron Jordan produced an early sack, even though he blatantly was held. I really believe Jordan will prosper in the system of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is another guy I think is going to emerge in Spagnuolo’s system. Jenkins showed signs of that when he read a reverse perfectly and popped the ball out of Keshawn Martin’s hands for a fumble that was recovered by Will Smith.
- I think it was pretty telling that rookie cornerback Corey White was getting some playing time in the first quarter. White knocked a ball out of Martin’s hands and Sedrick Ellis recovered. It’s looking more and more like White is going to get some playing time in the nickel and dime packages.
- A couple of other young defensive players that I think are on the rise made big plays on special teams. Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus forced a Trindon Holliday fumble on a kickoff return and defensive end Junior Galette scooped it up and raced in for a touchdown.
- The competition for the fourth running back spot between Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet continues to provide some drama. Ivory lost a fumble on the first drive. But Ivory might have redeemed himself with some nice running in the third quarter, although that came against Houston’s second-team defense. But Cadet also looked good as a receiver out of the backfield. This one is going to be a very close call.
- Speaking of guys fighting for roster spots and fumbles, wide receiver Joseph Morgan put the ball on the ground once. He made a nice catch, but kept fighting too long after his forward progress was stopped by three guys and one of them popped the ball loose. Morgan’s fumble led to a quick and easy touchdown for Houston. But Morgan might have redeemed himself a bit with a fourth-quarter touchdown catch.
- Tight end Jimmy Graham won’t say if he bulked up in the offseason, but he sure looks like he did. If so, it hasn’t slowed him down a bit. Graham looks even better than he did last season, when he had 99 catches.
This should come as absolutely no surprise, because it’s what the Carolina Panthers envisioned on draft day and what they’ve seen so far in training camp. But the world got to see the impact of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly in Saturday night’s preseason opener, a 26-13 loss to the Houston Texans.
It didn’t take long for Kuechly to do what he’s done in practice every day -- make a big play. On Houston’s second drive of the night, Kuechly put a big hit on running back Arian Foster and forced a fumble that was recovered by safety Sherrod Martin. That turnover helped set up a field goal for the Panthers.
Kuechly left the game after the first quarter, but finished with two solo tackles, two assists and the forced fumble. Spread that out over four quarters and over an entire season, and it sure looks like the Panthers have found a playmaker at linebacker.
Some other observations on the Panthers:
- It was hard to really get a read on quarterback Cam Newton’s performance. Statistically, it wasn’t great. He completed two of six passes for 16 yards, and also ran twice for 16 yards. But Newton didn’t get blocking from his offensive line and also had at least one pass dropped. Newton led the Panthers to a field goal before leaving the game after three offensive series. It also was pretty obvious the Panthers weren’t showing anything close to their full playbook.
- It was only a preseason game, but you could tell by the way the Panthers shuffled DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert with the first team that they have big plans for their backfield. All three are going to get quality playing time. Nothing wrong with that. The Saints had pretty good luck last season shuffling Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory.
- Speaking of running back depth, rookie Tauren Poole, who had a short touchdown run in the second quarter, has a decent chance to make this team. At worst, he’s probably a guy the Panthers would like to keep on the practice squad.
- The Panthers held middle linebacker Jon Beason out as he recovers from a minor injury that’s not related to the torn Achilles tendon he suffered last season. Jason Phillips started in Beason’s place and came up with an interception late in the first quarter. If Phillips continues to progress and Thomas Davis can get healthy, the Panthers could have some very nice depth at linebacker.
- Speaking of linebacker depth, the Panthers have plenty on the outside as well. Jordan Senn, who was a part-time starter last season, is going to be a backup this season. But Senn was very productive Saturday night, leading the Panthers with 13 tackles.
- The Panthers went to great lengths to try to improve their special teams in the offseason. So far, that’s not paying off. Carolina allowed Trindon Holliday to return a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown.
- I'm not sure rookie Joe Adams will have much of a role as a receiver, because there's so much depth at the position. But, after watching his spectacular third-quarter punt return, I'm thinking there's a good chance Adams has a big role in the return game.
- I think Louis Murphy already was in the mix to be the No. 3 receiver. But he might have moved into the lead for that job Saturday night. Murphy had a nice leaping catch on the sideline in the second quarter, and also caught another pass where he put a nice move on the defensive back that resulted in some yards after the catch.
- Forget any chance of Jeremy Shockey being re-signed by the Panthers. Gary Barnidge sure looks like he’s ready to be the No. 2 tight end.
- Be sure to check out the Camp Confidential profile on the Panthers. It's scheduled to pop up on the blog early Sunday afternoon.
That’s quite a tribute to the offensive linemen and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. Plus, you could throw in offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and coach Sean Payton because they obviously have a lot to do with how the offensive line is used.
But I think the thing that really stands out to me about Tucker’s ranking, is that the Saints really only have two blue-chip offensive linemen. Guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks are All-Pros and they really carry this line, especially consider the fact the Saints went through some big changes on the line before and during the season.
They let veteran center Jonathan Goodwin go in free agency, coincidentally to the 49ers, who play the Saints on Saturday. They also released veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb in training camp. They signed veteran Olin Kreutz to replace Goodwin. But Kreutz got injured, came back briefly, but the left the team, saying his heart no longer was in the game.
After Kreutz left, the Saints got a very nice surprise. Brian de la Puente has stepped in and played pretty well. I’m sure he’s helped by the fact he’s sandwiched between Nicks and Evans, but de la Puente certainly deserves some of the credit.
Right tackle Zach Strief took over for Stinchcomb, but Strief missed five games around the middle of the season with injury. Strief is healthy now and like de la Puente, Strief isn’t considered a big-time talent.
You could even throw left tackle Jermon Bushrod into that category. I know Bushrod made the Pro Bowl this season, but I think that had a lot to do with how prolific the offense is. Bushrod has more talent than Strief or de la Puente and has developed into a solid player. But he’s not a great left tackle.
But I think the moral of this story is that, if you have the two best guards in the NFL, they’re going to make the guys around them look a lot better.
He got away from that after joining the New Orleans Saints in 2008 and had been pretty quiet since joining the Carolina Panthers this season.
But Shockey's outspoken side surfaced again. Shockey was seen pointing at and saying something to Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans and defensive back Jason Allen after he caught a touchdown pass from Cam Newton in Carolina's victory on Sunday.
Shockey later explained his actions and said he was upset because a number of Texans did not put their hands over their hearts during the national anthem. Shockey estimated about 10 Texans did not have their hands over their hearts.
"I was pretty upset in the way they weren't showing respect to America during the national anthem," Shockey said. "This is America and you should at least give respect to America.
"This is America and this is just a game and they should not only be very proud of this country, but very gifted to be living here. Maybe they just forgot to do it or something, but I don't see how you could forget to do that."
When told of Shockey’s comments, Ryans fired back.
"If he's so patriotic, why was he looking at our bench instead of the flag?" Ryans said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "Where did he come up with the number 10? Was he counting? Why was he paying attention to us during the national anthem?"
Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 28-13 victory against the Houston Texans on Sunday at Reliant Stadium:
What it means: A lot more than you think. This was a turning point for Ron Rivera and his young team. The Panthers went on the road and beat a good team. That’s a step toward bigger and better things for next season. The Panthers had come close to doing something like this a bunch of times this season, but they always built a lead and let it slip away. This time they didn’t. A defense that’s been decimated by injuries and struggled all season stepped up and held a good offense to 13 points. Imagine what Rivera, a defensive coach, can do next season when he gets some injured defenders back and fills a few holes through the draft and free agency? Even the present is much brighter than it was before. The Panthers are 5-9 and no longer are in last place in the NFC South. That honor now belongs exclusively to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Play of the day:DeAngelo Williams’ 24-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. It came at a time when the Panthers looked like they were starting to collapse again.
Unsung hero: Jordan Senn, who would have been about seventh on Carolina’s depth chart at the start of training camp, came up with a huge interception. Carolina lost linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason to injuries early in the season. The Panthers then went through a bunch of linebackers. But Senn finally earned a starting role. Even when the Panthers get healthy at linebacker next season, Senn should have a job.
Disappointment of the day: Cam Newton came in needing only 167 yards to break Peyton Manning’s record for passing yards by a rookie. Newton came up a bit short, getting 149 against Houston. I think it’s a safe bet Newton will get the record in his next game. Newton threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
What’s next: The Panthers host the Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday.
Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 17-10 loss against the Houston Texans on Sunday at Reliant Stadium.
What it means: This one’s not going to help Atlanta’s chances of getting to the playoffs or catching the Saints in the NFC South. The Falcons are 7-5 and could fall two games behind the Saints in the win column if New Orleans wins on Sunday night against Detroit.
What I didn’t like: The Falcons came out and tried to be very aggressive on offense early on. Nothing wrong with that. But Matt Ryan and his receivers weren’t in sync, and that got Atlanta off to a rough start. Ryan was intercepted twice in the first half. The Falcons never really got running back Michael Turner and the running game on track.
Wasted opportunities: The Falcons had two 12-play drives in the second half that didn’t result in any points. The defense played a decent game, but wasn’t able to force many mistakes by rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, who was making his first NFL start.
The streak is over: The Falcons had a streak of 14 consecutive games without allowing a running back to rush for 100 yards. That’s over. Arian Foster rushed for 111 yards.
Festival of flags: The Falcons were their own worst enemy. They had two apparent defensive touchdowns wiped out by penalties. They also weren’t able to get a play off before the play clock expired on a fourth down in the fourth quarter. Rookie Julio Jones also had a critical penalty late in the game as he made an apparent catch that was wiped out because he went out of bounds and came back inbounds.
What’s next: The Falcons travel to Carolina to play the Panthers next Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Jones and Turner each practiced on a limited basis after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday. The outlook isn't as promising for a couple of other players. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quadriceps) and cornerback Kelvin Hayden (toe) each are listed as doubtful.
The Falcons already have said Brent Grimes is out and that means Christopher Owens likely will start opposite Dunta Robinson and Dominique Franks will be used in nickel situations.
Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 24-14 victory against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
What it means: The Falcons continue to be a hard team to figure out. They came out and started fast. They looked like they were going to have a very easy time with the Vikings. But Atlanta let Minnesota back in the game in the third quarter and that made things more interesting than they should have been. That’s kind of been the story of Atlanta’s entire season. The Falcons have been maddeningly inconsistent and nothing has come easy for them. But the bottom line is the Falcons are 7-4. They’ve pulled even with the Saints, who play Monday night, and they’re very much a factor in the NFC South race.
Roddy’s on a roll: After starting the season very slowly, receiver Roddy White has come on strong in the past two games. White had his second straight 100-yard receiving game and caught a touchdown pass. Fellow receiver Julio Jones also returned from a hamstring injury. Jones didn’t show up big on the stat sheet, but his presence helped White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez have big games. That’s a big part of the reason the Falcons traded up in the draft to get Jones.
What I didn’t like: I don’t think it was by design, but middle linebacker Curtis Lofton wound up in deep coverage on Percy Harvin on a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter. Lofton is a solid linebacker, but he shouldn’t ever be put in a situation where he has to cover a speed receiver downfield.
Defense rising: I’ve said several times throughout the season that the NFC South race will come down to defense. I realize the Vikings were playing without Adrian Peterson and were starting rookie quarterback Christian Ponder. But the Atlanta defense shut the Vikings down. Minnesota had only two first downs in the first half. It took some time to get it together, but Atlanta’s defense has played well in recent weeks and seems to be improving. If that continues, it could help the Falcons tremendously down the stretch.
What’s next: The Falcons travel to Houston to play the Texans next Sunday at Reliant Stadium.
Thoughts on New Orleans’ 40-33 victory against the Houston Texans at the Superdome:
What it means: No matter what happens in the later game between Tampa Bay and Atlanta, the Saints still will have at least a share of first place in the NFC South and that’s the most important thing to come out of Sunday. This game was far from pretty for the defense, which is showing a trend of struggling against good offenses.
The streak continues: For the first time in franchise history, the Saints have started a season by scoring 30 points or more in each of their first three games.
The streak continues II: Drew Brees threw for three touchdowns. He now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 30 consecutive games. That ties him with Dan Marino for the third-longest streak of games with a touchdown pass in NFL history.
What I didn’t like: After throwing a career-high 22 interceptions last season, Brees started this year by going through the first two games without an interception. That streak ended against Houston as Brees was picked off twice.
Unsung heroes: With top receiver Marques Colston out, the Saints continued to get good production from elsewhere. Lance Moore led the way with nine catches for 88 yards and tight end Jimmy Graham had four catches for 100 yards and a touchdown. Running back Darren Sproles added six catches and Robert Meachem had five catches, including a touchdown.
What’s next: The Saints will play at Jacksonville next week. They won’t be back in the Superdome until Oct. 23 when they host the Indianapolis Colts. After Jacksonville, the Saints have road games at Carolina and Tampa Bay.
It could have been a miserable week for both units, but the first-team offense finally showed signs it’s getting on track in Saturday night's 27-14 preseason loss to the Houston Texans. It took until the sixth preseason possession, but the first-team offense scored its first touchdown.
Even before that, the Saints looked good on their first two drives. But the first drive ended with Drew Brees getting hit and fumbling in the red zone. Brees completed 7 of 14 passes for 109 yards and the first offense moved the ball well after struggling in last week’s preseason debut.
The first-team defense didn’t have nearly as much success. The Texans scored 17 points against New Orleans’ starting defense. That was a big switch from last week when the defense was dominant against San Francisco.
Although the humidity in Oxnard should be much lower than Louisiana, fiery defensive coordinator Gregg Williams probably won’t notice the difference. He’s going to be looking to fix a lot of things -- and probably won't be in the best of moods -- after Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson made his defense look bad.
Some other observations on the Saints.
- I liked the way Sean Payton mixed the playing time for running backs Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles with the first-team offense. All three made contributions and Ingram scored the lone touchdown for the first offense on a powerful 1-yard run.
- Zach Strief got the start at right tackle after the Saints released former starter Jon Stinchcomb. But Charles Brown also got some playing time and the Saints will soon have to make a decision on which of the two young tackles they want to start. On the Saints’ television broadcast, general manager Mickey Loomis said the team likes both Brown and Strief and “there’s no bad choice’’ for the starting job.
- Joseph Morgan, an undrafted rookie from Walsh College, continues to be one of the biggest surprises of the preseason. Right after Brees and the starters left, backup quarterback Chase Daniel hit Morgan on a 56-yard touchdown pass. Morgan returned a punt for a touchdown in the preseason opener and is making a strong case for a roster spot.
- With free safety Malcolm Jenkins sitting out, Paul Oliver got the start. Things didn’t go well for him. He was beaten in coverage several times and missed an open-field tackle on Foster.
- Jonathan Casillas got the start over Scott Shanle at weak-side linebacker. Casillas was active, but maybe a little too eager to make a big impression. He got flagged for an unnecessary-roughness penalty for a late hit.
- The Saints have a crowded backfield, but there might be room for Patrick Cobbs, who was signed this week. He looked good as a runner and receiver late in the game. He's also got a track record as a strong special-teams player.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Here's some video of New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey mixing it up with several members of the Texans during this morning's joint practice.
Shockey gets in a few good swings early on, but quickly gets engulfed by the Texans.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
But AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky was in Houston for this morning's practice between the Saints and Texans, which turned into a boxing match.
Here's Paul's report.
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
I'm out at One Buccaneer Place waiting for the Bucs to begin their final practice of training camp. But the Saints and Texans were practicing together in Houston this morning and my AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky was there.
You can click here to see Paul's observations on the Saints and Texans.
METAIRIE, La. -- Although the New Orleans Saints are moving training camp back to their own practice facility, they won't spend all of camp there. They'll spend a couple of days in Houston.
Team officials are in the process of finalizing plans for the Saints to work out with the Texans in advance of an Aug. 22 preseason game between New Orleans and Houston.