NFC South: Jimmy Graham

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.

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.

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. -- After a career-high three dropped passes in last week's 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Jimmy Graham has his priorities in order heading into Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears.

When asked what's highest on his list of objectives this week, Graham said, "I like to catch the ball, that's pretty high. I'd like to run-block a little better. And really, probably the highest is just to get a win. I'm just tired of losing."

The Saints (5-8) need Graham to be a huge part of the solution Monday, especially considering the type of game that might play out in some cold, windy and possibly rainy conditions.

New Orleans' game plan could lean heavily on the run game and a short passing game that chews up both yardage and clock -- similar to the game plan that helped the Saints finally win a game at Chicago last year.

Although the weather conditions were much better on that October afternoon, the Saints methodically churned out a 26-18 victory while possessing the ball for 36 minutes and never turning the ball over. Graham had 10 catches for 135 yards.

"I want to play a big role in every game," Graham said when asked if this is the type of game that could require him to play such a role. "But as it unfolds we'll see, depending on weather. We'll be ready rain or cold, doesn't matter. We're gonna go into it and hopefully get a win."

Graham caught just three passes for 25 yards last week in the disaster against Carolina. It was a far cry from the week before when he had zero catches in a 35-32 win at Pittsburgh. In that game, Graham drew so much attention from double teams that it helped allow quarterback Drew Brees to throw touchdown passes to five different receivers, while Mark Ingram ran for 122 yards.

This past week, however, the Saints desperately needed a boost on offense, and Graham couldn't get loose against Carolina's defense. In addition to the three drops, he had three other balls broken up after they hit his hands.

"It was a rough game for all around and we've got to play better ball than that," said Graham, who said he didn't pay much attention to what was happening with the Saints' roster moves or lineup changes.

"I put my head down and come to work every day," Graham said. "It's never fun losing, that's for sure. And as long as I've been here, we've won a lot of games. So it's nothing that I'm gonna get used to. I'm gonna take whatever I need to do, or whatever we need to do collectively, to stop it."
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.
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

The New Orleans Saints (5-7) have had some extreme highs and lows this season. But they've got nothin' on the Carolina Panthers (3-8-1), who haven't won a game in two months.

The last time these NFC South rivals met in Carolina in Week 9, the Saints ran away with a 28-10 victory. New Orleans can't take anything for granted, however, as it lost three straight home games in Weeks 10-12 before bouncing back with an impressive win at Pittsburgh on Sunday.

It's a shame this rivalry turned out to be such a dud after they were two of the NFC's best teams in 2013. But then again, because of the sorry state of the NFC South this year, they're still both in the title hunt again.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Panthers haven't won since Week 5. Any reason to believe they can turn it around this week?

Newton: Has it been that long? Seems like only yesterday they beat the Chicago Bears on Oct. 5. Kidding, of course. As for your question, there are reasons the Saints shouldn't overlook the Panthers. The first game was 0-0 until late in the first quarter, when quarterback Cam Newton fumbled at his own 4. Then there was a 32-yard pass interference penalty late in the first half by cornerback Antoine Cason, who was cut on Tuesday, that led to a 14-0 Saints lead. If the Panthers can stop shooting themselves in the foot, they have a chance.

They held Minnesota to 210 yards on Sunday, but two first-half blocked punts returned for touchdowns never gave them a chance. The running game produced 178 yards against Minnesota. New Orleans still seems susceptible to the run. Do I believe the Panthers can put together a complete game and beat New Orleans? No. Particularly on the road. I also didn't see the Saints losing their last three home games, though.

Mike, it appears when Drew Brees isn't throwing to the other team, the Saints are a dangerous team, as we saw with his five-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh. Why has he been so inconsistent and how big a key is he to the Saints' success?

Triplett: You nailed his biggest issue -- and really his only major drawback this year. Brees is still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 36 touchdowns and a NFL-best 70.3 completion percentage. And you saw last week what he's still capable of. But he's had way too many turnovers (11 interceptions, two lost fumbles), and most of them have come in big moments in close games. Brees even was booed at home last month after an ugly interception before halftime.

I think the issue is that he's pressing too much. In so many weeks he has had to do it all by himself because the Saints' defense has been one of the worst in the NFL (along with the rest of the NFC South). We saw how much better he looked last Sunday because New Orleans' defense kept the game close early and gave Brees the ball back twice with two huge turnovers.

David, are we seeing a similar issue with Newton? From afar, it seems like he has really regressed this season.

Newton: It goes beyond Newton pressing because the defense has struggled. Much of it has to do with injuries to the offensive line and running backs, particularly the line. That group was inexperienced to start with, then injuries forced young players onto the field before they were ready. The Panthers will have the same five starting for the second straight week, which I don't believe has happened since early in the season.

But back to Newton, it appears he has gotten back into old habits of throwing off his back foot and running before going through his progressions. He has lost that swagger and confidence, and it seems to impact his decision-making and accuracy. He's still a threat because of his ability to run. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Saints in the first meeting. But for Carolina to have a chance on Sunday he's going to have to find that swagger.

I saw where Jimmy Graham went without a catch against Pittsburgh. He has been a thorn in Carolina's side, catching seven passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. What did the Steelers do so well against him?

Triplett: Depends on your definition of "do well." The Steelers actually paid too much attention to Graham, shadowing him with an extra safety for most of the game, usually Troy Polamalu. It worked in the sense that Graham wasn't even targeted once for the first time since 2012. But it opened things up for everyone else with receiver Kenny Stills gaining 162 yards, running back Mark Ingram rushing for 122 yards and five different players catching TD passes.

Obviously the Saints want more from Graham, but it's pick your poison. Defenses have been more successful this year when they sit back in coverage and let Graham catch a lot of underneath stuff. The Saints have put up great offensive statistics all season (first in the NFL in completion percentage and third-down percentage, second in yards). But they've struggled with turnovers and red-zone stalls when they're forced to go on 12- and 15-play drives.

What do you expect from Carolina's defensive approach in this game? And what's their best bet against Graham?

Newton: It'll be interesting. There could be two rookie starters, cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston -- Benwikere for sure after the Panthers released Cason. But the key will be pressure. The Panthers sacked Brees four times in the first game and held him to one touchdown. They didn't do a great job against Graham. To bring pressure meant using linebacker Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly on some blitzes because the front four hasn't been able to do it alone, as was the case last season. Those two typically would be around Graham a lot more. But if Brees isn't under pressure, it won't matter how good the coverage is. It begins and ends there.

What did you learn from the Oct. 30 game between these teams that you expect to make an impact on this one?

Triplett: My lasting image from that game was how woefully off-target Newton was with his passing (10-of-28). He was airmailing guys left and right, which obviously gave the Saints plenty of time to get rolling. At the same time, Newton was able to hurt the Saints when he took off running (five runs of 8 yards or more, including a touchdown).

So to me, the obvious key for New Orleans is to keep Newton in the pocket and make him throw. The Saints' four-man pass rush has been spotty this season (just as you described with Carolina). But they were vastly improved last week at Pittsburgh, with bookends Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette leading the way. Those two have combined for a whopping 10 sacks in their last three meetings with Carolina. They need to keep it up.

PITTSBURGH -- Fantasy owners couldn't have been happy. But New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was perfectly content after he didn't catch a pass -- or even get targeted -- in the Saints' 35-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

Drew Brees wound up throwing touchdown passes to five different receivers, making the Steelers pay for putting such an emphasis on Graham.

"For me, it's all about the W's. I don't care if it's zero catches, 10 catches or 20, as long as we win," insisted Graham, who explained that the Steelers tried several different tactics against him -- including one he had rarely seen.

Graham said Pittsburgh safeties Troy Polamalu and Will Allen were undercutting most of his routes -- sometimes breaking even before he did.

"Usually, they wait 'til I break. But he's a smart player," Graham said of Polamalu. "And [Allen], he's a smart player too, he did it once or twice. I can tell that they're watching a lot of film and looking at tendencies and looking at formations and splits.

"But we'll watch film and we'll look at ways that we can expose that."

Graham also mentioned some of the more traditional approaches, where he'd get jammed or bumped at the line, with help waiting over the top.

Although Graham can sometimes be just as valuable as a "decoy" as an actual weapon (last year's playoff win at Philadelphia comes to mind), the Saints would obviously prefer to have him more involved in both capacities.

"We didn't come into the game with the idea that we weren't going to target Jimmy Graham," said coach Sean Payton, who insisted that Graham was a heavy part of the game plan Sunday and pointed out that Graham did draw one pass interference call.

"Somebody said after the game that Jimmy didn't have a catch, and I had to think because it sounded crazy to me," Brees said. "Because he is such a big part of the plan and is always targeted.

"Listen, though, we're never going to complain when we score 35 points and have no turnovers. I think we operated at a very efficient rate out there in both the run game and the pass game. The ball just happened to go other places today."
PITTSBURGH -- Heading into this week, quarterback Drew Brees had been as scrutinized and criticized as maybe any other time in his New Orleans Saints tenure.

So, naturally, Brees went out and threw five touchdown passes with no turnovers in the Saints' 35-32 victory at Pittsburgh.

The Saints (5-7) snapped a three-game losing streak -- all at home -- by going on the road for a convincing victory that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.

Just another unpredictable performance in one of the most head-scratching seasons in franchise history.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees carved up the Pittsburgh defense.
"Drew, I've come to expect it from him," said Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who didn't catch a pass as the Steelers made it an emphasis to take him out of the game. "He's obviously a special player. He's a future Hall of Famer. When you test him, when you challenge him, he's gonna come back with an explosive game. Because that's just the type of player he is."

Brees shrugged off the notion that he was fueled by any criticism. He said his focus this week was on ending the losing skid -- with his admittedly "annoying" optimism keeping him confident the Saints were near a "tipping point."

"My mentality, my approach, my preparation and process throughout the week does not change regardless of whether people are singing my praises or telling me I can't play anymore. I really don't care," Brees said with a laugh. "I pride myself on the way I work, the way I prepare, the type of leader and the person I'm trying to be for my team."

With seven, Brees now has the most games in NFL history with five touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

The way Brees' season has gone, the zero was probably the most critical number on Sunday.

Brees' fatal flaw this year has been committing costly turnovers -- 11 interceptions and two lost fumbles, most of them in big moments. Although he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and a completion percentage over 70, Brees' turnovers are one of the biggest reasons the Saints have lost so many close games and why he was booed by home fans this past month.

Because of their struggles on defense, the Saints have demanded Brees be close to perfect this year. At times, he hasn't been. On Sunday, he was.

The highlight was a 69-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills on a third-and-10 play that broke the game open late in the third quarter. But Brees also handled the Steelers' defense against Graham in vintage fashion. He threw touchdown passes to three guys who hadn't caught a touchdown all year (tight end Benjamin Watson, fullback Erik Lorig and receiver Nick Toon).

"He was sharp, focused," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Brees. "We haven't played outside in a while. He dealt with a little bit of wind in one direction ... but he was extremely sharp. He got a lot of different looks, too. He handled it and got a lot of pressure looks. He got hit a few times. He was on."

To be fair, Brees didn't do it all by himself. Running back Mark Ingram made some big, tough runs. The even more maligned Saints defense played great throughout the first 35 minutes, including two game-changing turnovers.

That defensive performance was even more unexpected than Brees' performance, considering their recent struggles.

As unpredictable as the Saints have been from week to week, there has been one common theme that pervaded both the impressive wins over teams such as Green Bay and Pittsburgh and all the perplexing losses:

They're capable of beating just about anybody, as long as they don't beat themselves.

"There's no magic," offensive tackle Zach Strief said when asked what was different this week. "It's not like, 'We'll change the meeting to 9.' ... It's just, 'Are you executing?'

"You look back at this game and say, 'OK, why is there a win?' We converted in the red zone, we won the turnover ratio 2-0, we ran the ball effectively. Those are what you do to win a game. And there's been a lot of times this year where those things aren't there."

W2W4: Saints need stars to step up

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24

METAIRIE, La. -- There is plenty of blame to go around for the New Orleans Saints’ 4-6 start. But the three guys who need to step up the most from here on out are arguably the Saints’ three best players: quarterback Drew Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Cameron Jordan.

All of them went quiet last week in a stunning 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. That’s inexcusable for a Saints team that has too many other problem areas. Their star players can’t afford any more off days -- or nights -- starting with tonight’s “Monday Night Football” showdown against the Baltimore Ravens (6-4).

Here's What 2 Watch 4:

More aggressive offense: Last week's offensive performance was arguably the most disturbing thing that’s happened to the Saints all season, simply because it was so out of character. The Saints’ 10 points marked their lowest output at home since 2006. They were surprisingly-efficient in many ways (high completion percentage, high third-down rate, only one meaningless turnover late in the game, no sacks). But they simply couldn’t score, and they didn’t have a play longer than 17 yards, with Brees missing on the few shots he did take down the field.

Maybe it was just an over-correction since Brees had been struggling with too many turnovers. But the Saints aren’t themselves when they’re not being aggressive. I expect a huge change in that department, especially against a struggling Ravens secondary.

“One of the best ways for a team to get momentum and to get a spark is big plays,” said receiver Joe Morgan, who advocates throwing deep even more and who may help fill that role with dynamic rookie receiver Brandin Cooks on injured reserve. “Not just me. A lot of guys are capable of doing that.”

More Graham on offense: Graham already leads the Saints with 59 catches, 623 yards and seven touchdowns this year. But they need even more out of him, even if they force-feed him and risk more interceptions because of it (a problem at times this year). Graham is one of the league’s most difficult mismatches, and he’s going to win more times than not.

The rest of the Saints’ season should look more like the Saints’ furious rally attempts against Cleveland in Week 2 or San Francisco two weeks ago, when Graham caught six passes for 55 yards and two touchdowns after halftime (not including his nullified Hail Mary TD catch). The Saints can’t afford to be passive with Graham like they were last week when he caught just three passes for 29 yards.

Graham, by the way, says bring it on.

“If [Cooks] is out or not, I want to do everything,” Graham said. “That’s just the player I am. I always think I’m open, and I always think the ball should come my way. I know if Drew throws my way, I’m going to do my best to go up there and get it for him and put this team in the best place to win.”

More pressure required: The secret to the Saints’ defensive success last season was their relentless four-man pass rush led by Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, each of whom wound up with 12-plus sacks. Jordan, especially, has been more hit or miss this year -- which has put an added burden on a young, struggling secondary.

“We definitely have to set the tone this week,” said Jordan, who was silenced last week, mostly because QB Andy Dalton got rid of the ball so fast. “The ball was out even faster than we were told about. But being part of the D-line, it has to start with us. We’ve gotta be able to get back there and affect the quarterback and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. So if that has to be faster, it has to be faster.

“[Baltimore’s Joe] Flacco is one of the few pocket passers in the league. But he’s still getting the ball out pretty fast, and they’ve got some nice weapons we’re aware of.”
METAIRIE, La. – Rookie receiver Brandin Cooks played such a versatile role for the New Orleans Saints that no one single player will be able to replace his production.

Fortunately for the Saints, they have more than a half-dozen options to help pick up the slack. Especially now that pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas and deep-threat receiver Robert Meachem are on the mend from lingering injuries.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham could get more targets after the injury to Brandin Cooks.
“Here’s the thing. Are we gonna miss him? Yeah. Is he a great player, was he really kind of coming into his own? Yes. So it’s unfortunate that he had the injury he had and he’s going to be out,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of Cooks, who was placed on injured reserve with a broken thumb. “But I’m excited by the opportunity this now poses for these young guys. And I feel like they’re gonna do a great job.”

“This has happened with us before with regards to a number of different players,” Saints coach Sean Payton added. “And it falls on the rest of the group picking up his touches. It’s the receivers, the running backs -- candidates that would be doing some of the same things.”

Mostly, I think we’ll see a slight uptick in targets for all of the Saints’ usual suspects – tight end Jimmy Graham, receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills and Thomas, who can provide a similar threat to Cooks in the screen game.

But as I wrote the other day, the area of the Saints’ offense that most concerns me is the deep passing game. That was a problem even before Cooks’ injury. But he had definitely started to emerge as their most dynamic downfield threat.

The Saints could turn to Meachem, Joe Morgan or even Stills on those routes. All have thrived in that role in the past -- we just haven't seen it consistently from any of them this year.

“Everybody kind of has the ability to be in there during those [shot plays], just depending on when they are called,” Brees said. “Did I think Brandin was doing a nice job with that stuff? Yes, I do. I also believe that the guys that we have can do a nice job as well.”

Brees and Payton were both asked if they think the loss of Cooks will hurt Graham, because defenses can now focus even more attention on the All-Pro tight end. But they both kind of shot down that notion because Graham already receives so much attention as it is.

“I would imagine everybody who we play looks at Jimmy and says, 'We've got to have a plan for this guy.' So I don't think it's really gonna change a whole lot," Brees said.

Regardless, I believe the Saints must find a way to keep Graham heavily involved in their passing game, even if Brees has to risk interceptions while force-feeding him. Brees and Graham are the two players who most make the Saints special. And they lost that special quality last week while losing a 27-10 dud to the Cincinnati Bengals. Graham had just three catches for 29 yards and no touchdowns.

Colston is another player the Saints need to resurrect after he has been so inconsistent this year, both with dropped passes and just plain lack of involvement.

I think Brees gave the best answer of all when asked specifically about Colston. Essentially Brees suggested that the biggest key to success for everyone is simply cleaning up a passing game that hasn't lived up to its usual standard all year -- even when Cooks was healthy.

"I think [Colston] is as involved as he’s ever been. I would say we haven't been hitting on all cylinders," Brees said. "We haven't been hitting all of the plays necessarily that we want to hit on."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- By the way the Baltimore Ravens have talked about Jimmy Graham this week, they understand that the New Orleans Saints tight end is a major x-factor in Monday's night's game.

Since the start of last season, the Saints are 2-5 when Graham finishes with three catches or fewer. But, when Graham has at least four catches, New Orleans is 13-6.

How will the Ravens cover Graham? At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, Graham is bigger and more athletic than most tight ends. It's tough to ask linebackers to cover him because of his leaping ability, and it's tough to line up a safety against him because of his size.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJimmy Graham is a matchup nightmare, but the Ravens have done a good job limiting opposing tight ends.
That's why there are no simple answers.

"Anytime you have to match up against a natural mismatch like that, it is a challenge. You can’t just do it one way," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You’re not going to just find one method to do that. You match up in many different ways, and that’ll be a challenge with Jimmy Graham. He’s one of the premier receivers in football. That’s going to be tough for us, but we’ll have to do it man coverage, zone coverage, on the line, off the line. There will be a lot of different ways we’ll have to face that challenge.”

Since 2011, Graham ranks fifth in the NFL (and first among tight ends) with 329 catches for 4,130 yards and a league-leading 43 touchdown catches. Where Graham inflicts most of his damage is in the red zone. Of those 43 touchdowns, 32 have come inside the 20-yard line (74.4 percent). That's two more red-zone touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL over that time.

Based on what defensive coordinator Dean Pees said about safety Will Hill a couple weeks ago, it could be his job to defend Graham in the red zone Monday night.

"He’s a little better matchup on a lot of the tight ends that we face, because a lot of times if you’re a smaller safety against these doggone huge tight ends that everybody has, that’s a tough duty -- especially down in the red area where they just like to throw the ball up to them," Pees said.

The Ravens have done an outstanding job in limiting tight ends this season. There have been four tight ends who have caught more than four passes against the Ravens: Jermaine Gresham, Heath Miller, Dwayne Allen and Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Only two tight ends have caught touchdowns against the Ravens this season (Allen and Pittsburgh's Matt Spaeth), and none have surpassed 60 yards receiving.

The last tight end to record 100 yards receiving against the Ravens was Denver's Julius Thomas in the 2013 season opener. But Graham isn't your typical tight end.

"He’s unique," Pees said of Graham. "There have been some really talented tight ends [that we’ve faced, but] none of them are as big as he is. Like all those teams, they split him out and try to do some things with him [to] get you singled up on him, but there’s nobody that is quite that big and that big of target and [has] that good of hands. He’s a special tight end, no doubt about it.”

METAIRIE, La. -- I've probably written it two dozen times over the past nine years: The New Orleans Saints' offense is deep enough to absorb the loss of any one player. I've even written that about tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles.

But for some reason, I'm less confident than ever in making that statement now with the loss of rookie receiver Brandin Cooks for the season with a broken thumb.

[+] EnlargeCooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberRookie receiver Brandin Cooks' season is over because of a broken thumb. He had 53 catches for 550 yards and three touchdowns.
It's not that Cooks was performing at such an incredible level that his production can't be replaced. But Cooks was the only player giving the Saints the kind of dynamic boost that they've needed most.

The Saints' fastest offensive weapon, Cooks had finally started to emerge as a threat on deep passes in recent weeks (catches of 50, 40 and 31 yards). He was also a pseudo-replacement for Sproles on screen passes and end-around runs designed to make defenders miss in the open field.

Last week in a 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Saints (4-6) didn't complete a pass of longer than 17 yards.

They were surprisingly efficient in the game when it came to things like completion percentage, third-down conversions and avoiding turnovers. But they were downright toothless -- a word I've never used to describe New Orleans' offense.

It put the home crowd to sleep. And worse yet, it put no fear into an opponent that had been limping into Sunday's game.

That's not the Saints' personality. And they can't afford for that to be the case going forward -- starting at home this Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints' offense has always been at its peak in such prime-time home games, winning 14 straight by nearly 20 points per game.

Most likely, the Saints will rely even more heavily on Graham and receivers Marques Colston and Kenny Stills going forward. Colston has been more inconsistent this year than ever before with too many dropped passes. But the Saints haven't lost faith in him. He's continued to lead them in snaps each week, and he led them with eight targets and 56 receiving yards against the Bengals.

From a fantasy standpoint, I might stubbornly give a slight nod to Colston over Stills for that reason -- though it's close, and both should see slight increases in production.

It will be interesting to see if this also opens the door for deep-threat receiver Joe Morgan, who has only caught one pass all season while being mostly inactive (and suspended for two weeks for an unspecified team issue). Morgan flashed his dazzling big-play potential with 10 catches for 379 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. But then he missed all of 2013 with a major knee injury.

It also wouldn't hurt for the Saints to get veteran deep threat Robert Meachem and pass-catching running back Pierre Thomas back from lingering injuries. Both are expected back at some point, but the specific timetables are unknown.
METAIRIE, La. -- It wasn’t easy, but I managed to stay awake through the entire replay of the New Orleans Saints' offensive performance in Sunday’s 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

All jokes aside, I understood what the Saints were trying to do -- patiently relying on the run game and check-down passes to control the clock and avoid turnovers. And we’ve seen it work before in victories at Carolina two weeks ago, at Chicago last year and against San Francisco last season.

But this was the downside of such a plan. The Saints’ offense wasn’t any good at running the ball Sunday. It couldn’t finish off long drives with touchdowns. And therefore it put no pressure on the Bengals' defense and put the home crowd to sleep.

Coach Sean Payton admitted he thought his team was too flat when he watched the tape. And quarterback Drew Brees said the energy was there to start, but teams usually feed off big plays that never materialized on either side of the ball.

The Saints (4-6) obviously need to find a better balance between staying patient but still cranking up the volume when possible.

Here are some other thoughts after reviewing the tape:

Running nowhere: This is why the concept of “establishing the run” is easier said than done. The Saints ran the ball four times on the first five plays. And they ran the ball 17 times on first downs. But it usually just put them into a second-and-long situation.

The Saints ran the ball 26 times for 75 yards (23 for 67 yards by Mark Ingram), averaging just 2.9 yards per carry.

It was usually a case of one missed block on each run stuff. Center Jonathan Goodwin probably had the roughest performance, but each lineman was guilty at least once -- not to mention fullback Erik Lorig and the tight ends/receivers. Ingram himself appeared to miss an opportunity for a touchdown if he had broken outside once, but it’s too hard to tell what he could see and where the play was designed to go.

I didn’t notice the Bengals’ front doing anything unusual, but credit them for getting a consistently strong push and the linebackers making solid open-field stops.

Goal-line stand: The Saints came so close to a touchdown that might have changed the game on a 17-play drive in the first half, but they stalled after having a first-and-goal from the 3. Brees threw a nice back-shoulder pass to receiver Marques Colston on first down, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had Colston’s arm hooked after they jostled for position. Maybe it was worthy of a flag, but officials often let that kind of arm contact go.

Then Ingram got 2 yards on second down, bouncing outside when the middle was clogged. That’s the play where it appeared he could’ve scored by going further outside of a block by Colston, but it’s impossible to say if anyone missed an assignment or a read.

Likewise, on third-and-1, Ingram’s hole between Lorig and tight end Josh Hill looked promising for a second but closed too quickly.

Then the Saints went with a quick snap on fourth-and-1 and a play-action pass to Lorig that never had a chance with defenders all over him.

Missing deep, missing Graham: The Saints took very few deep shots -- partly by design against the Bengals’ zone-heavy scheme. But when Brees did throw deep, he missed. He overshot wide-open receiver Brandin Cooks in the first quarter after he recognized him late in the progression. Then Brees barely overshot Hill’s fingertips on the same drive. Brees also overshot Colston in the fourth quarter, possibly because he was hit as he threw by pressure against right tackle Bryce Harris.

I tried to watch closely to figure out why tight end Jimmy Graham’s production was so low (three catches for 29 yards on three targets, plus an incomplete pass that resulted in a late-hit penalty). It seemed like the Saints were settling for a lot of underneath throws by design. And on the few plays when it appeared Brees was looking deeper for Graham, the Bengals usually had two guys in the area, which led to more check-downs.

Graham was never an option on any of the four goal-line plays. He was an attractive target in single coverage later inside the 10-yard line, but Brees went with a 9-yard TD pass to uncovered receiver Kenny Stills instead.

Decent protection: Pressure wasn’t a huge issue for Brees, who was never sacked and never turned the ball over. Harris struggled on at least three snaps (including a holding penalty) after filling in for injured starter Zach Strief. Guard Ben Grubbs was also flagged for holding. And there were four or five other hurries, including one against Grubbs, one against Goodwin and one on a seven-man blitz that led to a batted pass.

Some good stuff: Brees did make several nice throws -- especially on several third-and-long plays -- on a day when he completed 33 of 41 passes for 255 yards and the TD. Brees and Colston connected on a fantastic 16-yard completion near the left sideline in the second quarter, when a replay review proved Colston kept both feet in bounds. ... Colston made one of the best offensive plays of the day by playing defense and breaking up an interception after Brees’ fourth-quarter overthrow. ... Ingram did manage to mix in a couple nice runs, fighting for yards after contact on gains of 13 and 8 during the TD drive.
METAIRIE, La. -- Not to be lost in all the hubbub over Jimmy Graham's offensive pass interference penalty is that the New Orleans Saints tight end appears to be almost all the way back from his shoulder injury.

Though Graham still had the shoulder wrapped in ice following the Saints' 27-24 overtime loss to the San Francisco 49ers, he certainly showed no ill effects on the field, playing 59 snaps and catching 10 passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns. (It would have been more if his 47-yard Hail Mary TD had counted).

Quarterback Drew Brees certainly has the ultimate trust in Graham, for better and for worse. He tried to fire a pass to Graham in triple coverage at the end of the first half, which led to an interception. But then he later hit Graham on a spectacular 11-yard TD pass on third-and-6 after spinning away from a sure sack on a heavy blitz.

“Brees got some serious pressure, and we've been able the last five years to really have this connection. And more times than not, when he gets in trouble he just finds me and throws it up,” Graham said. “I always tell him, throw it up, I'll be the only one that catches it.”

Graham now ranks among the top 10 pass-catchers in the NFL with 56 receptions and 7 touchdown catches. His 594 receiving yards are just outside the top 20.

Among his other standout traits, Graham has continued to flash his toughness while playing through the shoulder injury that never sidelined him for a full game. He did the same thing last year while playing through a significant foot injury.

Graham admitted last week that he knows his toughness has been questioned from people outside of the Saints organization -- like when Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett called him soft and overrated after their playoff meeting.

"I think last year the M.O. was the if you jam me or you bump me off the line I couldn't play well," Graham told The Times-Picayune's Larry Holder. "So that was a big emphasis for me to be more physical."

UPDATED: Graham admitted to Pro Football Talk on Monday after seeing the video of his pass interference penalty that there was "a slight push off" -- and "a lot of acting."

"You know it's a great job on his part, kind of knowing the situation," Graham said. "As I'm running down the field I'm telling myself don't push off and don't do this and don't do that and just go up and get it. ...I have my hands out just to feel where people are since I'm looking up at a ball. ...

"Apparently I'm a lot stronger than I think I am. He went flying."
Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis was fined $16,537 for an illegal hit against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham that the officials missed on the field during last Thursday’s 28-10 Saints victory.

Davis blasted Graham with a helmet-to-helmet shot under Graham’s chin away from the action after Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass toward another receiver. That pass wound up being intercepted in a double-whammy moment for the Saints. Graham was unable to make a tackle because he was laid out on the ground.

Davis was fined for unnecessary roughness for unnecessarily striking an opponent away from the play.

Graham said later that he was fired up by the way the Panthers were attacking him, and he showed that emotion on the field (hurdling safety Roman Harper on the next series) and off (head-butting the bench on the sideline). Graham finished the game with seven catches for 83 yards and a touchdown.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night:

Playing to win: Drew Brees channeled Herm Edwards' classic rant when asked about how the Saints haven't let up on their aggressive, risk-taking nature despite some costly turnovers earlier in the season and during the first half of Sunday's game.

"You Play To Win The Game!" Brees said with emphasis (once he cleared up the confusion between the famous rants of Edwards and Dennis Green). "Listen, if you're worried about bad things happening all the time and you play conservative and you play not to win, that's when things don't go your way."

The Saints' decisions to push for a two-minute drill touchdown with no timeouts before halftime and to score on a fourth-and-1 dive by Brees both paid off big time.

Graham's emotional head-butt: The cameras caught Saints tight end Jimmy Graham head-butting the bench on the sideline. He said afterward that he had to get out the frustration after the way the team started slow and everyone had written them off. He said this was an emotional win for him.

Injury updates: The Saints didn't release many specific injury updates after the game, but coach Sean Payton referenced three players being hurt. One was offensive tackle Zach Strief, who said he'll be OK after taking a knee to the back and being "bruised up." Receiver Kenny Stills also left the game temporarily with a groin injury. CBS reported during the broadcast that Mark Ingram was fighting a shoulder injury, but he toughed it out with a career-high 30 carries. And Graham noticeably winced a few times because of his continuing shoulder pain. But he also toughed it out before wrapping it in ice after the game.

The payoff for the Saints' extra-short turnaround between a Sunday night home game and Thursday night road game is that now they have 10 days to heal up for the next one.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Safety Roman Harper said his fast start with his new team, the Carolina Panthers, had “nothing to do with” trying to prove the New Orleans Saints wrong for letting him go.

But Harper, 31, admitted that he’s felt rejuvenated by being the "good-looking girl you see walking across the street" instead of the "old girlfriend."

[+] EnlargeRoman Harper
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAfter eight seasons in New Orleans, Roman Harper will be facing his former team for the first time.
“My biggest thing is it’s just a different thing. It’s a different vibe, a different system. You’re learning all over again. You’re really focusing on the little things and the little details where before you felt like you knew it all because you’ve been in the same system for so long,” said Harper, who spent eight years with the Saints after being drafted in the second round out of Alabama in 2006. “Not only that, even the players and coaches, it’s all fresh. You’re a new face. You’re no longer stale to them. You’re not like the old girlfriend. You’re like the good-looking girl you see walking across the street. That’s what it’s about right now, and I’m excited to be here. It’s been great. It’s been very good.”

Harper, who will face his former team for the first time tonight in Carolina, won a Super Bowl ring and earned two Pro Bowl invites with the Saints, having his best years as an attacking blitzer under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11.

But Harper said he saw the writing on the wall when the Saints drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round last year.

“They drafted Kenny in the first round and they want to see him play. I think at the end of the day that’s kind of what it was. I never really felt like he beat me out or anything like that,” said Harper, whose cause wasn’t helped by the fact that he missed seven games with a knee injury last year and was due $3.15 million this year. “It’s the business. They want to see these guys play. They want to see their guys have success. There are no hard feelings, it’s just part of it. I was ready to move on and they were too.”

Harper’s former teammates raved this week about what a good person he was -- including the “band of brothers” that have been together since the Millsaps training camp days of 2006, as Drew Brees recalled, and including the younger players who have come since. Vaccaro, running back Mark Ingram (a fellow Alabama product) and tight end Jimmy Graham (a longtime practice matchup) all described him as a valued mentor.

Vaccaro, in fact, made a point to say to the New Orleans Advocate that Harper was much more welcoming to him than fellow former veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins was in that awkward relationship between veteran and newcomers fighting for snaps.

“It was a relief to be replacing someone like Roman,” Vaccaro told The Advocate. “It’s always tougher when they’re not helping you -- there’s tension, you feel awkward all the time. ... He was real selfless.”

That selflessness will be replaced by competing goals tonight, when Ingram said he’ll gladly lower a shoulder into his friend and Graham said he’ll try to make sure Harper’s personal scouting reports are obsolete.

Harper, who has continued to play primarily as an in-the-box safety who will cover tight ends on occasion, intercepted three passes in the Panthers’ first six games. That was a stunner for those who followed Harper in New Orleans, since interceptions were always admittedly his biggest shortcoming (he had seven in eight years).

Harper has battled inconsistency, though, along with a Panthers defense that ranks 29th in the NFL in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Harper said he doesn’t think reuniting with the Saints will feel “really weird” until he returns to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome later this season. For now, it will just be friendly handshakes and a business meeting.

Saints coach Sean Payton usually downplays meetings with former players or coaches since he says they’re so commonplace on a weekly basis. But in this case, he stressed that Harper was “one of the centerpieces” of the Saints’ rise that began in ’06.

“We were just talking in the walk-through [Tuesday], there’s a play where we have [Marques] Colston possibly blocking Harper, running behind Zach [Strief] and Jahri [Evans]. There’s a lot of ’06 draft class in that pile,” Payton said. “He’s a great guy, has been a great player and been a part of all the things that we built. And you miss seeing his parents, who come to every game. So I’m happy for him and really excited to see he’s doing well.”