NFC South: Jimmy Graham

DETROIT -- The New Orleans Saints released veteran tight end Tom Crabtree and promoted linebacker Todd Davis from their practice squad Saturday.

Crabtree was signed just 11 days ago in the wake of tight end Jimmy Graham's shoulder injury. So his release could be taken as a good sign that Graham could possibly play Sunday against the Detroit Lions. That remains speculation, though. Graham said he would be a game-day decision after he practiced on a limited basis both Thursday and Friday.

The Saints also might have considered Crabtree expendable since fullback Erik Lorig has finally returned from an ankle injury -- and sometimes the positions are interchangeable in New Orleans' offense.

The Saints needed an extra body at linebacker because backups Ramon Humber and Kyle Knox were ruled out with ankle injuries. Davis is an undrafted rookie from Sacramento State who was with the Saints in training camp.
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said coach Sean Payton will decide after a pregame evaluation on Sunday morning whether the tight end will be to play through his shoulder injury against the Detroit Lions.

“Sean said he’s gonna test it and then see where I’m at,” Graham said. “So if I can, I can. If I can’t, I can’t.”

Payton declined comment. Graham was officially listed as questionable on the Saints' injury report after participating in Friday's full-team drills on a limited basis.

Graham didn’t offer many specific details on the injury, which he suffered two weeks ago against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- other than to acknowledge that “it’s painful.” But he said he has been making progress after returning to team drills for the first time on a limited basis Thursday.

“I’m all right. It’s been better. I’ve had better days,” Graham said. “Right now, it’s been an OK week. …

“They’ve done a great job here (the training and medical staff), but you know we’ll see on Sunday. I actually don’t know. … Hopefully maybe in two days I’ll feel better.”

Graham tried to keep playing after he first suffered the injury, staying in the game for two more series after several chats with trainers and doctors on the sideline. Eventually, though, he was taken into the locker room for X-rays and did not return for the second half.

Graham laughed when asked if the Saints had a hard time convincing him to leave the field.

“You know, I played until I couldn’t really move it anymore,” Graham said. “So I just had to do what’s smart, and the doctors were smart. And Sean said if it was too much, then I needed to come out. So I had to do that. But Josh [Hill] and Ben [Watson] had a great game and they’re fantastic players, so with or without me they’re gonna do plenty to help this team win.”

It’s possible the Saints could opt to use Graham in a limited role, mostly in the red zone, which is what they did last year while he was recovering from a plantar fasciitis injury. Graham played just 18 snaps in that game against the Buffalo Bills and caught two touchdown passes.

But in this case it’s hard to predict anything based on Graham’s practice participation since he doesn’t face any contact in practice.

When asked if he would have any objections to being used in such a limited role, Graham said, “Well, who doesn’t just want the ball in the red zone? If I could do that for the next 20 years, I would. But that’s not how it works at tight end. So, you know, I just want to get back on the field as soon as I can and I’ll wait and see whenever I’m allowed to.”
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton said he’s very guarded with the term “elite” and doesn’t use it often to describe a player. But Payton said it applies to both Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

So yes, Payton said, significant adjustments would need to be made by both teams if either player is held out of Sunday’s game between the Saints and the Lions.

Graham (shoulder) and Johnson (ankle) are both highly questionable for Sunday’s game at Detroit. But neither has been ruled out yet.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe Saints will prepare as if the Lions' Calvin Johnson will play Sunday, and will adjust if he isn't playing.
“Any time you take an elite player -- and I use that term very guarded or not often – obviously that changes things. And it would be the same thing with regards to Jimmy,” Payton said. “And yet I think we know when you play in this league long enough that each week you’re going to have to make those adjustments. And we’ve had to do that as well, take a guy like [Jairus] Byrd, who we consider to be an elite-level safety. You make those changes.

"We’ve gotta prepare for [Johnson] and make sure we’re ready in the event he plays and go into the game expecting that.”

Believe it or not, Johnson hasn’t been the go-to guy in the Lions’ offense this season as he has battled the lingering ankle injury.

Although Johnson has a respectable 22 catches for 348 yards and two touchdowns, it’s newcomer Golden Tate that leads Detroit with 38 catches for 495 yards and a touchdown. Running back Reggie Bush also has 20 catches for 142 yards.

The Lions will look to get both of those dynamic playmakers in open space and stretch the field as wide as they do deep – much like the Saints’ offense. That's no coincidence, as the Lions’ first-year offensive coordinator is former Saints quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi.

And that will put the Saints' defense to the test, since they’ve struggled throughout the year to make tackles in the open field and stay disciplined in their assignments.

“They’re definitely gonna space you out. They’re gonna shift. If they’re anything like our offense, it’s gonna require a lot of discipline,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “Some teams that just stand around make it easier on you. But this team is gonna have a complex scheme, and it’s gonna be kind of like training camp with Coach Payton.”

The Lions will likely try to feature some short, quick throws to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford out of trouble. Stafford has been sacked 21 times this year, which ranks as the third-most in the NFL.

The Saints would love to get him in some third-and-long situations by stopping the run (something they did great two weeks ago against Tampa Bay, but horrible three weeks ago at Dallas). The Lions’ rushing offense hasn’t done much this year, led by former Saints runners Bush and Joique Bell and former Saints fullback Jed Collins. Detroit ranks 29th in the NFL with 86.3 rushing yards per game.
Sean Payton said running back Mark Ingram has a chance to play in the New Orleans Saints’ next game in Week 7 at the Detroit Lions, though Payton remained vague on tight end Jimmy Graham’s status during an interview with CBS Sports Radio’s “TBD In The Morning” on Wednesday.

Payton said Ingram remains in a cast after breaking his hand in Week 2. But he believes Ingram could return after the Week 6 bye with a smaller, padded cast on the hand.

“With the fracture that he had, which is right where the thumb and the hand kind of go together, you gradually just reduce what he’s having to wear. And he’s probably, I would say three or four weeks away from not having to wear anything,” Payton said. “But right now, there’s a chance he plays in the next game.”

As for Graham, who suffered a shoulder injury in Sunday's victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Payton was less specific.

“He’s doing fine. Look, he’s sore. It’s a shoulder. The bye comes at a perfect time for him,” Payton said.

But when asked if Graham could play in Week 7, Payton repeated his reply from the other day: “We’ll see.”

Payton touched on several topics on the show, which is co-hosted by one of his former players, Tiki Barber. Payton had a a more detailed response to the video glimpse of Payton yelling at defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sideline in Week 2 after the defense committed a pre-snap penalty.

As Payton has said, that type of sideline outburst is very common (and a similar example even happened with Drew Brees after one of his interceptions this past week). But that particular exchange with Ryan has continued to be mentioned for the past month as the Saints’ defense has continued to struggle.

Payton said his relationship with Ryan is “outstanding.”

“Listen, he’s someone I love. I love his passion. Here’s what you don’t know. If you spend enough time doing it, you’re gonna find that little clip, just insert assistant coach,” Payton said. “In other words, you saw that clip with Rob. There’s hundreds of that video available with (special teams coordinator) Greg McMahon and I, there’s a ton of that video available with offensive line coach Bret Ingalls. Just insert a coach, and that’s how we are on game day. Listen, I’m that way and have been. It’s an emotional game. And look, he’s doing well.”

Barber added, “It’s true; I can vouch.”

Payton was also asked if anything is ailing Brees physically, as the quarterback hasn’t been as consistent this season.

“I think he’s feeling good,” Payton said. “I think he, like the rest of us, is anxious to have a little bit of rest, but certainly anxious to get back and play better this next stretch of the season. He’s extremely competitive. He’s got an amazing routine with what he does. He’s doing just fine.

“We’ve got to make sure the picture we’re painting around him is perfect. I think, A, (this past Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay) was a game in which we got some pressure inside. They did a good job of pushing the pocket. He hung in there on some throws. I think we need to have a little bit more balanced (between throws and runs). So all those things can contribute to playing better at that position.

“Playing better defense is the No. 1 ally of a quarterback, so that you don’t feel like you’re having to score every time you have the football. A good running game, a good defense, those are two things that really reduce the stress at that position.”
The New Orleans Saints signed veteran tight end Tom Crabtree on Tuesday -- a move which adds to the uncertainty over Jimmy Graham's health status. The Saints worked out both Crabtree and veteran tight end Kellen Davis on Tuesday, among several workouts happening at several positions.

To make room on the roster, the Saints officially placed safety Jairus Byrd on injured reserve.

Graham left this past Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a shoulder injury, but it’s unclear if he’s expected to miss any more time following the Saints’ Week 6 bye.

Graham was originally able to stay in the game for two more series before coach Sean Payton said the team decided to take him in for X-rays and play it “smart” by keeping him out for the remainder of the game. The NFL Network later reported via a source that the Saints didn’t initially believe it was a major injury. But that has not been confirmed, and Payton declined to comment on Graham’s status Monday.

The Saints had only two other tight ends on the active roster -- Benjamin Watson and Josh Hill.

Crabtree (6-foot-4, 245 pounds) is a fifth-year veteran who spent the bulk of his career with the Green Bay Packers from 2009-2012 before playing seven games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He began his career as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009.

Crabtree was a core special teams player for the Packers, but also chipped in as an underrated receiver. Crabtree has 25 career catches for 341 yards and six touchdowns, including the playoffs.

According to ESPN NFL Insider Field Yates, the Saints also worked out defensive end Edgar Jones and linebackers Moise Fokou, Paul Hazel and Lawrence Sidbury on Tuesday.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Proof of character: If you know anything about the Saints, you know they’re going to be more inspired by the gritty resolve they showed in the fourth quarter of a game like this than the disturbing sins that showed up in the second and third quarters.

“Last week, our character came into question, and the leadership of this team came into question,” Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “So you tell me a team that’s down 11 points in the fourth quarter and you come back to win in overtime, that says it all. It talks about the character and the leadership of this locker room. You know, things aren’t always gonna be pretty. But I’ll squeak out a win like that every week.”

No Graham update: Saints tight end Jimmy Graham wasn’t spotted in the locker room, and coach Sean Payton didn’t give a specific update on his status after he left with a shoulder injury during the first half. Graham tried to play through the discomfort for two more series, but doctors and trainers ultimately decided to take him inside for further examination.

"The key is being able to function at full speed," Payton said. "So I think we were smart and got a chance to take a peek and decided we were gonna wait.”

Robinson’s redemption: No individual player earned more redemption Sunday than Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, who returned as the nickel back following his Week 2 demotion -- and responded with the Saints’ first interception of the season.

Robinson again admitted after the game that he needs to have the same confidence in his abilities that others have in him. He said it “meant a lot” that Payton went out of his way to keep encouraging him after the demotion by sharing stories of other cornerbacks who bounced back from similar fates.
TAMPA, Fla. -- One of the traits I admire most about Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is his honesty.

Even if something isn't positive, McCoy's not afraid to say it.

"One of our Achilles heels right now is covering the tight end," McCoy said Thursday. "We have to be better at that."

McCoy simply was stating the obvious. The Bucs are coming off a game in which Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller caught 10 passes. Now, the Bucs have to face New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, who just might be the best tight end in the business -- if you even consider him a tight end.

"There are going to be times when we look at (Graham) as a receiver because they do move him around a lot," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "It's not often that he's a point-of-attack blocker. You see that on tape. He's an outstanding tight end with great pass-receiving skills. You've got to respect that and the way they move him around you have to recognize that he's not always at the tight end position. There are times we're going to treat him as a receiver."

The Bucs likely will use a combination of linebackers and defensive backs to try to slow Graham and quarterback Drew Brees. But there is one other way to prevent Graham from getting the ball.

"The (pass) rush can help that," McCoy said. "Somebody has to win early and we can make the quarterback make a bad throw. Or if the tight end is open, somebody is getting his hands up and getting the quarterback off his spot and making him make a bad throw. And, then, on the back end, guys being in the right spot covering the tight end. What better week to do it than this week. No. 9 and No. 80 over the past five years, that's been a huge combo."

McCoy said the key is to put pressure on Brees.

"Drew Brees is a Hall of Famer, but obviously different defenses get to him and rattle him and make him have a bad day," McCoy said. "You have to do that. It's going to start with us in the middle. He's a shorter guy, so we have to get in his face. We have different packages where we'll have taller guys in the middle and try to get our hands up and pressure him.

"Really, the big thing is to get him off his spot and it's a rush and coverage combo after that. But we definitely have to get him off his spot. He likes to throw from a certain spot. He has a certain step-up spot he likes. We have to get him off of that and get him uncomfortable."

Frazier was quick to point out the Saints have plenty of other offensive weapons besides Graham.

"You have to make a decision on what you've got to take away," Frazier said. "We have a plan for this week and hopefully we can execute it."
The New Orleans Saints' offensive game tape from last Sunday’s 38-17 loss at Dallas was slightly more encouraging than the defensive review.

I was surprised to realize just how sharp quarterback Drew Brees was out of the gates, officially completing his first seven passes. And he made some of his best downfield throws of the season as the game went on, though he became a little more hit-and-miss once the Saints were forced to throw.

But a little bit of everything else went wrong throughout the game, especially the run-blocking, which was easily the worst it’s been all season. Throw in Brees’ tipped-pass interception, fumbles by Jimmy Graham and Travaris Cadet, dropped passes by Graham and Colston and inconsistent pass protection, as well, and you’ve got the ingredients for a blowout loss.

Here are more observations after watching the tape:

[+] EnlargeKhiry Robinson
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsMost of Khiry Robinson's 87 rushing yards against the Cowboys came on a 62-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
Run down: Khiry Robinson had two great runs of 62 and 11 yards in the second half. And Pierre Thomas had a meaningless 8-yard run as time expired in the first half. Other than that, the Saints’ running backs combined for a total of 17 yards on their other nine carries.

Much like last year’s run struggles, it was usually a case of one block being missed on each stalled run and it was a different culprit almost every time. Replacement left tackle Bryce Harris was flagged for holding once and got blown back on another negative run. Guards Ben Grubbs and Jahri Evans, center Jonathan Goodwin and receivers Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills also either missed a block or got pushed back at the line one time each.

Robinson deserves a ton of credit for both of his big runs. He showed great vision to find a path inside of an Evans block and then outside of a block by receiver Marques Colston to spring free for the 62-yarder. Right tackle Zach Strief, Goodwin and Cooks all had good blocks on that play as well.

Brees mostly good: Surprisingly, I thought this was one of Brees’ best performances of the season -- or at least similar to the other three this year, where he was mostly sharp with a few lulls thrown in. He officially completed 14 of his first 18 passes for 159 yards with one interception (his first two throws were dropped by Graham and Colston, but they were nullified by penalties).

Brees’ 46-yard pass to Stills in the third quarter was his best play of the season. He stepped up to avoid pressure coming from end Anthony Spencer against tight end Benjamin Watson and fired a gorgeous pass 42 yards in the air, hitting Stills in stride between cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Barry Church.

Brees also threw TD passes on short throws to Graham and tight end Josh Hill during a second-half rally, fired some other nice downfield strikes to Stills and Colston and turned some negatives into positives with dump-offs under pressure to Graham and Robinson.

Obviously, though, Brees was far from perfect. The interception wasn’t egregious, with linebacker Bruce Carter making a great play to leap and tip the ball in the air. But it was extremely costly when the Saints were still just trailing 10-0. And Brees threw a couple of other balls into tight spaces that could have been picked as well.

Later in the game, Brees had a couple downfield throws that either slightly overshot or undershot the target. But I strongly disagree with the notion that there’s anything wrong with his arm strength based on this performance.

Dropping the ball: Graham’s fumble came at the end of a catch-and-run, when linebacker Rolando McClain got down low to make the hit and wound up putting his helmet right on the ball. Graham was trying to protect it as he crouched to brace for contact, but it obviously wasn’t secure enough. Cadet’s fumble came as he was about to hit the ground while linebacker Justin Durant got his arm in the perfect spot.

Graham and Colston each had blatant drops early in the game and were bailed out by penalties. Later Colston had another drop. And Graham and Colston each had a ball stripped as they tried to secure it -- both were close to being fumbles as well but were ruled incomplete.

Pass protection: This was hit-and-miss. The Saints were actually great at picking up blitzes, even when they only had five blockers. Brees was 6 of 7, including a touchdown, when blitzed. And the only incompletion was a Colston drop.

The Saints were more inconsistent against Dallas’ four-man rush, though. Harris allowed pressure at least twice, Grubbs at least twice and Evans and Goodwin at least once.

Worth noting: The The Saints’ fake punt in the fourth quarter was a total failure, with punter Thomas Morstead being sacked -- and even worse considering Dallas had only 10 men on the field. … Carter made one of the most unique and impressive tackles I’ve ever seen against Robinson, grabbing hold of his toes and not letting go as he brought him down. … The Saints were penalized for 12 men on the field late in the game on a formation that had Cooks lined up deep in the backfield. I’m sure that only added to their frustration. … Another wide receiver screen pass to Cooks was snuffed out as defenses have clearly been on the lookout for them.

Jimmy Graham shows his worth

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
CLEVELAND -- Maybe Jimmy Graham has had more impressive days. But the New Orleans Saints tight end was never more important than Sunday.

It may seem like a moot point, since the Saints ultimately lost 26-24 to the Cleveland Browns in the final seconds. But Graham was the single biggest reason why the Saints were in a position to win after starting in a 16-3 hole.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Tony DejakJimmy Graham tied a career high with 10 receptions against the Browns.
Graham didn’t have a catch at that point in the game, with less than four minutes remaining in the first half. But he finished with 10 catches (matching a career high) for 118 yards and two touchdowns.

“That’s why they’re paying him so much money. That’s why he’s asking for that much, he’s that kind of impact player,” Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby said, referencing the four-year, $40 million deal Graham signed this offseason. “We held him in check for a little, then he got loose and made his plays.”

On a day when nothing else seemed to be working for the Saints’ passing offense, Graham delivered time and again. No matter who was covering him -- including Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, whom Graham beat twice for big plays in tight man coverage.

“When you’re 6-7, 260 and you can run like a deer and jump out of the gym, you’re hard to cover,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “So obviously you saw him make some plays today. I thought he played exceptionally well.”

When asked if he ever gets in one of those zones where he feels like no one can stop him, Graham said, “You know, I’m not that cocky. But I’m confident that if Drew throws it up, I’m gonna try to get it for him.”

Graham certainly helped to dispel the myth that he can be taken out of games by a top cornerback.

Two of his biggest plays came when he was being blanketed by Haden – a 9-yard TD pass with three seconds left in the first half and a 20-yard pass to the 3-yard line that set up another TD in the fourth quarter.

The notion that Graham doesn’t have the same impact when covered by cornerbacks became popular when the New England Patriots’ Aqib Talib had success against him last year. And it was oft-mentioned when Graham was trying to be declared a receiver for franchise-tag purposes this summer.

But Graham proved that his size advantage can still prove too much for even top cornerbacks.

When asked if he invites teams trying to cover him that way, Graham said, “Yeah, I guess. If they’re gonna cover me with a cornerback, I’ve gotta find a way to get open.”

Graham also added high praise for Haden, who certainly had a successful day aside from those two plays.

The Browns’ passing defense did an outstanding job of frustrating Brees and his receivers throughout the day. At times, they had seven defensive backs on the field, leaving no one open -- and sometimes leading to costly results.

That pass coverage led to Brees being sacked against the goal line in the first quarter when he held the ball too long. It led to an interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter when Brees heaved one over Graham’s head under pressure. And it kept receiver Marques Colston without a catch (or even a single target) for the first time in 87 games.

But the Browns couldn’t find an answer for Graham.

“Jimmy Graham is a special player that has a special talent,” Haden said. “I ran up to him after the game, and we just both paid homage. He was telling me how good I was at corner, but he is just a really big target. Sometimes it is really hard to make plays on the ball; you have to try and get under him. Once he gets that big frame in front of you, it’s kind of hard to hit that ball.”

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 26-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: Disaster isn't the right word, but disappointment would also be a huge understatement. Maybe disgust fits?

I’m sure the Saints will insist that they aren’t in panic mode after their 0-2 start that came down to two last-second field goals. And they shouldn't be -- yet. But now they'll be in scratch-and-claw mode to dig themselves out of an unexpected hole. This isn’t where anyone -- including the Saints -- expected them to be in a season that started with Super Bowl expectations.

The Saints' offense has shown a ton of promise, which offers hope for the future. But both units can share equally in the blame after a game that started with a disastrous 16-3 deficit thanks in large part to an interception return for a touchdown by the Browns. In the end, though, it was the defense that allowed the Browns to march 14 plays and 85 yards for the winning field goal drive in the final minutes.

Stock watch: The Saints' secondary still has issues, but it was much-improved for large stretches of this game. Cornerback Patrick Robinson struggled mightily early in the game, with two costly penalties and allowing a short TD pass. He was demoted to the nickelback spot. Then the final drive was capped by an assignment breakdown for a wide-open pass to set up the field goal.

The good news is that the Saints were better with their open-field tackling, especially Kenny Vaccaro. But this was supposed to be more of a shutdown unit, especially against a Browns passing offense that didn’t have Josh Gordon or Jordan Cameron at its disposal.

Game ball: On a day when nothing else was working, the Saints could still rely on go-to tight end Jimmy Graham in a huge way. He didn’t have a catch for the first 26 minutes but finished with 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He did it no matter the matchup, even beating Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on two big plays.

Running strong: The Saints also relied heavily on their run game while patiently coming back on a day when the Browns weren’t letting the Saints get the ball down the field to receivers. Mark Ingram was outstanding with 11 carries for 83 yards and a touchdown plus three catches for 21 yards. The Saints want more balance, though. They didn’t complete a pass to receiver Marques Colston and completed only three short passes to receiver Brandin Cooks.

What’s next: The best news of all for the Saints is that they’ll be back in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome next week, where they went 8-0 last season. And they’ll be hosting the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a must-win if ever there was one in September.

W2W4: Saints at Browns

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
METAIRIE, La. -- When considering Sunday's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns, I can't help but think of LSU's season opener against Wisconsin as a worthy comparison that Louisiana football fans might appreciate -- for better and for worse.

LSU didn't handle the clash of styles well at first, with the Badgers outrushing the Tigers 182-17 in the first half and jumping to a 24-7 lead in the third quarter. But LSU's superior talent and athleticism eventually won out, with the second half looking like a blowout.

Another good comparison: the Saints' last meeting against Browns coach Mike Pettine, who was the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator last year. The Saints beat Buffalo 35-17, but here's what I wrote in my Rapid Reaction following that game: "Oddly enough, the Saints' offense started a little slow and sloppy in this one. Yet it still wound up with 35 points and five touchdown passes from Drew Brees."

Here's What 2 Watch 4:

Browns' stout defense: Saints players and coaches have widely praised Cleveland's underrated defense. And the subject they point out most is how big and physical the Browns' front seven is with a true 3-4 front in the style of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, etc.

"Their guys are huge," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "They're big and strong and athletic. You look at them on film, they're just massive guys. So you're gonna have to be disciplined and know that it's gonna be a fight."

The Browns have proven talent throughout the defense, from Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and safety Donte Whitner to linebacker Karlos Dansby and nose tackle Phil Taylor, among others. Pettine's former team is a great comparison. The Bills' underrated defense sacked Brees four times last year and held the Saints to less than three yards per rush.

Browns' stout offensive line: Likewise, the Browns have an underrated offensive line, led by perhaps the league's best tackle in Joe Thomas and the league's best center in Alex Mack. Cleveland features a zone-blocking scheme under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in the mold of his father, Mike Shanahan, and the Browns will stubbornly stick to it even with top running back Ben Tate sidelined by an injury this week.

They'll run a lot of play-action out of that front. And they'll also probably trot out some of the no-huddle offense that was so effective for quarterback Brian Hoyer in the second half of their near-comeback against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1. So they'll force the Saints to be disciplined on defense -- which was already a huge point of emphasis after the Saints struggled so much with missed tackles in a 37-34 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Ripe for the picking: Enough about the problems the Browns will cause. How about the monster problem the Saints will cause -- their deep and diverse passing offense, which looked as good as ever in Week 1. Rookie Saints receiver Brandin Cooks emerged as yet another matchup nightmare for a Saints offense that is loaded with them (Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and possibly the healthy return of Kenny Stills).

Haden is an outstanding corner for the Browns, and No. 2 corner Buster Skrine is solid. But the Browns' own first-round draft pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert, struggled as the nickel back in his debut last week. As Pettine learned last year, even when the Saints start sloppy, they have a deadly quick-strike ability.
METAIRIE, La. – Much was made of the success the New England Patriots had last year against New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham when they used physical cornerback Aqib Talib against Graham in press coverage.

In fact, probably too much was made of it, as few NFL teams have cornerbacks with that ability and no other teams copied the Patriots’ blueprint after that Week 6 matchup.

But one way or another – whether he’s being pressed by cornerbacks, jammed by defensive ends or harassed by linebackers – Graham knows he’ll keep seeing new wrinkles in the way teams cover him this season.

He always does.

Luckily, as Graham pointed out, the Saints have one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds in coach Sean Payton.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees and Jimmy Graham's chemistry gives them a big advantage, no matter the wrinkles defenses throw at them.
So they certainly talked this offseason about the possibility of seeing coverages like they saw in New England, among others.

And they’ll be ready to throw out some new wrinkles themselves.

“Sean’s great with that in the offseason. Always does something new, implements new wrinkles,” said Graham, who offered some good detail Friday on what worked for the Patriots last year.

“I wouldn’t say New England covered me with a corner. I would say they were jamming me on the line with someone who can jam well, and then playing zone behind it,” Graham explained. “When you have help over the top and then you’ve got a linebacker scraping to help and you’re getting jammed man to man, it makes the picture cloudy of what you’re supposed to do. Especially when you run a lot of routes like me and (receiver Marques) Colston, where you have a lot of options. So when teams do that, it just kind of clouds that picture up.

“But it’s something that we’ve worked on this camp, shoring up some of those things and being ready for when teams do that. And Drew [Brees] being the quarterback he is, he finds the open guy. He doesn’t key on one guy or two guys, he finds the open man.”

Graham did stress, however, that he and Brees have a great chemistry that has allowed them to have immense success even when Graham isn’t so wide open.

“I think I definitely have a chapter in his book. I’m definitely on his page … or whatever you want to call it,” Graham said when asked if they’ve built a rapport similar to the one between Brees and Colston. “He looks for me, and he understands my body language. That’s a very important thing when you’re in between the linebackers and safeties.”

Typically, Graham said he doesn’t mind when defenses go to great lengths to try and take himself or Colston out of the game – as long as the Saints win. Last season's playoff victory at Philadelphia was a perfect example, when the Eagles sold out to harass both of them, even using defensive ends to chip them at the line.

“But that means that our running game just opened up. We were smashing people in that game,” Graham said.

The Saints weren't so fortunate against the Seattle Seahawks the next week. They also put a heavy focus on stopping Graham -- with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas shadowing him often in bracket coverage. But the Seahawks' defense is deep enough that they were also able to match up against the Saints' other receivers and runners (at least until a furious fourth-quarter rally).

The good news this year is that neither the Seahawks, the Patriots nor Talib are on New Orleans' regular-season schedule.

Two other positives for Graham – he’s healthy again to start the season after battling through a torn plantar fasciitis throughout the second half of last season; and the Saints’ receivers are loaded in terms of speed.

Graham said he thinks it will be even harder for defenses to take any one element away from the Saints’ offense this year now that they’ve added dynamic rookie Brandin Cooks and gotten downfield threat Joe Morgan back from injury.

“Having Joe Morgan healthy, that’s a big deal. In my opinion, he’s one of the fastest guys that I’ve ever met,” Graham said. “And Meach [Robert Meachem]. We just have a lot of speed now that’s gonna put a lot of pressure on these safeties. So you can’t cheat coverage, and you can’t have the safeties in the box. You have to respect that speed on the outside. And that’s one of the things we had in 2011 and one of the things they had in 2009. It makes teams have to play honest.”

Graham had a monster season in 2011, when he temporarily set some all-time receiving records for a tight end before New England’s Rob Gronkowski passed him up in the final minutes. That season, Graham finished with 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

But Graham wasn’t far off that pace last year, finishing with 86 catches for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns. And as’s Pete Prisco pointed out in this historical film study, Graham has always caused particular nightmares for Sunday’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The New Orleans Saints have gotten pretty good at these final preseason “dress rehearsals” over the years.

Their 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts marked the eighth consecutive year that they have won the second-to-last preseason game, which is the game where starters typically play the most.

As they usually do, the Saints took their preparation for Saturday’s game more seriously than other exhibitions, specifically game-planning against the Colts in practices during the week. And they came out sizzling, rolling to a 20-7 lead while most of the starters were still in the game.

“It’s a good thing, because we certainly come into this game saying, ‘Hey, this is like a regular-season game for that time we are in. … We usually prep for it like it’s the dress rehearsal for the season,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose two-touchdown performance was especially impressive considering it was also his preseason debut.

Brees was one of several key Saints veterans who made their preseason debuts Saturday after nursing a variety of injuries -- a group that also included guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, safety Jairus Byrd, cornerback Champ Bailey and receiver Kenny Stills.

“We knew coming into this we were going to bring all the guns out and see if we could put a few good drives together and then get them out,” Brees said. “Make sure everybody was ready to roll for the regular season.”

Consider that, “Mission accomplished.”

The Saints weren’t perfect -- especially when it came to penalties, a nagging problem that has plagued them throughout the preseason.

This time, New Orleans was “only” charged with 10 penalties, compared to 22 a week earlier. But eight of them came in the first half. And the Saints also had to burn at least one timeout because they didn’t have the right number of men on the field -- an issue that coach Sean Payton said was his "biggest disappointment."

But Payton was obviously more pleased than he was a week earlier, when he was fuming over the penalties in his postgame press conference.

“Pretty much what I told the players, it was good to get the win. There were a lot of positives. I thought the energy was good. I thought situationally in a lot of areas we did some good things,” Payton said in his opening statement after the game. “We are still high in the penalty count with 10. Substitutionally, that was a mess in the second half, part of it in the first half. We will get that squared away, and we need to because it cost us timeouts and just keeps showing up too often.”

Payton specifically credited the strong play by the Saints’ secondary to the high energy the team was playing with. The Saints had two interceptions and nearly two others.

There was still plenty to nitpick about, though, including a coverage breakdown that led to the Colts’ only first-half touchdown.

The consensus among most players was that they’re getting closer but not quite there yet. That’s how defensive end Cameron Jordan felt after he played outstanding, with the exception of one missed opportunity at a sack when he allowed quarterback Andrew Luck to slip from his grasp.

“The one (missed play) is always nagging at you,” Jordan said. “I feel like we’re headed in the right direction, further along the path than what we started out with.”

Tight end Jimmy Graham made a similar comment after the offense gave its smoothest first-half performance to date.

"It went well. Especially if you compare it, you can tell that we're just growing,” Graham said. “And to have No. 9 back is a big part of that. He really gets the tempo going early, and he's really looking to push the tempo. When we've been able to push the tempo, that's when we’re at our best, so all good things."

Saints’ Camp Report Day 18

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
METAIRIE, La. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of New Orleans Saints training camp:
  • The Saints got some good news on the injury front Tuesday when safety Jairus Byrd was cleared to do full-contact work. But there were still a handful of key players missing. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was held out of practice, though he did some exercises off to the side with trainers. Guard Ben Grubbs was absent after leaving with an undisclosed injury during Monday’s practice. Receiver Brandin Cooks was absent for the second straight day with a stomach virus (coach Sean Payton said he still had a fever). Cornerback Patrick Robinson, linebackers Victor Butler and Khairi Fortt and fullback Erik Lorig were also among a group of players who remained sidelined with unspecified injuries. Defensive end Akiem Hicks and cornerback Champ Bailey participated in a walk-through but didn’t do any team drills.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick replaced Hicks with the starting defense – another sign of Deaderick’s versatility and possible value to the Saints. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder spent most of the summer lining up as the Saints’ second-string nose tackle while John Jenkins recovered from a pectoral surgery, and that’s where Deaderick was lined up when he recovered a fumble in last Friday’s preseason game against the Tennessee Titans. Deaderick, 27, spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots and one year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He’s right on the roster bubble, but he’s making a strong case.
  • Speaking of that roster bubble, another undrafted rookie that belongs on your radar is outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, a German native who played at Boston College. The main reason I haven’t touted Edebali much when I do my weekly 53-man roster projections is because I feel like that position is so overcrowded that it will be tough to crack. But the 6-2, 253-pounder has flashed some impressive athleticism and pass-rush ability at times. Saints analyst Bobby Hebert was just touting Edebali on Monday. Then on Tuesday, Edebali got a ringing endorsement from fellow former undrafted linebacker Junior Galette. When asked if he’s been impressed by any undrafted guys, Galette said, “One guy I’d point out, Kasim Edebali. You know he’s not really a rookie, I feel like. He’s up there in age, 25 years old [as of Sunday]. He’s a lot more mature than I was as a rookie. And the guy gets off the ball and he can play.”
  • Some of the on-field highlights Tuesday: Rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste went up high to break up a pass from Drew Brees to Marques Colston in the end zone, one of Jean-Baptiste’s best efforts to date. … Cornerback Corey White forced a fumble against running back Khiry Robinson in seven-on-seven drills, one of White’s many nice plays in camp. … Tight end Jimmy Graham continued to serve as a go-to target in Tuesday’s practice, continuing a stellar camp. And after Graham scored a TD on Tuesday, he celebrated with an emphatic (and legal) spike. … Brees kept the ball to himself, tucking it and running it in for a score to cap a red zone drill at the end of practice.
  • The Saints will take their practice show on the road Wednesday night for a rare practice across the lake at Mandeville High School. The session, from 7-9 p.m. CT, will be free and open to the public, weather permitting. Payton said the team will be in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts instead of a fully-padded session.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Drew Brees' strained oblique must have been one of those balance-in-the-universe things.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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