NFC South: Jimmy Graham

W2W4: Saints need stars to step up

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
12:30
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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:

Brees
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.”

Graham
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:

Ingram
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.

Brees
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.

Graham
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).

Graham
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."
Graham
Davis
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:

Brees
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.”
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints running back Khiry Robinson is officially listed as questionable for Thursday's game against the Carolina Panthers with a forearm injury. He seems like a long shot, as he didn't practice this week after being held out Sunday night. But his status remains uncertain for now.

Fellow running back Pierre Thomas, meanwhile, has been ruled out with shoulder and rib injuries. Once again the Saints should lean heavily on running back Mark Ingram, with Travaris Cadet assisting in primarily a pass-catching role. Ingram ran for a career-high 172 yards on 24 carries Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers. He said he felt good Tuesday despite the short recovery time.

Tight end Jimmy Graham is listed as questionable with his shoulder injury. But there’s little doubt he’ll continue to play through it – as he did last week when he caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown. Graham talked Tuesday about dealing with the soreness.

Center Jonathan Goodwin (knee, ankle) and linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle) are also listed as questionable after practicing on a limited basis during the short week. Linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) and fullback Austin Johnson (knee) were ruled out.

The Panthers, meanwhile, will go into Thursday’s game with an injury-depleted offensive line. Undrafted rookie David Foucault will be making his starting debut at left tackle.
METAIRIE, La. – The New Orleans Saints' offensive roster will probably look much the same for Thursday night’s game at the Carolina Panthers as it did this past Sunday night.

Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to practice Tuesday on a limited basis with his shoulder injury, while running backs Pierre Thomas (shoulder/rib) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) remained sidelined.

Graham
Graham admitted that the short turnaround is “tough on an injury like” his. But he said he fully expects to keep playing through it after catching five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers two nights ago.

“You know, I’ve been playing. So I’ll do whatever I can to be as healthy as I can come Thursday,” Graham said. “I’m doing alright. I’ve been better. But nobody really cares about that. We’ll just keep going and do what I can to be as healthy as I can on Thursday.”

Graham acknowledged that “I guess I was more of a decoy than anything” in his first game back two weeks ago at Detroit, when he played 30 snaps but was only targeted twice, not catching a pass. Graham credited coach Sean Payton, though, for finding ways that he could continue to help the team as much as possible without missing any games since he first suffered the injury in Week 5.

“I told Drew [Brees] I want to be a part of something special. So Sunday, I felt like that was a special night for us, and I want to be a part of those things, I want to help us win,” Graham said. “So I know when I’m out there, even if I’m just running around with my head cut off, I know it helps Drew.”

It seems unlikely that Thomas or Robinson will return to the field Thursday after both were also held out of Sunday’s game -- though neither has been ruled out yet. The Saints’ Tuesday practice was more of a glorified walkthrough since they’ve had such little recovery time between games.

Running back Mark Ingram insisted he’ll be ready to carry a heavy load again if needed. Ingram carried the ball a career-high 24 times Sunday night for 172 yards. He said he feels a little sore -- naturally -- but insisted, "I feel good." And he said the increased reps can also be a positive since they help his body get into a rhythm.

Also on the Saints’ injury report Tuesday: Linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) and fullback Austin Johnson (did not practice); center Jonathan Goodwin (knee/ankle) and linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle) were limited.
METAIRIE, La. -- Mark Ingram's monster performance Sunday night made a compelling case for the theory that he’s the kind of running back who gets stronger with more carries.

Whether or not that’s true, the New Orleans Saints' fourth-year back is clearly running with more momentum and confidence than he ever has in his up-and-down career.

Ingram ran the ball a career-high 24 times for 172 yards in the Saints’ 44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers (including 124 yards and a touchdown in the second half). It was the most rushing yards by a Saints back since Deuce McAllister in 2003.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisThe Saints say that running back Mark Ingram's confidence has grown with more playing time.
Ingram, who has never complained publicly about being a part of a committee in New Orleans, acknowledged Sunday night that “anytime you can just get into a rhythm it feels good . . . Any player would say that.”

The more gratifying part, he said, was knowing that the Saints were counting on him because fellow backs Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas were both sidelined by injuries.

“I just had to step up and do the best I could,” said Ingram, who repeatedly praised the offensive line for leading the way Sunday, saying his night “would not have been possible” without them.

“We were just clicking,” Ingram said. “When they get off the ball and create seams for me to run through, I just try to find it. Follow my read and just go with my instincts.”

I’m not sure how much I buy into the theory that one back is better than a committee for an NFL team.

As often as guys like Ingram have these types of performances, you’ll also see the benefit of fresh legs when guys rotate. The Saints’ one-two punch of Ingram and Robinson thrived in the playoffs last season at Philadelphia. And the one-two punch of Robinson and Thomas led New Orleans to victory over Tampa Bay earlier this month when Ingram was out with a broken hand.

If one Saints running back was clearly better than the others, I’d argue differently. But over the years, the Saints have truly had a collection of very good backs who all deserved touches (from McAllister to Reggie Bush, Thomas, Darren Sproles, Ingram, Chris Ivory and Robinson).

Tight end Jimmy Graham brought up the notion Sunday night that Ingram plays better in the type of role he played Sunday.

“He’s a 'feel' running back,” Graham said. “He needs those touches to get a feel for what we’re doing. And our O-line, we need those touches so that we get a feel for what these guys are doing on the run.”

But coach Sean Payton said he believes it’s more of a case-by-case basis.

“Each week, depending on who we’re playing, we’ll look closely at who we want to have in the game,” Payton said. “We’ve had games where we’ve had multiple guys with a high dose of carries. We’ve had games where there’s been maybe one more guy featured and we kind of go with the hot hand. It just depends on the week and who we’re playing.”

With all due credit to both Ingram and the offensive line, one of the biggest factors for Sunday’s success was the Packers’ porous run defense, which ranks last in the NFL, allowing 153.5 rushing yards per game.

Ingram had a career-high 92 yards after contact Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- the second-most in a NFL game this season behind Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard. Not only that, but the Saints’ balance also allowed them to torment Green Bay with play-action passes. Drew Brees completed all seven of his play-action passes for 144 yards and all three of his touchdown passes in the second half.

“Going in, we felt that was a key part of winning this game, and we were able to execute that,” Payton said. “So each week can take on a different plan, and yet that balance is still something we’re looking for, whether it’s coming from one running back or more than one.”

The Saints are now ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards per game (133.0) and second in yards per carry (5.1). Ingram became the Saints’ leading rusher by one yard over Robinson -- despite Ingram missing three games with the broken hand. Ingram has 331 yards on 58 carries, and Robinson 330 on 64 carries.

“For one, I think [Ingram] is more confident,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “Not only more confident in what we’re trying to do up front, how these plays are supposed to hit and who he’s got to set up for us, but more in just his ability. I think he’s had success, and I think it came at the end of last year when Mark starting feeling some confidence and had some success and kind of saw how much he could help us help him.

“It was really good to see him get as much action as he did last night and come through with such a big game.”
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints did not practice Monday as they try to heal up during a short week before Thursday night's game at the Carolina Panthers. But both teams were still required to post an estimated injury report as if they had practiced on Monday.

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Goodwin
Although that's a somewhat silly exercise, the Saints' estimated injury report was still revealing. Center Jonathan Goodwin (knee) and linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle) were listed as limited -- a sign that both are on the mend from injuries that kept them out last week.

Meanwhile, linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) and fullback Austin Johnson (knee) were new additions to the injury report. Both were listed as not participating in team drills.

Hawthorne
The rest of the injury report was the same as last week. Running backs Pierre Thomas (rib/shoulder) and Khiry Robinson (forearm) were listed as did not participate. Tight end Jimmy Graham (shoulder) was listed as limited.

The Saints have gotten used to some adverse circumstances during these short weeks since they've now played on the road on a Thursday in midseason during four of the past five years. They won at Atlanta in 2013, lost at Atlanta in 2012 and won at Dallas in 2010. (They've actually played on the road on a Thursday in five straight years, including the Week 1 NFL opener at Green Bay in 2011).

This year, the degree of difficulty has gone up a notch with the Saints having just played a Sunday night game, taking away nearly eight hours of recovery time.

"Yeah, certainly if you're playing a Thursday schedule, you'd prefer to play a normal time game (on Sunday)," Saints coach Sean Payton admitted Monday. "That being said, we have no control of that. And really no one's interested in hearing it. ...It's just a matter of making sure our teams' ready to play and our team's ready to go in there, be fresh.

"We'll have a good plan, making sure there's not too much in the plan so we can execute and play full speed."
NEW ORLEANS -- Jimmy Graham is clearly on the road to recovery after finally busting loose in the third quarter of the New Orleans Saints' 44-23 victory against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

Graham
But Graham will have to fight through at least one more tough week with his ailing shoulder as he and the Saints have to quickly turn around and travel to the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night.

"(Monday’s) gonna be pretty rough for me, I already know. But I’ll take the next 48 hours, that’s really what’s most important, trying to get the swelling and what-not down and try to get ready on Thursday," Graham said after Sunday's game. "I’ll pretty much live in the treatment room, and I’ll be hooked up to all kinds of stuff while I sleep."

When asked if the recovery is all that’s bothering him now instead of the actual game play, Graham smiled.

"It all bothers me, but I’m gonna do whatever it takes to be out there on the field for this team, and do whatever I can to help us win," Graham said.

It’s unclear when Graham will be back to "100 percent" with the unspecified shoulder injury he suffered three weeks ago. But on Sunday night he showed he can still produce in a big way even if he’s not 100 percent.

After not catching a pass in the first half, stretching his shutout streak to six quarters, Graham busted out with five catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter.

Graham played 42 snaps in the game -- up from 30 a week earlier at Detroit. And coach Sean Payton described him as "full" after saying he was limited to certain packages the week before.

Graham said he didn’t get frustrated when he didn’t catch any passes in the first half (he was targeted once, but a back-shoulder throw from Drew Brees into the end zone was just out of Graham’s reach).

"Sean always tells me, 'Hey, be patient. You know, at a big moment, when it matters, we’re gonna come your way. And we’re gonna come your way big,'" Graham said. "So he’s telling me that all through the first half, and he goes through some plays and says, 'Hey listen, it’s your time.'

"So when you have a head coach that does that for you and you have an offensive coordinator that does that for you -- and Pete Carmichael came up to me and said the same thing -- its buckle your chin strap, because it’s coming your way."
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints44-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers:

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Payton
Prove it again: Coach Sean Payton’s message to his team after their best win of the season was obvious, since so many players repeated it. Just as they remained upbeat following a devastating loss at Detroit last week, they must remain measured heading into Thursday night’s game at Carolina.

Players insisted they won’t be overconfident -- and really, how could they be at 3-4? But they also said it was a big confidence boost to finally have that hard work pay off.

“It was extremely encouraging,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “Sean told us we just gotta keep hitting away at the stone, and eventually something will chip.”

Graham battles soreness: Payton said Graham was “full” this week in terms of his involvement in the game plan as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. It didn’t feel that way when Graham had zero catches in the first half, but then he caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter. Graham credited Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. for reminding him to stay patient early in the game and promising his time was coming. Graham said he’s still battling soreness and knows Monday will be “pretty rough for me.”

When asked if it’s only the morning after that bothers him now and not the game itself, Graham laughed. “It all bothers me, but I’m gonna do whatever it takes to be out there on the field and do whatever I can to help us win,” he said.

No work for punters: There were no punts in Sunday night’s game for just the third time in NFL regular-season history (it's also happened once in the postseason). The second time came earlier this year in a Packers-Chicago Bears game. Payton cracked afterward that it was a complete team victory but, “The punters didn’t get a lot of work.”

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