NFC South: Jairus Byrd

My two biggest takeaways after reviewing the tape of the New Orleans Saints' defense: The tackling was just as bad as advertised, but the cornerback play wasn't as glaring a concern as one might expect.

The Saints allowed a franchise-record 445 passing yards in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. But they rarely got burned over the top by big-play threats Julio Jones and Roddy White. The only two times the Saints got beat deep were a 35-yard pass to Devin Hester and a 27-yarder to Jones, both against cornerback Patrick Robinson.

The bad news was that the Saints were repeatedly burned by the underneath stuff, and they didn't get enough pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan. Most of the Falcons' yardage came via those missed tackles, too many big cushions in zone coverage, pick plays and screen plays.

Here are some more observations:

Missed tackles: Yikes. Pro Football Focus credited the Saints with 16 missed tackles -- and many of them were costly.

Lofton
The low point was the 54-yard touchdown by Falcons fourth-string running back Antone Smith on a dump-off pass in the third quarter. Linebacker Curtis Lofton was spying Smith in coverage and probably would have been able to make the tackle. But fellow linebacker David Hawthorne came crashing down toward Smith, and a block by Jones actually knocked Hawthorne into Lofton's path, taking them both out of the play. After that, none of the Saints' defensive backs reacted well enough to make the tackle in the open field. Safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro were both hanging back, and neither got a good enough angle on Smith. Robinson also couldn't get in position after being blocked by tight end Levine Toilolo.

I was especially stunned to see Vaccaro miss so many open-field tackles. As Vaccaro pointed out after the game, he had more Sunday than he had all of last season (PFF credited him with six misses, compared to three in 2013). The roughest was when running back Jacquizz Rodgers made Vaccaro miss with a nifty spin move during a 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Another huge missed tackle came in the second quarter, when cornerback Keenan Lewis wasn't able to stop running back Devonta Freeman short of the first-down marker on third-and-12.

Robinson
Evaluating Robinson: It's tough to say how much blame should fall on Robinson's shoulders. For most of the game, the Saints decided to put Lewis in single coverage on White and put Robinson on Jones, with safety help. Robinson got burned twice, by Hester and Jones, and in both cases he wasn't even in position to turn and make a play on the ball. There was at least one more instance where Robinson missed a press on Jones at the line, but Ryan didn't look Jones' way.

One could argue that the mere fact Robinson required safety help is a strike against him. But then again, we're talking about Julio Jones. And Jones wasn't the reason the Saints got beat. Most of his yardage came via wide-receiver screens.

So I'm not ready to give up on Robinson just yet. But there is reason for concern.

Other coverage woes: The two bigger problems for the Saints' pass defense were the missed tackles and some big cushions in zone coverage. I'm not sure whether this comes down to scheme or communication. At one point, after Lewis gave up a 2-yard TD pass to White in tight coverage, he immediately turned to Vaccaro, looking upset that Vaccaro let White get behind him so quickly. (Correction: After further viewing, it appears Lewis was complaining to the ref, not Vaccaro.)

One of the costliest plays came late in the fourth quarter, when the Saints had Atlanta pinned on its own 6-yard line. Lewis and Byrd gave Jones too much cushion for an easy 23-yard catch. There were a handful of plays like that -- including Atlanta's 20-second field-goal drive before halftime.

Ryan deserves plenty of credit. He did an outstanding job scrambling outside the pocket or making great throws while the pocket collapsed around him, especially on a 21-yard throw to Hester in the fourth. I've never seen Ryan better.

Galette
Pressure un-packed: It was surprising to see the Saints wind up with just one sack (a great power play by Tyrunn Walker on a three-man rush) against a depleted Falcons offensive line. Junior Galette brought pressure a handful of times and was blatantly held one time that wasn't called. Cameron Jordan, Kasim Edebali and Walker each came close at least once. But it wasn't nearly effective enough.

By my count, the Saints blitzed on 11 pass plays and at least one run play. They got burned early (including the 35-yarder to Hester, the 2-yard TD to White and the 27-yarder to Jones). But Ryan was just 2-of-6 for 11 yards against the blitz in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Other good stuff: Byrd's forced fumble against Jones in the second quarter was exactly the kind of aggressive, instinctive play he's known for. Byrd looked like he knew exactly what he was doing as he targeted the ball while making a nice open-field hit. ... The Saints' defense would have been lauded for its three-and-out in overtime if Matt Bryant hadn't nailed the 52-yard field goal. They started with two run stuffs (one with great penetration by Byrd), and Galette pressured Ryan into an incomplete pass on a blitz. ... Lofton played well, highlighted by a handful of big-time sticks in the run game. ... Lewis, White and Galette (in a rare spot dropping back in coverage) all made nice open-field stops. Vaccaro had a great goal-line stuff against Steven Jackson. Rafael Bush had a big-time solo stop on special teams. ... Lewis had a nice pass breakup that could've been an interception in the red zone.
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ATLANTA -- This is supposed to be the best defense the New Orleans Saints have fielded in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

So it was absolutely flabbergasting to see the Saints post one of the worst defensive performances in franchise history on Sunday.

The Saints allowed a franchise-record 445 passing yards and the second-most total yards in franchise history (568) in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

The only good news is the Saints won't have much problem identifying the biggest culprit: missed tackles.

The Falcons took turns bouncing through the Saints' defense like pinballs as they rallied from early deficits of 13-0 and 20-7.

"We had so many missed tackles. I had so many. I missed more in this game than I did all of last year," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who got burned on two of the Falcons' most back-breaking plays -- a 54-yard touchdown catch by Antone Smith on a short, dump-off pass late in the third quarter, and a 17-yard touchdown run by Jacquizz Rodgers in the fourth.

"We've just gotta finish, man," Vaccaro said. "I don't know how many yards they had, over 500. But that was ridiculous. It can't happen."

Of course, it's way too early to panic.

This was "only" Week 1. The Saints are still loaded with talent on a defense that was outstanding last season -- even more loaded now that they added safety Jairus Byrd, who forced a fumble in the first half Sunday. And the Falcons have one of the deepest passing attacks in the league after they showed off new weapon Devin Hester. Upcoming opponents such as Cleveland and Minnesota won't pose the same threat to New Orleans.

Plus, as both Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis insisted, missed tackles are a problem that can and will get corrected.

"That ain't gonna be the reason why we lose games again," Lewis said. "I'm pretty sure that we ain't gonna lose again because of missed tackles."

So hope still exists. But that doesn't erase how downright ugly things were Sunday -- and how quickly the Saints let the Falcons back into the NFC South picture.

This felt a lot more like 2012 -- when Atlanta was 13-3 and New Orleans' defense set a record for yards allowed in a season -- than 2013.

The Saints' ultimate problem turned out to be the Falcons' depth.

New Orleans was clearly intent on shutting down Atlanta's two biggest weapons, receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. Lewis was mostly matched up in single coverage on White, and Jones was mostly bracketed by cornerback Patrick Robinson and Byrd.

And it mostly worked -- at least during the first 29 minutes. Jones and White really only had one deep catch apiece, a 39-yarder for White and a 27-yarder for Jones.

But where the Saints really fell short was just about everywhere else.

They didn't get nearly enough pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan, sacking him only once while using mostly a four-man rush. As linebacker Junior Galette said, the Saints' pass rush was "almost non-existent."

And they didn't wrap up receivers and running backs on the underneath stuff because of all those missed tackles.

"We had perfect calls called, and we've just got to make plays," linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "You've gotta get off the field on third down. You've gotta play great red-zone defense. And you've gotta tackle well.

"We didn't do that today, so we lost."
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 on Hard Knocks, emergency QB

September, 5, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – This was a jam-packed week for New Orleans Saints news. So I wanted to make sure some of the week’s interesting notes and quotes didn’t get left on the cutting-room floor. Here’s some of the best of the rest:

Scouting Hard Knocks? Since the Week 1 opponent Atlanta Falcons were featured on HBO’s training camp documentary “Hard Knocks” this summer, a handful of players were asked if they watched to try and gain any scouting advantage. I know a lot of them were watching, based on their tweets during the opening episode. But I didn’t find any who said they gleaned any scouing tips from it.

Quarterback Drew Brees, a thorough guy who typically turns over every stone, said he simply didn’t have time. (I guess the combination of preparing for the season, recovering from an oblique strain and bringing a new baby into the world adds up to a good excuse.)

Coach Sean Payton, however, did say that the Saints made sure to keep tabs on the all-access show.

“Typically, I would never have the time to watch it,” Payton said, adding, “I don’t even know what channel it’s on.”

“But,” Payton continued, “in this case what you will do is have people that have the time right now maybe scan through the episodes to see if there is something that you might gain from it. You would look to see if there was anything cadence-related, anything personnel-related. Look, there is that conflict that always exists with what they are looking for is not always in the best interest of the team they are covering, despite what they say. I think that our personnel people would pay attention to it and bring something to our attention.”

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees, Travaris Cadet and Jimmy Graham
AP Photo/Steven SenneTravaris Cadet would likely be the Saints' emergency quarterback this season.
Cadet the third QB: With longtime former receiver and emergency third quarterback Lance Moore now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New Orleans Saints need a new backup backup plan. Payton said they would go with running back Travaris Cadet if needed in a pinch.

“We took out stats and did a study here last week, and the two guys that have played the most amount of quarterback would be Travaris Cadet and Jairus Byrd,” Payton explained. “Now, Jairus Byrd’s numbers were better, but Travaris played in college. So Travaris would probably be someone to handle that role.

“We just recently did that and talked about it. Same thing with the snapper, the punter and the kicker. We’ll have a period tomorrow, just an ‘Are you ready?’ period where hypothetically the long snapper is down, hypothetically the punter is down, hypothetically the kicker is down, and just take a snap. You hope you go through the season and it doesn’t come up, you just have to be prepared if it does.”

Play-calling mystery: Payton, however, did not reveal who will be calling plays for the Saints’ offense this season, joking that, “We’ll probably see how the coin toss goes.” Payton said this summer that he might consider turning those duties back over to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., who handled them for most of 2011 and 2012. Either way, both coaches have stressed it will be a collaborative effort. And since they’ve been together since 2006, the offense wouldn’t change much either way.

Worth repeating: When asked what it’s like to face the Falcons without retired tight end Tony Gonzalez, Payton talked for a while about Gonzalez’s great skill set. Then he said, “We sent him his retirement card.”

Worth watching: Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan moonlighted as an actor on FXX’s “The League” this week. He joined Cleveland Browns tight end Jordan Cameron on the episode, which had some fun with their easily-mixed-up names.

Worth a click: If you want to scout the enemy this week, check out ESPN’s Falcons team page here. And follow ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure on Twitter @vxmcclure23.

Twelve out of 13 ESPN analysts picked the Saints over the Falcons in Week 1. Make it 14 of 15 if you include Vaughn and myself.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter talks about the Saints being at the forefront of the growing trend toward investing more in safeties in the NFL.
Jabari Greer's career with the New Orleans Saints was cut short last year by a major knee injury. He's still keeping close tabs on the team, and he has agreed to join me on occasion to share his thoughts on the Saints -- unless, of course, the right opportunity lures the veteran cornerback back onto the football field.

I broke down Greer's first installment into two parts this week. First, his thoughts on the New Orleans secondary:

[+] EnlargePatrick Robinson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Robinson has become a focal point of the defense with the release of veteran Champ Bailey.
On what he saw this summer from Champ Bailey, who was released Saturday: "He was really, really impressive on the play where Pierre Warren got the deep interception in the end zone in the last preseason game. The receiver ran something we call a post-corner-post -- they sell you on the post, then they run a double route to the corner. As a corner, you think that is the last route he's going to run, that's the one he's going to commit to. Then they run a third route, which is a post, and that's supposed to basically discombobulate you as a corner and open up those lanes. I saw Champ stay on the up-field and outside shoulder, not letting any of those moves that the receiver did deter him from staying in his technique. So I saw a guy that still had tremendous, tremendous technique. As a 16th-year player it's easy to rely on just your mental ability, knowing that you understand the game. But he consistently got up there and pressed the receiver, challenged the receiver and relied on his physical ability. That goes to show that he still has confidence, that he can play at a high level. I just believe that just the lack of reps and the emergence of Brian Dixon playing at a tremendous level led to a business decision."

On the choice of Patrick Robinson as the No. 2 cornerback: "He is probably one of the best athletes on the team. As far as his footwork, just as far as his potential -- he can be in the talk as one of the best cornerbacks in the league once he completes his game. But the mental aspect of overcoming adversity, trusting yourself and believing that you have everything it takes to be a dominant corner is the only question with Patrick Robinson. If he can play with the confidence of a Darrelle Revis, if he can play with the confidence of a Patrick Peterson, he can dominate. The Saints can have a tremendous duo with Keenan Lewis and Patrick Robinson. I knew he was going to win that battle, based on his health coming back from that [knee] injury."

On whether Robinson had a rough game in the preseason finale when the Ravens picked on him with short and mid-range passes, or whether he was allowing a cushion by design: "I've talked to P-Rob concerning this. As a corner, you have to play confident. And you have to play to your strengths. I believe that last preseason game, given what they've shown on film, Patrick Robinson understood they were a team that did a lot of double moves. So I believe he erred on the side of caution. As a corner, sometimes you have to understand that they are a team who likes to go for the deep ball. If he would've been extremely aggressive and broke up those five curls but given up two deep balls, we would be talking about how Patrick Robinson has lost a step, you know. I know that he was playing on the side of caution, given that it was the last preseason game. I know that going on Week 1, we will see a different Patrick Robinson, a more confident player."

Byrd
On the Saints' secondary as a whole: "The secondary has tremendous talent. As talented as they've been in a very long time. But talent doesn't necessarily equal success. 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. ... We didn't get to see Jairus Byrd in a lot of collective action that much with Kenny Vaccaro. But I think what we did see is tremendous closing speed. He understands the defense, communication. And we saw veteran leadership. Letting Champ Bailey go, they must think highly of Jairus Byrd's and Kenny Vaccaro's leadership. 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."

On whether Lewis could fill that leadership role: "Keenan is in that conversation. Usually if it's a wash between the corners and the safeties as far as experience, the safeties -- being the quarterback of the defense -- are the de facto choice for leadership, because they are the ones that have to understand where the corners are going to be. And usually being a corner, you can be in your own world. You can honestly just concern yourself with what you have to do and be effective. So I definitely think that Keenan with his work ethic, with his desire to want to be the best, will lead by example. I know for a fact he'll be a leader. But that team needs that vocal leader. When times get tough, who is that person that is going to reassure you that the game plan is correct, that the work that you put in is gonna be enough to get you through that hump? Guys like myself, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper, we were those type of guys. So that's the type of leadership that I'm interested in seeing."
METAIRIE, La. -- Jairus Byrd isn’t just the proverbial “last guy on the field” after practice.

The New Orleans Saints safety is the last guy on the field, on his knees, catching balls one-handed from the JUGS machine.

That’s how you get to become one of the NFL’s top ball hawks. That, and a quick first step and uncanny ball skills that Byrd’s new coaches and teammates have raved about since he signed a six-year, $54 million contract in free agency in March.

[+] EnlargeByrd
AP Photo/Chris TilleySaints safety Jairus Byrd works in practice to keep his ball skills sharp.
“I feel I have to be able to catch the ball just as well as a receiver does. When the ball’s in the air, it’s just as much mine as theirs,” Byrd said of his post-practice methods. “That’s the approach. You never know when it’s going to come. I have to have as good hands as they do to catch balls.”

Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, ranks as the 20th-best defensive player in the NFL according to this year’s ESPN #NFLRank poll of 90 NFL analysts.

Byrd, 27, has 22 career interceptions -- the second most in the NFL in that span behind Asante Samuel, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound Byrd also has forced 11 turnovers in his career.

That’s the skill set the Saints coveted most when they aggressively went out and signed Byrd within hours of the start of free agency.

The Saints defense was outstanding last year, surging from 32nd in total defense in 2012 to fourth in 2013 under new coordinator Rob Ryan. But the one area where they came up short was takeaways. It seems almost mathematically impossible, but the Saints forced only four turnovers in the last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs.

Enter Byrd, who becomes the Saints' highest-ranked defensive player on the #NFLRank list.

The hope is that Byrd will continue to provide those turnovers -- and that his thievery will spread throughout the defense, as turnovers are known to do.

"Once you get that first one, you just have this energy, almost like a shark," Byrd said. "You feel it. You go for the ball and it gets contagious. Everybody around the whole secondary is looking to get that turnover.”

Byrd’s start with the Saints was delayed when he underwent a summer back surgery to relieve a nagging disk issue, sidelining him for all of OTAs and minicamp.

But once he returned to full-contact drills a week ago, he quickly started living up to his reputation. He had two interceptions during his second full practice -- including a very impressive and deceptive pick against quarterback Drew Brees in 7-on-7 drills.

"Oh man, it was a ridiculous play," Brees said. "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."

Saints coach Sean Payton and Ryan have lavished similar praise on Byrd, crediting his anticipation and instincts as well as his athletic skills.

“Typically with a safety like that, it starts with the first step and anticipation. You can have great speed and ball skills, but if your anticipation is a step slow, you find yourself a step away from a play,” Payton said.

Added Ryan: “There comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father [longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd].”
METAIRIE, La. -- Count Champ Bailey among those who believe New Orleans Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis is too under-appreciated.

When asked where he thinks Lewis fits in with other elite corners in the league, Bailey said, "He's up there. It just takes you guys to start talking about him now."

[+] EnlargeChamp Bailey
AP Photo/Bill HaberVeteran cornerback Champ Bailey says he has high expectations for the Saints' defense this season.
"I don't understand why he wasn't in the Pro Bowl last year, why he wasn't an All-Pro," Bailey said. "He played like one. Matching up every week (against opponents' top receivers), he was the guy. He is a proven No. 1 corner. I just told him to keep his nose down, keep grinding, and people will start to take notice."

True to form, Lewis' best play of the preseason didn't even get proper credit last week, when he appeared to make a diving interception after tipping a deep ball away from Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. The pass was ruled incomplete, because coach Sean Payton said he figured it would be ruled inconclusive either way. But it sure looked like a pick from the end-zone camera angle.

When asked if he credited Lewis with an interception after watching the film of last week's game at Indianapolis, Bailey said, "I credited it that night."

"It looked pretty clean to me from where I was," Bailey said. "The ref was five feet away from him and didn't get it. I don't know what happened, but in our room he got a pick."

Bailey, who missed much of training camp with a minor foot injury, hadn't chatted with the media in a while. So the longtime former Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins standout was peppered with questions on a number of topics Tuesday. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On whether his foot injury was related to the plantar fasciitis that kept him sidelined for much of the 2013 season: "Well not to get too specific, it was the same foot but it was a little bit different thing to deal with. It's encouraging, because I didn't want anything lingering from last year. I feel good about where I'm going."
  • On whether the injury has hurt his chances of being an opening-day starter: "I'm not really concerned about it. I haven't lost any sleep over it. The only thing that bothers me is being hurt, period. It has gotten in the way of me playing football. That's what I love to do. Regardless of how much I'm playing, I'm always out there competing like I'm the starter or going to be."
  • On his impressions of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, before he played for him and now: "All I knew was his brother, mostly. I've seen Rob before but never met him, never been around him. He's a character, but at the same time this guy knows football. It's proven; he's one of the best X's and O's guys I know in this league. He's going to make sure we're in the right places to make the right plays."
  • On how many defensive coordinators he's played for now: "Probably 13 maybe. Twelve, 13 something like that. I lost count. I had one of those guys twice in two different systems."
  • On safety Jairus Byrd: "I talked to him at the Pro Bowl a couple of years ago and I told him how much I wanted to play with him. Who would ever think we'd be playing here together? But we are, and I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
  • On cornerback Patrick Robinson: "Great football player. I've seen him do some things that some guys can't do. That guy is fast, quick, and he gets his hands on a lot of balls in practice. It's starting to pay off, all the work he's put in."
  • On whether the Saints are as good as last year's Broncos team: "I'm not sure. It's hard to compare. It's different. The thing is, last year we weren't good enough to win. I feel like we've got some pieces here to win it, we've just got to make sure we don't worry about too far ahead, just worry about what's in front of us. The rest will take care of itself."
INDIANAPOLIS -- Champ Bailey is a future Hall of Famer. But he’s also a realist.

So the New Orleans Saints cornerback knows full well that he has to show his new team enough reason to put him in the lineup on Week 1.

Bailey hopes he finally started to do that this week after recovering from what he described as a minor foot injury.

Bailey
 “Yeah, I do have to prove what I can do,” Bailey said. “Even though I’ve played 15 years, it doesn’t matter. Man, this is a production business. I think every guy going into training camp has to show what he can do. And, you know, I feel good. If they like what I do, then I’ll play a lot on Sundays. Plain and simple.”

So far, so good, after Bailey played about 15-20 snaps in his preseason debut on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts. He entered the game in the second quarter, working with a mix of starters and backups. And he wasn’t targeted once by Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, finishing with one assisted tackle on a short pass to a tight end.

I mentioned to Bailey that I barely noticed him Saturday since the ball never seemed to be thrown near his side of the field. When I suggested that’s probably a good thing, Bailey said, “Hell, yeah. You know, that’s always good. Unless I’m making big plays.”

It’s worth noting that Patrick Robinson got the starting nod over Bailey on Saturday, even though both players were coming back from injuries. They’re battling for snaps opposite No. 1 starter Keenan Lewis. And so far, Robinson may be ahead in that battle, both because he has been in New Orleans longer and because he has shown more throughout training camp.

It’s still a pretty even competition, though, and both guys could wind up seeing the field in certain packages, along with physical corner Corey White.

Bailey, who signed an incentive-laden deal with the Saints this offseason after being released by the Denver Broncos, said he’s felt good about his performance when he’s been on the field this summer -- including a solid stretch during OTAs, minicamp and the first few days of training camp before he suffered the injury.

Bailey said it’s been tough to be out of action for so long. But he said it was the best thing long-term.

When I asked him if the long hiatus was a “play it safe and smart kind of thing,” Bailey said it was “a get healthy kind of thing.”

“It was just one of those things where I’ve just gotta make sure I’m right before I go out there,” Bailey said. “And the good thing was the timing of it was probably good because I had time to get right. I want to be out there with the guys, but obviously this is preseason. So we want to make sure we got all our bullets when it comes to the first game.”

That wound up being the Saints’ approach with a number of veteran players, even though coach Sean Payton said some of that was coincidental because of the timing and nature of certain injuries.

Quarterback Drew Brees, safety Jairus Byrd, guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and receiver Kenny Stills also made their preseason debuts on Saturday night -- though Stills exited after re-injuring his quadriceps.

Byrd, who only began full-contact work this week after having summer back surgery, also said he felt good in his return to the lineup. Although he didn’t snag any interceptions like the two he picked in practice Wednesday night, Byrd did shown nice burst and physicality on one open-field tackle, in particular.

"I'm just thankful to finally be out there, dust the rust off a little bit and just get with my teammates," Byrd told the media after the game.

When asked if he felt any rust, Byrd said not much.

"Obviously you want to get the hits out of the way. Everything felt real smooth,” Byrd said.

Saints Camp Report: Day 20

August, 21, 2014
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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.
MANDEVILLE, La. -- Injuries have delayed the true unveiling this summer. But the highly-touted New Orleans Saints secondary is finally starting to take shape.

Safety Jairus Byrd was the star of Wednesday night’s practice in just his second day of full-contact participation following summer back surgery. He had two interceptions (one in full-team drills, one in 7-on-7). And he also batted away a pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham in the end zone.

Byrd
Cornerback Keenan Lewis was back to full participation after being limited by an injury earlier in the week. Cornerback Champ Bailey was back to full participation for the first time since July 31. And cornerback Patrick Robinson was back on a limited basis for the first time in more than a week.

Safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Derrius Brooks also added interceptions during full-team drills Wednesday.

It was uncanny the way Byrd lived up to his reputation as a ball-hawking turnover producer on Wednesday night. The Saints signed Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract this offseason specifically to aid in their effort to force more turnovers. The three-time Pro Bowler had 22 interceptions during his five-year career with the Buffalo Bills, which ranks second in the NFL during that span.

“He’s someone that covers a lot of ground quickly. He’s really smart with his eyes. He’s a veteran player that understands formations and where the ball might be going,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “Typically with a safety like that, it starts with the first step and anticipation. You can have great speed and ball skills, but if your anticipation is a step slow, you find yourself a step away from a play.

“Tonight there were a couple of plays where the quarterbacks just commented, ‘Where’d he come from?’”

Byrd will make his preseason debut Saturday night at the Indianapolis Colts. Bailey might also make his preseason debut at Indianapolis.

“We’ll see,” Payton said. “I think he’s making progress. One of the things we’ve talked about was tomorrow will be an important day to see how some of these guys did following tonight’s practice.”

Robinson seems more questionable for Saturday night. But obviously there’s plenty of reason for optimism that the Saints’ secondary will be at full strength by Week 1 of the regular season -- just in time for a date with Julio Jones, Roddy White and the rival Atlanta Falcons.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

Although the New Orleans Saints quarterback is expected to be healed in plenty of time for the start of the regular season, the injury that has kept him sidelined for the past two weeks feels like one of those yin-and-yang type of deals. Like something had to go wrong to keep the Saints' training camp from going too smoothly.

Because aside from a handful of injury issues that have crept up this summer, the Saints' camp has been as idyllic as the cool mountain air in their new West Virginia training camp site.

Breakout young talents such as rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and second-year left tackle Terron Armstead have injected some new life into an offense that needed a boost in those two position groups. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense appears to be in better shape than ever during the Sean Payton-Brees era, with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan heading into his second season with even more talent at his disposal.

No, the image of Brees throwing passes to prized free-agent safety Jairus Byrd in street clothes before the start of the preseason opener wasn't exactly an awe-inspiring sight. But if they're both back to 100 percent by the start of the real opener, this team indeed has the feel of a bona fide Super Bowl contender.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Cooks has been everything that was advertised and then some. The first-round draft pick from Oregon State has repeatedly flashed his dynamic speed in practices, in the scrimmage and in the preseason opener, when he embarrassed two St. Louis Rams defensive backs with a wicked stop-and-go move. Cooks has also caught almost every pass thrown his way, including some trickier back-shoulder throws and some balls he had to go up and get behind safeties and corners. And he has remained humble and hardworking, demonstrating that the hype isn't going to his head. Although you never want to put too much on any rookie's plate, Cooks really looks like a guy who will help fill that big-play void that started to show up for the Saints last season.

[+] EnlargeCooks
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesIn the preseason opener, Saints rookie Brandin Cooks had five receptions for 55 yards and a TD.
2. The Saints' run game looks as if it could be a legitimate strength -- or at least a decent complement to the passing game. The blockers and runners alike have hit the ground running this summer after finishing strong last season. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson thrived in the preseason opener -- and that was without Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs in the lineup because of undisclosed injuries. Armstead is emerging as a tremendous young asset. And more than anything, you can tell there is a confidence among all the players and coaches after they figured out what worked (and what didn't) last season when they transitioned to more of a zone-blocking scheme under new line coach Bret Ingalls.

3. The simple law of averages says the Saints have to force more turnovers than in 2013, when they had only four takeaways over their last 11 games, including zero in the playoffs. But they're not just counting on a change in fortune. It's been a huge point of emphasis this offseason, starting with the Byrd signing. You constantly hear players and coaches cheering turnovers on the field or chattering about the opportunities they missed. One of the highlight moments in camp came early, when the entire secondary wildly celebrated after a great team effort by Champ Bailey and Rafael Bush to force, save and recover a fumble.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Brees' injury isn't expected to linger into the start of the regular season. And, in his 14th NFL season, he of all people should be able to handle missing preseason games. But it's obviously not ideal for him to be thrown off his routine. And it's a sobering reminder of how fragile the Saints' title chances are if anything happens to their future Hall of Fame quarterback.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Chris TilleyThe Saints' offense is in good hands -- as long as QB Drew Brees is healthy and ready to lead the charge.
2. Another future Hall of Famer, cornerback Bailey, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury that leaves his future -- and the Saints' No. 2 cornerback job -- in limbo. The good news is the Saints have some other decent options, including former starters Patrick Robinson and Corey White. And Robinson, especially, has looked good in his return from a 2013 knee injury. But in general, that No. 2 cornerback job remains as big of a question mark as it was to start the offseason.

3. Let's go with injuries one more time. It was unsettling to see both Evans and Grubbs out of the lineup for much of the past two weeks. Ideally, neither of their ailments will affect the regular season. But it's another reminder the Saints are getting older across the line -- and this coming on the heels of an inconsistent performance across the board in 2013, in part because of Evans' injuries. I still consider the Saints' line a strength. But they are counting on a healthy line since they don't have much proven depth to fall back on beyond their five starters.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Jimmy Graham remains the Saints' most potent playmaker, even though he missed all of the organized team activities and minicamp in a contract dispute. Graham had the fastest time of any player in the team's conditioning test at the start of camp. And safety Kenny Vaccaro said he thinks Graham looks faster and stronger on the field. Don't forget, Graham is now healthier after dealing with a painful foot injury for the second half of last season. Another monster season could be on the way.
  • The Saints have a lot of young defensive stars still on the rise who could be talked about in similar terms to Graham (end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Keenan Lewis, outside linebacker Junior Galette, Vaccaro and end Akiem Hicks among them). Lewis and Galette seem to be off to the hottest starts so far among that group. But I wouldn't be surprised to see any one of them in the Pro Bowl.
  • None of the Saints' other draft picks has stood out yet. Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, linebackers Khairi Fortt and Ronald Powell, and safety Vinnie Sunseri have all had their moments in practice and have shown some flashes of long-term potential. But they're also still in that "thinking too much to play at full speed" mode. If I had to pick a first-year player to make an early impact other than Cooks, I might go with Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball, a safety/special-teams asset.
  • The center battle between Jonathan Goodwin and second-year pro Tim Lelito is still too close to call. But both players have looked good, for the most part, so the winner should be worthy. This doesn't feel like a significant area of concern.
  • The Saints were hoping the kicker battle wouldn't be a tough call. But veteran Shayne Graham hasn't locked down the job yet in his battle with younger hopeful Derek Dimke, thanks in part to a missed 33-yard extra point in the preseason opener.
  • Second-year quarterback Ryan Griffin has looked great so far, giving him the early edge over veteran Luke McCown in the battle to become Brees' backup. Ideally, neither one of them will see the field this season. But either should be capable of keeping the Saints' loaded offense competitive if needed in a pinch.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan already proved how much he loves to feature safeties in his versatile defense last year. The Saints spent about 75 percent of their snaps in nickel defense -- almost always using three safeties on the field at once.

Now Ryan has even more ammo to work with after the Saints added three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in free agency to pair with returning young players Kenny Vaccaro and Rafael Bush.

When asked how much input he had in the Saints signing Byrd to a six-year, $54 million contract, Ryan said, “Uh, that is absolutely zero. But I was happy. That one came from much higher up than me, but I was ecstatic when I heard the news.”

The Saints were most attracted by Byrd’s ball skills and his ability to force turnovers. His 22 interceptions rank second in the NFL over the past five seasons.

“I think he’s got unique ball skills. If that ball hits his hands, he is going to catch it,” Ryan said. “But also with that, he is very smart. He can put himself into plays.”

I asked Ryan if Byrd “freelances” from time to time to wind up with so many picks.

“I think that one thing with turnovers in the National Football League, these are the best quarterbacks in the world. You have to play your technique. You have to be disciplined,” Ryan said. “But there comes a time and point where every turnover is made where a guy has to just go make it. And he’s been great all through his career. He’s played corner in college. I mean, he just has unique ball skills. And so did his father (longtime former NFL standout Gill Byrd).”

Ryan has always gushed with praise for second-year Saints safety Vaccaro as well. Last season, Ryan said he believed the Seattle Seahawks' Earl Thomas was the best free safety in the NFL, but Vaccaro was the best "overall safety” because of his versatility.

And Ryan also raved Tuesday about the hard-hitting Bush, who has played a big role both on defense and special-teams coverage for the past two seasons.

“Oh, he’s very important. He’s an excellent football player,” Ryan said of Bush, who was re-signed by the Saints as a restricted free agent after they matched a two-year, $4.5 million contract Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

“The Falcons did us a favor by giving him such a low offer,” Ryan said. “That’s great. We got him for two years. Thanks.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- It's still unclear whether or not safety Jairus Byrd will be back on the field for the New Orleans Saints' first training camp practice on Friday. But coach Sean Payton said he expects the three-time Pro Bowler back "sooner than later."

"Much like we expected," Payton said of Byrd, who underwent a minor back surgery this summer to alleviate a nagging disc issue.

Byrd
The Saints' original projection was for Byrd to be healthy enough to participate in training camp -- and back to full speed in plenty of time for the regular season. And a league source confirmed earlier this week that Byrd's recovery has been going as expected this summer.

Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis declined to make any official announcements about whether any veterans will be placed on the physically unable to perform list after they underwent their physicals and conditioning tests on Thursday.

But Payton compared Byrd's situation to that of second-year defensive tackle John Jenkins, who was placed on the PUP list earlier this week when the younger players reported to camp early for their conditioning tests in Metairie. Jenkins underwent minor pectoral surgery this summer and is also expected back soon.

Payton did, however, specify that receiver Joe Morgan is "a go" after Morgan missed all of organized team activities and minicamp this summer while still recovering from last year's knee surgery. Payton said Morgan has healed enough now to do everything, but it will just be a matter of the Saints deciding how quickly to bring him back up to speed.

Payton also addressed the injury that landed rookie offensive tackle Tavon Rooks on the non-football-injury list earlier this week. Payton said it was a minor back issue that he doesn't believe is significant and shouldn't keep Rooks off the field for long.

"Fortunately for us, that's not a big list right now," Payton said of the injuries. "And hopefully it can remain small."
New Orleans Saints safety Jairus Byrd's recovery from back surgery has gone as expected this summer, according to a league source. Byrd is expected to be healthy enough to participate in training camp, though it’s unknown if he will be limited when the Saints begin practicing Friday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Obviously there’s a good chance the Saints will take a cautious approach with their prized free-agent acquisition. But all along, they expected Byrd to recover in plenty of time to participate in training camp and be fully healthy for the regular season.

Byrd
Byrd missed all of OTAs and minicamp during the summer after he and the team decided he should have a minor surgery to alleviate a nagging disc issue in late May.

At the time, Saints coach Sean Payton described the surgery as “something that didn’t need to be done” and said it wouldn’t have been done if it were the regular season. But Payton said all parties, including doctors, felt it would be the best approach for Byrd’s long-term health.

Byrd, 27, was a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. The Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million contract, in large part because of his ball-hawking history. Byrd’s 22 interceptions over the past five years rank second in the NFL during that span. He also forced 11 fumbles.

As for other injuries, it remains unclear if defensive tackle John Jenkins (pectoral) and receiver Joe Morgan (knee) will remain sidelined or be limited at the start of training camp. Both players were also held out of OTAs and minicamp, but both are also expected to participate in training camp.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints’ OTA practice on Thursday was open to the media. Here’s my quick take on the observations that stood out most:

[+] EnlargeStanley Jean-Baptiste
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has impressed the Saints during offseason workouts.
Crowded CB battle: It looks like the competition for jobs behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis will be wide open this summer. Last week, we saw Patrick Robinson working with the first-string defense. Today, both Champ Bailey and Corey White were out there with the 1s while they spent most of team drills in nickel defense. Rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste also rotated in with the first-stringers at times, while Robinson worked with the second string.

Jean-Baptiste looked pretty good out there, including a play when he stuck with speedy, small receiver Charles Hawkins deep down the field, forcing Drew Brees to throw incomplete. Jean-Baptiste will need time to develop this summer, but he hasn’t looked too raw or lost out there at all. Defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff spoke highly of his progress after practice.

Toon looks solid: Third-year receiver Nick Toon had a nice practice, including one catch he had to reach up and pluck out of the air. As I’ve written since the middle of last season, I still think the Saints are high on Toon’s potential, even though he struggled during his brief opportunity for playing time last year while filling in for injured veterans.

Coach Sean Payton stressed Thursday that the Saints still have high expectations for Toon, and he could have an opportunity to play a significant role this year.

A lot of fans seem eager for the Saints to move on from Toon and maybe replace him with undrafted rookie big man Brandon Coleman. But so far Coleman looks like he may need some time to develop. He dropped a pass Thursday, though it’s obviously an extremely small sample size so far.

Lots of Cadet: It felt like Travaris Cadet was getting the lion’s share of the workload among the Saints’ running backs Thursday, both when the Saints were doing run plays and passing plays. He stood out even more than usual since the Saints aren’t doing any live tackling in practice at this stage of the offseason, but he still showed some speed and nifty elusiveness at times.

I think Cadet clearly ranks fourth in the pecking order at running back behind Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson. But he could indeed play a much greater role in this offense now that Darren Sproles has been traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Goodwin’s return: Veteran center Jonathan Goodwin was back on the field after signing his contract earlier this week. He was working with the second-team offense, while Tim Lelito remained with the first string. But Payton said it will be an open competition for the job this summer.

Goodwin is obviously thrilled to be back in New Orleans, where he played from 2006-10 before leaving for a more lucrative deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Goodwin said he considers New Orleans his second home and that leaving was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made. He said he even changed his mind twice at the time, telling the 49ers he was coming, then telling them he wasn’t, then switching back.

Other depth chart notes: Quarterback Ryan Griffin worked with the second-string offense throughout practice, but neither he nor Luke McCown stood out much, for better or for worse. The secondary had a nice practice, in general, denying anything from being completed deep. But the practice was mostly filled with run plays and shorter passes.

Second-year outside linebacker Rufus Johnson appeared to be working as a 3-4 defensive end for much of the practice, signaling either a possible position change or a versatile role.

Kenny Stills, Hawkins and running back Derrick Strozier took turns fielding punts, but it was more of a punt-coverage drill than a return drill, so it’s still unclear what the pecking order will be there. Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks is expected to be the No. 1 guy there when he returns to practice later this month. Cooks is not allowed to practice yet since his school, Oregon State, is still in session.

Injuries/roll call: Safety Jairus Byrd was watching from the sideline after having back surgery last week. Payton said he’s still expected to be ready for the start of training camp this summer. Defensive tackles John Jenkins and Tyrunn Walker remain sidelined with an undisclosed ailment. Receiver Joe Morgan was still working off to the side as he rehabs from last year’s knee injury.

Also not participating for undisclosed reasons: Receiver Steve Hull, linebacker Cheta Ozougwu and nose tackle Moses McCray.

And as expected, tight end Jimmy Graham was not present since he is still unsigned.

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