NFC South: Jairus Byrd

video When: Sunday, 1 p.m. Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: Fox

While the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons play for the NFC South championship Sunday, there’s another division game that means absolutely nothing.

The New Orleans Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale for both teams. The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Atlanta last Sunday. The 2-13 Bucs were out of contention long ago.

ESPN Saints writer Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Mike, with the playoffs out of the question, how will coach Sean Payton approach this game? Will he play his starters, and how motivated will they be?

Triplett: Payton said the starters will play and that they’ll approach it like any other game that counts. But the motivation is obviously tough to predict. Players have insisted that there are plenty of reasons to play, from their pride and competitive nature to the fact everyone is being evaluated for the future. But this will be a tough week for them since they had realistic playoff hopes up until last Sunday. This game will definitely have an “Outback Bowl” feel to it -- to use terms that Tampa fans can appreciate.

I’ll ask you the same question. I’m guessing 100 percent of Buccaneers fans would love to see them “tank” for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But it seems like NFL teams have never embraced that approach.

Yasinskas: Yes, Tampa Bay fans are rooting for the first overall pick, even if it comes at the expense of the Bucs' win-loss record. But coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Teams don’t tank in the NFL, and the Bucs aren’t about to break the trend. We’re talking about professional athletes with a lot of pride, so they’re going to play hard. Besides, the Bucs have some incentive in this one. They’re trying to avoid going winless at home. The only other time the Bucs didn’t win a home game was 1976, their expansion season.

Back in the preseason, I viewed the Saints as a playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender. They have a ton of talent. But, obviously, things haven’t gone well. What’s been the biggest problem for the Saints this year?

Triplett: Do we have a word limit? The problems have obviously been widespread to reach this point. The biggest was their defensive collapse. They went from fourth in yards allowed last year to 31st this year. They blew coverage assignments, missed tackles, didn’t force enough turnovers, didn’t get enough pressure. It’s stunning because they had most of the same core players as last year, plus they added safety Jairus Byrd (who struggled before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

In general, I’d chalk it up to a “sophomore slump.” They were counting on a lot of young guys, and I think a lot of them expected to just naturally take that next step. Either they weren’t as motivated or offenses had a better plan for them, etc. I still think it can be salvaged, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the offense also underachieved on a smaller scale with Drew Brees forcing way too many passes that turned into crucial interceptions in big moments and Jimmy Graham not making as big of an impact as he should have on a consistent basis.

Again, I’ll throw the same idea back at you. I predicted the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South because I think they have so much talent on defense, and I thought the veteran coach and QB would stabilize them. Is there still hope this team can contend in the division as early as next year?

Yasinskas: I predicted the Bucs would go 8-8 and thought they might even be able to get a win or two more. I thought the arrival of Lovie Smith, combined with some good defensive talent already in place, would be enough to fuel a quick turnaround.

Obviously, I was very wrong. Like you, I could write a book about everything that has gone wrong for the Bucs. But we don’t have room for a book, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. Things got off to a rocky start in the preseason when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had a heart procedure. He took a leave of absence and eventually left the team. I don’t think the offense ever recovered from that. Tedford was supposed to install an up-tempo, innovative offense. We never saw that and the offense never got into any sort of rhythm.

Despite Smith’s reputation as a defensive guru, the defense struggled early in the season. It took some time to learn the Tampa 2 scheme. The defense did improve pretty dramatically in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of offense.

I do think the Bucs can turn things around next season. But they’ve got to find a good offensive coordinator and they have to be a lot better on offense.

You mentioned Brees forcing a lot of throws. That’s what I think I’ve seen from a distance. But I’ve had personnel people around the league tell me that Brees is on the downside of his career. What’s your take on his season?

Triplett: I honestly don’t think we’ve seen major signs of regression, Pat. I think he has at least two or three more high-level years in him. But it has been a really weird season for Brees. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,671) and ranks second in completion percentage (69.6, which ranks seventh in NFL history). But those interceptions have been really bad -- especially considering some of the situations. This last one against Atlanta with a chance to win the game in the final minutes was one of a few real stunners this year.

Those interceptions have always been a part of Brees’ game, though -- especially in years when the defense has been bad and he feels like he needs to do it all himself. This season has been an exact replica of 2012 in that sense.

The other thing that’s disappearing is the downfield passing game. Brees’ arm strength doesn’t seem much different than past years, and his completion percentage on deep throws is still among the league’s best. But he’s not taking as many shots down the field, constantly settling for checkdown throws. I’m not sure if that’s because of defenses changing or his receivers getting older or because he has lost some of that deep-ball accuracy. I’m sure it’s a combination of all three -- but that’s probably not an area that will improve as he gets older.

What’s the Bucs’ future at quarterback? Could next year’s starter be gearing up for the College Football Playoff right now?

Yasinskas: It’s very possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could end up with the Bucs next season. The Bucs have been dismal on offense and they need to make major changes. Why not start with the quarterback position? Josh McCown is 35 and he probably is best suited to be a backup. Second-year pro Mike Glennon got a five-game look when McCown was hurt earlier this year. But it doesn’t appear that Glennon won over the coaching staff. With a high draft pick, it’s time for the Bucs to find their quarterback for the long term.

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METAIRIE, La. -- The salary cap is not the New Orleans Saints' biggest problem.

Yes, it's daunting. The Saints have more cap dollars on the books for 2015 than any team in the NFL (a whopping $161.3 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information).

But they've been in the same boat for three years, and they've proven time and again that they won't be paralyzed by the cap. Last year they signed Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette to mega-deals under similar circumstances.

It will be relatively easy for the Saints to trim the necessary $20 million or so by restructuring deals, releasing aging veterans and working out pay cuts. They'll trim $10 million with a simple tweak to Galette's deal, for instance.

[+] EnlargeColston
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe only way the Saints could bring back Marques Colston would be at a significantly-reduced rate.
And yes, that means New Orleans will have to keep “kicking the can” into future years. But it can keep doing that until Drew Brees retires -- especially since the NFL cap is expected to keep soaring.

The bigger problem for the Saints, however, is that they didn't get anywhere near the expected returns out of the players they invested those mega-millions in this season.

Byrd tops that list -- he struggled for four weeks before suffering a major knee injury. Brees, Graham, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, Marques Colston, Cameron Jordan and a number of younger defensive players are also on that list of underachievers.

The Saints absolutely must get bounce-back years from those guys to have any chance in 2015 and beyond.

If general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton knew they could count on those guys, then the specific roster decisions facing the team next year would be manageable. But it might be their toughest offseason yet, because for the first time they don't really know if their arrow is pointing in the right direction.

Here's a breakdown of the other major personnel decisions facing the team:

BREES' CONTRACT:

Brees' salary will soar next year to $19 million, including a workout bonus. As a result, his cap figure will be $26.4 million. In 2016, those numbers will climb to $20 million and $27.4 million.

He's still worth it. Despite Brees' struggles with turnovers this year, he still gives the Saints their best chance at building a championship contender. And I don't think the Saints will or should approach him about taking a pay cut -- especially since he played so well for so long at below-market value in the past.

However, it will be interesting to see if Brees considers following the path of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who worked out a team-friendly contract extension last year. Brady added three years to the end of his deal at an affordable total of $27 million in new money -- in exchange for more guaranteed money in the short term.

It appeared to be a win-win deal, and I could absolutely see Brees and the Saints doing something similar in the next year or two.

FREE AGENTS:

Unrestricted: RB Mark Ingram, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Robert Meachem, QB Luke McCown, CB Patrick Robinson, S Jamarca Sanford, LB Parys Haralson, LB Ramon Humber, LB Moise Fokou, DL Brandon Deaderick, K Shayne Graham.

Restricted: DL Tyrunn Walker, RB Travaris Cadet, OT Bryce Harris.

Thoughts: This is the best news for the Saints in 2015 -- this list isn't overwhelming. They'll have to make a tough decision on Ingram, since they've never valued any one individual running back more than the rest of the NFL market. But if they do want Ingram back, his salary shouldn't escalate well beyond $4 million per year or so. Everyone else should be either affordable to re-sign or expendable.

STRONGEST POSSIBILITIES FOR RELEASE OR PAY CUTS:

WR Marques Colston (due $7 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9.7 million)
DT Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6.1 million)
LB David Hawthorne (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $6 million)

Thoughts: Colston's departure would be the most emotional since Deuce McAllister. But his production clearly doesn't match his salary anymore. The only way Colston would come back is at a significantly-reduced rate. The question is whether Colston would want to do that after taking such a physical pounding for nine years, or if he might even consider retirement.

Bunkley and Hawthorne will almost certainly be released if they don't agree to significant pay cuts -- though Hawthorne has played some of his best football over the past two weeks.

OTHER NOTABLE SALARIES:

G Jahri Evans (due $7.5 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $11 million)
G Ben Grubbs (due $6.6 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9.6 million)
LB Curtis Lofton (due $7 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $9 million)
RB Pierre Thomas (due $2.15 million in salary and bonuses; cap cost of $2.6 million)

Thoughts: The guys on this list are tougher to predict, because they're still playing at a solid level -- and because the Saints don't have any obvious backup plans waiting in the wings. Evans and Grubbs didn't play at a Pro Bowl level, but they weren't that far off -- especially Evans. Finding one or two guards for the future has to rank as a top priority.

Lofton is having his best season yet with New Orleans, so losing him would hurt. But he's due a $4.5 million roster bonus. Chances are, the Saints will convert it to a signing bonus if they keep him.

RESTRUCTURING DEALS:

The easiest way to save cap space is to restructure a contract -- which isn't the same as an extension or a pay cut. It's a win-win proposition where the team converts a players' salary or roster bonus into a signing bonus, so the cap costs can be spread out over multiple years. The Saints do this with several players every year, and they will again this offseason with guys like Galette and possibly Lofton, among others.
METAIRIE, La. -- It's painfully obvious that the New Orleans Saints' offseason moves haven't panned out. And when a season implodes like this, it's natural to go back and question every decision.

But breaking them down individually, it's still hard to slam a single one of them.

Here's a look at all the major moves the Saints made, and how they've impacted this 5-8 season:

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsOne player who has been missed on the Saints' roster this season is safety Malcolm Jenkins.
Letting go of Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer and Malcolm Jenkins: This is the most popular topic right now, with the Saints' veteran leaders lamenting that this team needs more maturity and professionalism.

Clearly, losing all these guys has had some intangible effect. But there's not a single player in that group whom anyone expected the Saints to keep. Greer is the one they miss most on the field, but he had to retire because of a knee injury. Jenkins is the only one still playing at a high level, but he wasn't playing at that level in recent years.

Would some of those veterans have provided a calming influence during the early turmoil? Perhaps. Then again, they were all around in 2012, when the Saints' defense went through a similar implosion.

The biggest issue with the Saints' new roster makeup is that they were counting on a lot of young, breakout players to continue to grow and develop as stars and leaders -- and they haven't.

We're seeing one of those "sophomore slump" or "Super Bowl hangover" type of seasons with the defense. Something like what veteran offensive tackle Zach Strief was alluding to when he said this team needs to learn it can't just show up and expect to win.

They all work hard and care about improving. But one of those young underachievers, safety Kenny Vaccaro, has been honest about wondering why he has regressed, saying he needs to "get that dog back" and admitting he felt like there were a "lot of individual goals" in the secondary early in the season before they started to develop better together.

I still like the core leadership going forward with Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton, Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Jairus Byrd, Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks. But as I wrote when I broke down the Saints' salary-cap constraints, they absolutely need more from some of those guys -- because they're all-in on them.

Signing Byrd: New Orleans' megadeal for the free-agent safety was their biggest, boldest move -- and it has been a colossal disappointment so far. Byrd played poorly along with the rest of the defense for four weeks, then he suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.

Byrd
The move was widely applauded when Byrd signed, despite the hefty price tag of $54 million over six years. And the reasoning behind it was sound (heck, the Saints would pay double right now for a defender who could play like Byrd was playing in Buffalo).

Byrd seemed to be exactly what a young, rising defense was missing -- a proven playmaker with a knack for forcing turnovers and forcing quarterbacks to throw elsewhere. His biggest struggle during the first four weeks was missing open-field tackles -- partly because there were too many opponents running free in the open field in the first place.

If the entire defense can get its act together, Byrd can still wind up being a building block for the future at age 28. He'd better.

Sproles
Trading Darren Sproles: This was the only move I questioned at the time -- but I always understood the reasoning, with the Saints overloaded at running back. Sure enough, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson have bloomed in part because of Sproles' departure.

Sproles isn't what the Saints' offense is missing this season. The run game and the short passing game are the only things actually working for New Orleans on a consistent basis. Entering this week, they led the NFL in first downs, completion percentage and third-down conversion rate.

One other thing worth noting: As explosive as Sproles was for Philadelphia early in the season, he has gone quiet. He's averaging just 35 yards from scrimmage per game since Week 2.

Trading up for Brandin Cooks: What the Saints' offense has lacked is a dynamic downfield passing game. Receivers such as Marques Colston and Robert Meachem are showing signs of significant decline. So I applaud the decision to trade up for Cooks in the draft's first round, even more than I did at the time. It's a shame his season ended early because of a thumb injury, but I like his chances to be a big part of the offense going forward.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberSaints rookie WR Brandin Cooks had 53 receptions for 550 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Could the Saints have used a cornerback in Round 1 instead? Maybe. But you can't fill all your needs in the draft, and Cooks filled a crucial one.

Other draft picks: This has been an obvious flop so far. Second-round cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has barely seen the field. It's too early to judge that pick since he was always painted as a raw, long-term project. But his inactivity has stood out since the Saints have had such a desperate need for help at corner this season.

Fourth-round linebacker Khairi Fortt has already been cut -- reportedly after missing two team meetings. And the jury's still out on the later-round picks and free-agent class. An aging team with salary-cap constraints needs better out of its draft class.

Re-signing Jimmy Graham: This was the biggest no-brainer of all. I considered four years and $40 million a bargain for one of the game's most productive playmakers. The Saints would have been nuts to let him go.

However, they clearly need even more than they've gotten out of him this season. Graham has had a few great moments, a few bad moments (especially last week) and a lot of in-between. His season has been a lot like Drew Brees' season -- good, but the Saints need greatness every week.

Releasing Lance Moore: Maybe the Saints could use Moore since their downfield passing game has been shaky, and he was so reliable for so long. But they have decent depth, so he would have been more like a fourth receiver -- just as he is in Pittsburgh.

Signing Champ Bailey/cutting Champ Bailey: I don't blame the Saints for signing the future Hall of Famer, since they invested extremely little on him. The bigger surprise in hindsight is that they decided they were better off without him. With Bailey, Patrick Robinson and Corey White all disappointing this season, perhaps the Saints should have invested more at cornerback instead of going all-in at safety.
METAIRIE, La. – Grantland's Bill Barnwell took a detailed look at the New Orleans Saints’ salary-cap constraints that will make it even harder for them to fight their way out of this current mess in 2015 and beyond.

I agree with a lot of what he said about the Saints going all in for 2014 with the way they structured new deals with guys such as Jairus Byrd, Jimmy Graham and Junior Galette. And I don’t necessarily disagree with his premise that the Saints are “a team built to self-destruct upon the expiration of Drew Brees.” (They’ll have cap space then, they just won’t have a quarterback).

[+] EnlargeColston
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWide receiver Marques Colston is due $7 million in salary and bonuses next season.
However, I don’t agree with Barnwell's depiction of "salary-cap hell." I don't see anything that will prevent the Saints from continuing to go “all in” as long as Brees sticks around. Especially with the NFL’s salary cap expected to keep rising significantly in future years. To use Barnwell's term, they can keep "kicking the proverbial can down the road."

The bigger question isn't the Saints' salary-cap constraints themselves. It's just how much you trust the guys that they've invested in -- and whether you think they're worth all the dollars that created the cap constraints. They need better production going forward than they'e gotten this year from many of their core players (including Brees, Graham, Byrd and young defensive building blocks such as Cameron Jordan, Kenny Vaccaro and Akiem Hicks).

The two things you fear with salary-cap constraints are that you won’t be able to add any new impact players and that you won’t be able to re-sign your own core players. But the Saints have proven under similar circumstances in recent years that they won’t stop doing those things.

They were supposed to be in salary-cap hell last year, too, and they went out and signed Byrd to a mega-deal and inked Graham and Galette to new long-term deals. In previous years they added core free agents such as Keenan Lewis, Curtis Lofton and Ben Grubbs.

The “victims” of the salary cap are the older guys who the Saints feel have diminishing value – which is why they parted ways with guys such as Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer.

As Barnwell pointed out, the only one of those guys the Saints really miss is Sproles. But as good as Sproles has been in Philadelphia, his absence has hardly been the Saints’ biggest problem this year. The run game and the short passing game are two of the few things New Orleans is doing consistently well.

I plan to examine all of the Saints’ offseason moves in more detail on Monday, to see if and where they went wrong. But in general, I doubt the Saints regret any of those moves in and of themselves.

Meanwhile, looking ahead to the moves the Saints need to make going forward, it won’t be that hard for them to get under the cap next year by restructuring current deals (as Barnwell broke down in great detail) and by releasing or demanding pay cuts from certain veterans. That group could include Brodrick Bunkley (due $4.5 million in salary and bonuses) and David Hawthorne ($4.5 million in salary and bonuses). And it will likely include receiver Marques Colston ($7 million in salary and bonuses) in one form or another – as tough as that decision will be.

Decisions also might need to be made with guards Jahri Evans ($7.5 million in salary and bonuses) and Grubbs ($6.6 million in salary and bonuses), who have big salaries and are starting to show signs of decline. But the Saints might keep both of them since they don’t have any obvious backup plan in place yet.
METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt reportedly missed two team meetings before being released by the New Orleans Saints, according to The Advocate and WWL Radio.

I have not been able to confirm how much of a factor that was in the Saints’ decision to surprisingly cut ties with their fourth-round draft pick a week before he was eligible to come off the short-term injured reserve list. Two sources did confirm, however, that it was a “football decision” and not any violation of league rules or legal issues.

Perhaps it was the Saints’ way of sending a disciplinary message to the entire roster. Regardless, the draft choice clearly has to be considered a bust for the Saints, since they didn’t deem the linebacker from Cal to be worth trying to salvage.

And Fortt is the latest in a long list of offseason moves that haven’t panned out for the Saints.

First-round draft pick Brandin Cooks and free-agent center Jonathan Goodwin have been the only major contributors among the Saints' new acquisitions.

[+] EnlargeJairus Byrd
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints lost Jairus Byrd, their highest-profile addition from free agency, for the season after only four games.
Cooks, a receiver from Oregon State, has immediately become a huge part of the Saints’ offense, ranking second on the team with 32 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown -- plus five carries for 64 yards. Goodwin has started every game and played well when healthy, though he's been battling a variety of nagging injuries lately.

No other draft picks have made a significant contribution yet, with sixth-round offensive tackle Tavon Rooks being relegated to the practice squad and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, safety Vinnie Sunseri and linebacker Ronald Powell being relegated to special-teams roles.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said the plan was to use Jean-Baptiste in a red zone package for the first time this past week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but Tampa’s offensive alignments made the Saints shift Jean-Baptiste off the field.

Free agency has been an even bigger bust so far, largely because of safety Jairus Byrd’s season-ending knee injury last week. Big things are still expected in future years from the Saints’ blockbuster free-agent signing, despite the fact that he showed inconsistency in the first four weeks. But obviously Byrd won’t help for the remainder of the 2014 season.

The other big-name signing was cornerback Champ Bailey, who didn’t make the roster coming out of training camp.

And fullback Erik Lorig also hasn’t played yet because of an ankle injury suffered early in training camp, though the Saints are clearly still expecting a possible impact since they kept a roster spot devoted to him.

The later additions of Goodwin and defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick have produced more fruit so far.

It also doesn’t help matters that two of the players the Saints let go (running back Darren Sproles via trade and safety Malcolm Jenkins via free agency) are off to great starts with the Philadelphia Eagles.

I don’t believe that all of these moves bundled together signal the need for any sort of rethinking or retooling in the front office. I agreed with most of the Saints’ decisions at the time, including the Byrd signing. I was more hesitant on letting go of Sproles, though I understood it since the Saints were loaded at the running back position. And sure enough, all three remaining running backs have been thriving so far this year.

Clearly, though, it’s not an exact science. And so far, the 2014 season is rivaling 2007 as the best evidence of that fact. That was the year the Saints added Jason David, Brian Simmons and Kevin Kaesviharn, among others, and wound up essentially redshirting first-round choice Robert Meachem. They also cut their fourth-round pick that year, running back Antonio Pittman, though he had a better excuse since he got beat out by undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas.
METAIRIE, La. -- There is no real way to sugarcoat the New Orleans Saints' loss of safety Jairus Byrd.

Pay no attention to the fact that Byrd was struggling during the first four weeks. He was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Buffalo Bills for good reason. And he remained one of the biggest reasons for optimism that the 1-3 Saints could get things turned around after an ugly start on defense.

[+] EnlargeSaints defense
AP Photo/Bill HaberKenny Vaccaro and the Saints' defense must find a way to create turnovers without Jairus Byrd.
In fact, less than an hour before the Saints had delivered the news of Byrd’s knee injury, I had just typed up an answer to a mailbag question that asked, "Who makes an impact to save the year?" by listing Byrd, safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cameron Jordan as the guys most capable of doing it.

More bad news:

  • The Saints rank dead last in the NFL at forcing turnovers (only one -- a forced fumble by Byrd in Week 1). And Byrd offered the best hope at fixing that. Takeaways are his specialty -- he had 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his first five seasons with Buffalo, which was the main reason why the Saints signed him to a six-year, $54 million mega-deal in free agency.
  • The Saints had already lost a lot of veteran leadership in their secondary this offseason when they decided to part ways with safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins and injured cornerback Jabari Greer. Byrd was supposed to help fill some of that void.
  • The Saints trust Byrd’s backup, veteran safety Rafael Bush. But the nickel and dime defenses are a lot shakier now. Do they throw struggling cornerback Patrick Robinson back out there? Or undrafted rookie Brian Dixon?

All of that being said, my other immediate reaction to the Byrd news was the same pseudo-positive spin that Vaccaro put on it, when he said, "It’s hard, but the way we were playing, we had so many different issues, we had so many things to fix, that it’s like, 'All right, we’re gonna have to overcome all these other things anyway.'"

In other words, things are bound to start moving in a positive direction after the Saints reached their low point with a 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday night. So they might as well take in all the bad news at once, then start trying to generate some positive momentum, starting with a Sunday home date against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But it won’t be any clichéd notions of rallying around Byrd that turn the Saints’ season around.

It will require much better execution on the field, plain and simple.

Players like Vaccaro and Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan haven’t tried to deny accusations that their defense has been playing "undisciplined" this season.

"Definitely. That’s the perfect word for our defense this year. It’s undisciplined," said Vaccaro, who has uncharacteristically struggled with missed tackles at times. "For a defense to be sound, you need to have everyone doing what they need to do. So most of the time, it will be just one guy or two guys that are undisciplined, and it’s been spread all throughout the whole team. Usually, you’ll have your consistent guys, but I don’t think anybody has been consistently disciplined. ...

"You almost have to get selfish. 'I’m going to do my job, I’m going to be in this gap, and I don’t care what happens after that.' And once you get that corrected, you can start having guys fly around and make the unexpected play. We’ve just gotta be robots. ... You’ve gotta correct one by one before you can start changing it all up."

It started with missed tackles in Week 1 at Atlanta. Then it continued with penalties and blown assignments in the secondary in Week 2 at Cleveland. Then it hit rock bottom with an inability to stop the run -- or really, do much of anything right -- in Week 4 at Dallas.

The Saints, who have only five sacks and zero interceptions this season, admittedly were even more undisciplined as they tried to make up for a 24-0 first-half deficit against the Cowboys.

"We stress and try to get turnovers. We can’t get it out, and now it’s hurting us with some of our technique," Ryan said. "We get out of our gap trying to make plays like this Sunday night. It’s not going to look good.

"These guys have pride, they have toughness, and we need to show that. But to do that you have to be gap-sound to be any kind of a defense. Disciplined or whatever it is, we have to be together and do a better job."

When asked on a personal level if he looks forward to celebrating with the Saints fans again even though many seem to have turned on him during this slow start, Ryan said, "I haven’t even noticed how hard they’ve been on me. [But] I don’t blame them for hating me right now."

Earlier, Ryan also acknowledged, "We haven’t done what we want to do on defense. Not even close. But we’ve got a lot of football in front of us, and we’re looking forward to it. And it starts this week. Our guys have a great mindset, they work together, they care. And we’re gonna get it fixed."
(UPDATE: The Saints announced at 2:20 p.m. Friday that Jairus Byrd will miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury).

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerbacks coach Gill Byrd has been talking to more than just his team's playres this week.

He also has spoken with his son, Jairus, who plays safety for the New Orleans Saints. The Bucs play in New Orleans on Sunday.

Byrd
"We talk like we normally do," Gill Byrd said. "Nothing really changes. We understand somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose. But I'm a Jairus Byrd fan."

Gill Byrd, a former NFL cornerback, said he gives his son a critique after every game.

"I may not watch it live, but I watch every game he plays in," Gill Byrd said. "That's what dads do."

Jairus Byrd is in his first season with the Saints after being signed away from Buffalo as a free agent. Gill Byrd said he has been impressed with his son's performance.

"I don't know what they're asking him to do schematically," Gill Byrd said. "But technique-wise, he's doing a lot of the things we talk about doing -- tackling, planting and driving. That's what we talk about. We talk about technique. He has enough guys in his ear about scheme and everything. He's being coached well in New Orleans."

Gill Byrd said going against his son isn't difficult.

"It's not hard for me at all and it's not hard for Jairus," Gill Byrd said. "We're both competitive. The only difference is he wants to play the greatest game of his career in a win and I want it to be the greatest game of his career in a loss."

Father and son met once before, in a game in which Gill was an assistant coach for Chicago and Jairus was playing for Buffalo. The Bears won that game.

Gill Byrd is hoping to keep his winning streak against his son alive.

"I am a Jairus Byrd fan 16 games a year," Gill Byrd said. "I want him to play the best game of his career every game, including when he plays the team I'm coaching. I'm a Saints fan for 14 games a year. But I'm a Bucs coach 16 games a year and I want to win every game."
METAIRIE, La. -- The highlight of Drew Brees' press conference Wednesday came when the New Orleans Saints quarterback answered one question about a theory from the "panicked mob," then another reporter followed up by saying, "Can I ask another panicked mob question?"

"Sure," Brees said with a laugh. "Let's go. The sky is falling."

Brees was good-natured while answering those particular questions about whether his arm strength is diminished and whether the Saints' training camp practices at The Greenbrier resort made them too soft. (The short answers: No and no).

Brees said he understands why fans are looking for such big-picture answers after New Orleans' surprising 1-3 start. But he said the team can't -- and doesn't -- think that way.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees said "areas where we can get better," but that the sky is not falling.
"I would say that because of how important all this is to all of us as players, as a community, as a fan base, as much as the media is a part of our game now, that everybody always wants a reason. Something or someone to blame," Brees said. "And I think sometimes you waste your time searching for that stuff as opposed to just knowing that if you continue to do things the right way, good things will happen. …

"We're not trying to create problems here. Just because everybody wants to know, ‘What the heck's going on? What's wrong? Why are you 1-3? The sky is falling. Oh my gosh.' Hey, we're gonna keep doing what we do. Yes there are areas where we can get better, absolutely. But we're also gonna continue on the path that we started this offseason."

Brees was one of many players who exuded that confidence Wednesday that the Saints will be able to work their way out of this early-season funk -- starting with Sunday's home date with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although players and coach Sean Payton have said that they can't just rely on their past success, it can still serve as inspiration.

They know they have the talent and track record to succeed if they work hard enough and execute properly.

Even newcomer Jairus Byrd pointed Wednesday to the different "vibe" in the Saints' locker room, where there is a noticeable winning culture. He said it wasn't always like that during his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills.

Linebacker Curtis Lofton, who began his career with the Atlanta Falcons, agreed.

"I've been in systems where I knew going into the game that a lot of things were flawed and we didn't have a chance of succeeding. But it's been proven that this system works," Lofton said. "We're not doing anything different than we did last year. We've just go to go out and just play."

That doesn't mean nothing has changed, though.

Payton said earlier this week that the Saints are playing like a 1-3 team right now and they can't expect different results without making changes to the process. He backed that up Wednesday with some tweaks to the practice routine -- including a spirited offense vs. defense competition instead of the traditional work against scout teams.

Certainly some game-planning tweaks will follow, as well.

But no one believes a drastic overhaul is needed as much as a dedicated effort from each individual to improve their own level of play.

"I'll be honest with you, my approach is no different. It's no different now than it was nine years ago," Brees said. "When you step into the building, it's time to work. Prepare as hard as you can as well as you can. … The mindset of, ‘Every time we get the ball we're gonna score, and every time we step on the field we expect to score 40 points,' none of that stuff changes. … I have a routine. I know it works, I'm gonna keep doing it. I'm gonna stay aggressive."

As for that question about his arm strength, Brees was a little taken aback.

"Ummm, I really don't even know how to respond to it to be honest with you. I mean, I'm not sure what would lead anybody to believe that," said Brees, who has not completed or attempted as many deep balls as usual this year -- though he did just complete a gorgeous 46-yarder to Kenny Stills at Dallas, and he leads all full-time quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 71.4 percent.

Brees, 35, acknowledged that age will have an effect at some point -- mostly, he said, with recovery time. But he said, "I don't feel like there's anything I can't do now that I could do when I was 25 years old. So I really don't know how to answer the question."

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

September, 30, 2014
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What’s wrong with the New Orleans Saints defense? Depends on which game you watch.

This time their run defense was the most glaring issue in a revolving set of problems that have plagued them throughout this season. But it wasn’t just the fact that the Saints got gashed by DeMarco Murray and the Dallas Cowboys’ run game in last Sunday night’s 38-17 loss. They got paralyzed by the mere threat of Murray.

The Saints’ linebackers and safeties repeatedly got caught in no man’s land. Their pass rush wasn’t overly aggressive because they kept guys hanging back to guard against the run -- which ultimately didn’t work anyway. At the same time, the Saints’ coverage suffered in the middle of the field because they were burned by play-action passes.

The good news is that the Saints won’t face many running backs with Murray’s combination of power and speed this season. The bad news is that they keep finding different ways to lose games.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDeMarco Murray rushed 24 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Here are more observations after watching the tape:

Murray overwhelming: Murray definitely gets his share of credit for churning out 149 yards and two touchdowns. Once he got a head of steam, he powered through some guys (even stout middle linebacker Curtis Lofton on one occasion). Other times, Murray’s speed burned guys who took bad angles.

The low point might have been Murray’s 22-yard run in the second quarter, where he came up the middle, powered through Lofton while Lofton was coming off of a partial block, then kept running as linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Rafael Bush also failed to bring him down.

Murray’s speed burned the Saints on both of his touchdowns. On his 28-yarder in the third quarter, Murray started running left but made a sharp cut inside while Humber went wide. Then he sped past Lofton, who was trying to spin away from a block. And he made safety Jairus Byrd miss in the open field toward the end of the run. … Byrd also took too shallow of an angle on Murray’s 15-yard TD run in the first half.

The Cowboys’ run blocking was outstanding, with Murray getting out wide into open space a lot rather than plowing up the middle. Backup running back Joseph Randle also broke off a 14-yard gain late in the third quarter, aided by a missed tackle by safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Missed tackles: This was a repeat violation for the Saints, who were also plagued by missed tackles in Week 1. They had at least six blatant misses (one each by Vaccaro, Byrd, Lofton, Humber, Junior Galette and Corey White). And they had several others that would have been more challenging stops but still would be counted as misses.

Pass-rush problems: I can’t remember seeing many games where Galette and defensive end Cameron Jordan were so ineffective. They barely even got any hurries on quarterback Tony Romo. To be fair, Romo didn’t stand in the pocket all day picking the Saints apart deep. But he was rarely harassed, and one of the few times he did get flushed, he ran 21 yards to convert a third down.

Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith had a lot to do with that. He beat both Galette and Jordan 1-on-1 a few times. One time, Galette even bounced off Smith and fell to the ground while trying a spin move. Nothing seemed to work for the Saints. One time, they flooded the Cowboys’ right side with a zone blitz that included two rushing linebackers, but Murray picked up Humber. Another time they tried stunts on both sides of the line, but everyone got stood up.

The Saints didn’t blitz much early in the game. And they started to have some success when they finally did start sending some heavy pressures (including a third-down sack by Vaccaro during a big moment late in the game when the Saints were rallying). But then again, all three of Romo’s touchdown passes came against blitzes.

A 23-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams in the second quarter and an 18-yarder to Dez Bryant in the fourth were almost identical plays against all-out blitzes. Romo made quick, back-shoulder throws to the receivers, who turned and caught them short of the goal line before powering in (Williams against Brian Dixon and Bryant against Keenan Lewis). Dixon was playing physical coverage, while Lewis gave a small cushion, but neither worked.

No man’s land: There were several examples of the Saints either getting burned by a play-action pass or leaving the middle of the field open with eight men in the box spying Murray. Romo’s first 6-yard TD pass to Williams was an example of the latter. Others included passes of 16, 16, 15 and 11).

Some good stuff: Lewis did a solid job against Bryant. He had one nice pass-break up and had good deep coverage twice when Romo fired that way under pressure. Sometimes the Saints doubled Bryant, but not too often, as he finished with three catches for 44 yards. … The Saints tightened up against the run in a few key moments late in the game. Bush, Byrd and linebacker Parys Haralson each got good penetration on run stuffs. … Not sure if this counts as good or bad, but the Saints recognized at the last moment that receiver Devin Street was uncovered on a third-and-9 play in the second quarter, and Byrd got there just in time to break up the pass. … Byrd struggled in run support but put some big licks on receivers in the open field.
METAIRIE, La. – The answer to the New Orleans Saints' defensive woes was simple:

Simplify things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trick is finding the right balance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s fun, but mentally I’ve gotta lock in more,” Vaccaro said. “I’ve gotta think on every play what position I’m playing, because the way Rob calls it, you have to know exactly what you’re doing.”
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."

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