NFC South: Rafael Bush

METAIRIE, La. -- Veteran Jamarca Sanford would seem to be the most likely candidate to replace Rafael Bush as the New Orleans Saints’ starting free safety.

Sanford
Sanford, 29, is listed as Bush’s backup on the Saints’ unofficial depth chart. And the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder spent the past three years as a starter for the Minnesota Vikings, where he reportedly performed well in pass coverage.

The only real knock on Sanford is that he showed up in New Orleans a week ago -- signed mostly as a special-teamer and emergency backup.

But that’s what the Saints are down to now that Bush has been placed on injured reserve with a broken leg. Bush was the third Saints safety to land on IR, following veteran Jairus Byrd and rookie Vinnie Sunseri.

Sanford, a seventh-round draft pick out of Ole Miss in 2009, spent three games with the Washington Redskins earlier this season after being released by Minnesota. He has 269 career tackles, with two interceptions, eight forced fumbles and one sack.

The Saints have other candidates, but they all come with question marks, too:
  • First-year safety Marcus Ball has been with the team all year, but coach Sean Payton described him as more of a strong safety and special-teamer this week -- and Ball has struggled at times when he has played as a third safety on defense.
  • The Saints signed undrafted rookie Pierre Warren on Tuesday off the Vikings’ practice squad. Warren spent the summer with the Saints and made a strong impression as a playmaker in training camp. But he was ultimately released (ironically because of too much depth at safety), and he didn’t even stick long on New Orleans’ practice squad. It’s hard to imagine him stepping right into a starting role.
  • Cornerback Corey White is a wild-card possibility who played safety in college and dabbled at the position in nickel and dime packages during training camp. The Saints have more depth at cornerback, with Patrick Robinson, Brian Dixon, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and recently-promoted Terrence Frederick all capable of stepping up a rung on the depth chart. But the Saints already might need some of those guys to step up since starter Keenan Lewis is still battling a knee injury.

The Film Don't Lie: Saints

October, 28, 2014
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A weekly look at what the New Orleans Saints must fix:

The latest epidemic to hit the Saints' defense? Seventy-yard plays.

Within the span of four series over two weeks, New Orleans allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass to Detroit's Golden Tate, a 70-yard touchdown pass to Green Bay's Randall Cobb and a 67-yard screen pass to Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy.

Believe it or not, explosive plays like that hadn't been a problem for the Saints in the first five games. Before Tate's TD, New Orleans had allowed only one pass play of more than 41 yards all season (a 54-yard dump-off to Atlanta running back Antone Smith in Week 1). And opponents' No. 1 receivers haven't killed them, thanks in large part to Keenan Lewis' solid play (he helped New Orleans hold Jordy Nelson to just three catches for 25 yards Sunday).

But the Saints have had a season-long problem with assignment breakdowns popping up in the secondary.

That's what happened on Cobb's touchdown, which developed into a disaster when quarterback Aaron Rodgers had too much time in the pocket. Coach Sean Payton described it as an "extended play," which he said becomes a greater challenge for the secondary. After cornerback Patrick Robinson came in on a zone blitz, Lewis picked up the shallow zone coverage on Cobb. But he let Cobb get behind him -- clearly expecting help from safety Rafael Bush, who didn't get over in time.

The Saints had similar breakdowns in Detroit, when they allowed the Lions to convert three third and "extra longs" in the fourth quarter -- much to the chagrin of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The Saints are now ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense at 289.3 yards per game after allowing Rodgers to throw for 418 yards.

Fortunately against Green Bay, the Saints' defense settled in and started making huge plays of its own with two second-half interceptions. But if the Saints are going to rely on a bend-but-don't-break style, they've got to stop breaking so often.

"Going into that game it was important for us defensively -- and we were able to, besides a few plays -- to keep the ball in front of us, make them have to move the field to earn any points," Payton said. "I thought our red zone defense was outstanding."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton was upbeat Monday as he dissected many of the encouraging aspects of the New Orleans Saints' performance in their 24-23 loss to the Detroit Lions Sunday. But the coach clearly remained frustrated by some of the officiating calls throughout the game after watching the tape.

Although Payton tried to bite his tongue on several occasions, he couldn’t resist throwing a few jabs at the officiating -- even when he was answering questions on unrelated topics.

Payton
Payton
“Now obviously, listen, we’re not good enough right now to overcome some of the challenges that took place -- and I referenced the officiating (Sunday), and I’m gonna leave it at that, but that’s not the reason we lost this game yesterday,” Payton said during his opening statement Monday.

Later, Payton added, “There’s some adversity that takes place with road trips. But then that outside adversity you’re not preparing on. Some of these penalties, you’ve gotta overcome 'em.”

Payton only mentioned one specific instance -- when no flag was thrown on a third-down play midway through the fourth quarter after running back Travaris Cadet was "tackled around the head" when he was heading out to catch a screen pass.

When asked if he could identify any of the other specific calls, Payton said, “I don’t even want to start. It’ll cost me money (in a possible league fine).”

But Payton said in general that, “It’s the calls that they saw that nothing really happened, those are the ones that are a lot harder to swallow. The ones that they explain to you on the game field that this is what they saw, and then you watch the tape ... those are more difficult. But that can’t be our crutch, certainly not on a Monday.”

Payton, who was seen on TV giving an earful to referee Terry McAulay as time expired in the game, also acknowledged that the officials “have got a tough job now, make no mistake about it.” And he said, “Listen, they’re not different than me or the players: They have good games and they have bad games. That’s the truth.”

When it was pointed out that he doesn’t usually harp on the officiating like this, Payton said, “I’m not going to.” And when asked if he’s worried about hearing from the league, Payton said, “No, but it’s pretty clear. And that’s why I haven’t gone into detail about anything.”

When asked if he would send a request to the league to review some of the calls, Payton said, “Typically you don’t mess with it. And really it doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta get on to the next game. So it’s important that all of a sudden you don’t spend half your Monday consumed with what wasn’t ... or what was called that later you find out it wasn’t.”

There were at least three other noteworthy judgment calls that could have drawn Payton’s ire.

The costliest was a defensive pass interference penalty against safety Rafael Bush that gave the Lions new life after a fourth-down incompletion with 2:17 remaining. Bush was flagged for making contact with the intended receiver, running back Reggie Bush. The Saints safety clearly did have his arm wrapped around Reggie Bush's arm, though it was unclear how egregious the contact was. Color analyst Ronde Barber (a former longtime defensive back) agreed with the call on the TV broadcast.

In the second quarter, Barber also agreed with a 31-yard pass interference penalty against rookie cornerback Brian Dixon, who initiated some light arm contact with receiver Golden Tate before both players stumbled and fell to the turf.

The most objectionable pass interference call was probably the one against Saints receiver Marques Colston that nullified a big gain to Pierre Thomas on third down in the third quarter. Colston’s contact with linebacker Josh Bynes appeared to be incidental after Bynes stumbled over a teammate.

A 15-yard personal foul penalty against center Tim Lelito for an illegal blindside block on Kenny Stills' end-around early in the fourth quarter was another costly judgment call.

The Saints finished with 12 penalties for 134 yards, while the Lions had nine for 71 yards.
I was even more impressed by the New Orleans Saints' defensive performance after reviewing the tape of their 37-31 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Saints had some terrible lapses over the course of three drives in the middle of the game, so it wasn’t perfect by any stretch. Cornerback Corey White especially struggled at times, and the pass rush remains a work in progress.

But the Saints started fast and finished dominant. Their run defense was downright stifling -- thanks in large part to safety Kenny Vaccaro. And two of those touchdown drives came after bad breaks when the Saints nearly got off the field much earlier (a roughing-the-passer penalty against Junior Galette and Galette’s almost interception).

Here are more thoughts after breaking down the play-by-play:

Galette
Dominant finish: Galette’s sack for a safety midway through the fourth quarter might have been the defense’s biggest play of the season to date. He was lined up as a true 3-4 outside linebacker outside of end Cameron Jordan (something the Saints have done more often this season). The Saints ran a stunt, with Jordan consuming both the left tackle and left guard while Galette cruised inside on a delayed rush after the fullback went out for a pass.

However, that wasn’t the Saints’ only big play over the final 10:14 as they finally “finished.” Tampa Bay’s next series ended with a holding call and three straight incomplete passes. The pass coverage deserves most of the credit, since Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon couldn’t find anyone open. Keenan Lewis was especially good against Vincent Jackson on some of those plays. The Saints also got decent pressure on Glennon with a four-man rush.

Dominant/lucky start: The Buccaneers also went nowhere for the first 28 minutes of the game, gaining 94 yards with three points over their first five drives. The Saints got lucky a few times, since tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins dropped a pass on the first third-and-8, and both a 32-yard catch by running back Doug Martin and a 27-yard catch by Louis Murphy were nullified by illegal formation/shift penalties. Still, the Saints didn’t give up many legal big plays.

Robinson
And the Saints -- finally -- made their own badly needed big play when cornerback Patrick Robinson made an outstanding diving catch for an interception in the second quarter. Robinson had tight coverage on Murphy, located the ball in the air and made a terrific basket catch over his shoulders -- Willie Mays style. Glennon couldn’t quite step all the way into the throw because of blitz pressure.

Vaccaro lights fire: Vaccaro was flying all over the field as the Saints got off to that fast start, often cruising into the backfield on run blitzes. He missed once or twice, but throughout the day he helped stop Martin for gains of 3, minus-5, 1, 2 and 0. Vaccaro also flew in to hit Seferian-Jenkins to help break up two passes on the first two series. Vaccaro did, however, draw two penalties for illegal hands to the face on a blitz and illegal contact.

More run stuffs: Linebacker Curtis Lofton had at least three big-time run stuffs, Jordan had two, and linebackers David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson had one each as Tampa Bay finished with a total of just 66 rushing yards on 21 carries (and one of those was a meaningless 16-yard run by Martin as time expired in regulation).

The Saints did have one ugly breakdown when Bobby Rainey walked in for a 9-yard touchdown in the third quarter. Hawthorne looked like he might have been held, but the play was so well-blocked that it might not have mattered.

White
White’s struggles: The worst play for the Saints’ defense was a 20-yard TD pass to Murphy on third-and-7 before halftime. Blitz pressure didn’t get anywhere near Glennon. And White let Murphy get two full yards behind him in the end zone -- after first being flagged for holding Murphy earlier on the route.

White also gave up an ugly 32-yard gain to Jackson when he allowed too much cushion on a deep comebacker, then missed an easy tackle as Jackson got up to run. And White later whiffed on a tackle against Jackson that allowed him to gain at least 15 extra yards.

White didn’t get picked on too much in coverage, though, and he did have one nice breakup on a deep throw and one big hit on Martin after a short pass.

Other low points: Safety Rafael Bush was trailing on the easy 9-yard touchdown pass to Robert Herron in the fourth quarter, but Glennon had too much time to throw against a three-man rush. ... Bush also let Jackson get behind him for an unreal 34-yard gain that seemed to happen in slow motion when Glennon floated a pass across his body under heavy pressure on a second-and-20 play. ... Hawthorne also whiffed on a tackle against Martin after a check-down pass that turned into a 20-yard gain.

Other high points: Haralson and Galette should’ve made the play of the year with Galette’s near interception in the third quarter. Haralson shot past tight end Luke Stocker on a blitz to nail Glennon, who made a horrible decision to try and shovel the ball away (sound familiar?). The ball bounced off guard Logan Mankins' helmet and popped in the air, but Galette couldn’t hang on while Mankins grabbed at his feet. ... Lewis was matched up against Jackson often and held up very well. The only one of Jackson’s big plays that came against Lewis was a 17-yarder against too much cushion. ... End Glenn Foster had a handful of nice pass rushes -- often when he and end Tyrunn Walker were being used inside as tackles. ... Linebackers Ramon Humber and Kyle Knox had two big solo sticks on kickoff returns.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Orleans Saints can finally start preparing for a game that counts -- and it’s a doozy. Week 1, on the road, against the division rival Atlanta Falcons.

The Saints will have more time to prepare for this matchup than almost any other opponent this season, with a bonus practice scheduled for Monday. But it’s not like they need it from a scouting standpoint. They certainly don’t need it from a motivational standpoint.

These teams know each other backwards and forwards, having battled for NFC South supremacy for the past six years, with mostly the same coaches, core players and systems in place.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints are eager to mix it up with the division rival Falcons in the regular-season opener.
Saints safety Rafael Bush, who almost joined the Falcons this offseason as a restricted free agent, came up with the perfect analogy on Friday.

“We play against these guys so much that it’s like playing your little brother or your big brother,” said Bush, who is friends with Falcons safety William Moore, among others. “You know each other very well, so it comes down to who’s the most detailed team and who makes less mistakes. And that’s pretty much been the outcome of these games. You now last year [the Saints’ win in Week 1], it could have been a tip away from losing that game. So it comes down to those small things.”

And like any good brotherly rivalry, Bush couldn’t resist throwing in some trash talk when asked whom he sees as the big brother in this scenario.

“We’re definitely the big brother,” Bush said. “I mean, we won twice last year. If you go against the overall record, I think the Saints are pretty much winning in that matchup.

“So they’re the little brothers, and we’re going to go in their house and we’re going to spank them like they’re our little brothers.”

Indeed, the Saints have won a whopping 13 of 16 against the Falcons since coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. However, players and coaches are always quick to point out how close these games always are.

Seven of the last 11 games have been decided by four points or less. Nine of them by eight points or less. Last year, the Saints won 23-17 at home in Week 1, thanks to Kenny Vaccaro's pass breakup in the end zone in the final minute. Then the Saints squeaked out a 17-13 win in the Georgia Dome in Week 12.

“When we play Atlanta, it oftentimes comes down to the final drive. It did in last year’s games, and I’m sure it will on Sunday,” Payton said. “So it comes down to that one specific play you need in short yardage, or that one defensive stand or offensive opportunity. You just don’t know when that’s going to be.”

Atlanta had a down year last season, finishing 4-12 thanks in large part to injuries. So a win for the Falcons could help them quickly start fresh in 2014 -- much like the Saints’ Week 1 victory over Atlanta did for them last year.

Payton laughed at the idea that the Saints want to avoid “letting Atlanta back in the race” since the race hasn’t even begun yet. But he said it’s obvious that they want to get off to a fast start.

And running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints know full well that Atlanta has the potential to make a drastic turnaround from last season.

“We know what they’re capable of doing. We know how big of a game it is, just like they know how big of a game it is. We know we’re going to get their A game,” Thomas said. “They give it to us every year and every time we play them. We know this is not going to be an easy game. This is going to be a tough, hard-fought game. These guys are going to be really fired up, the opener of the season, and we’re going to their Dome.

“We’ve got to be on our toes and well prepared for this team. Because it’s a whole new year, a whole new team. They’re going to be excited to get going.”

But all of that being said, as fiery Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette pointed out, the Saints are so amped to get this season rolling, the opponent is really an afterthought.

“It doesn’t matter if it was the Charlotte Bobcats,” Galette said. “Whoever’s on the field.”
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan already proved how much he loves to feature safeties in his versatile defense last year. The Saints spent about 75 percent of their snaps in nickel defense -- almost always using three safeties on the field at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Falcons did us a favor by giving him such a low offer,” Ryan said. “That’s great. We got him for two years. Thanks.”
The New Orleans Saints are now $3.6 million under the salary cap, according to the NFL Players Association, after their latest flurry of moves. Their new two-year deal for safety Rafael Bush was officially processed on Thursday.

Bush’s deal is worth between $3.8 million and $4.55 million, depending on incentives.

He’ll make $1.85 million this year, which is also his 2014 salary-cap cost. Bush did not receive a signing bonus, but $850,000 of his salary is guaranteed.

He is due $1.95 million in 2015, which is also his 2015 cap cost. He can earn an escalator of up to $750,000 next year based on interceptions and a Pro Bowl appearance this season.

Bush was already on the books for a $1.4 million cap hit this year since the Saints had previously made him a one-year qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. So the new deal doesn’t affect the cap much.
The New Orleans Saints’ first gamble didn’t pay off. They hoped to retain restricted-free-agent safety Rafael Bush at a discount rate of $1.4 million.

But then the division-rival Atlanta Falcons swooped in and tried to steal Bush away from them. And that was a risk the Saints weren’t willing to take.

Bush
The Saints matched Atlanta’s offer for Bush (reportedly worth up to $4.5 million over two years). Even though the Saints are tight on salary-cap space, they figured losing Bush to the Falcons was the kind of double whammy they couldn’t afford.

Bush, 26, is a player on the rise. And he was starting to establish himself as a bruising hitter in the open field by the end of last season.

Now New Orleans is suddenly loaded with depth in the secondary -- and the Falcons are still searching for a starting safety.

As for Bush, he admitted to The Advocate’s Ramon Antonio Vargas that he was attracted to the opportunity in Atlanta, but only because the Falcons were offering more money and a better opportunity for a starting job.

Now that the Saints stepped up and showed him how much they value him, he insisted he’s still fired up about staying in NOLA – even if it’s in a No. 3 safety role alongside starters Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.

“This team is going to make some big noise. I’m excited,” said Bush, who told The Advocate that he’s glad the offer sheet affair is done so he can focus again on being the player Saints coaches want him to be.

Bush also said he was prepared for some backlash from the passionate Saints’ fan base since he flirted with the enemy. But Bush said he was making the best decision for himself and his family.

“It’s never personal,” Bush said. “Players are looking for the well-being of their families.”

Saints fans shouldn’t be too hard on Bush. He couldn’t pass up the chance to virtually double his annual salary. And he earned this salary through his impressive play on both defense and special teams over the past two years.

The Saints probably should have just gone ahead and tendered Bush at a higher level in the first place (a one-year, $2.2 million offer would have required a team to give up a second-round draft choice to steal him away).

But the Saints didn’t really lose money in the deal, since that’s now Bush’s average salary over two years.

As for how they can find the cap space to fit Bush and recently-signed cornerback Champ Bailey, they can make it work. It’s possible they won’t even have to release or restructure any deals to make them both fit (depending on how the contracts are structured).

But if they do have to make another move, they will. As we’ve chronicled many times this offseason, the Saints have been more willing than any team in the NFL to push their cap costs into future years. The Saints will eventually have to pay those bills, but they figure they can catch up whenever quarterback Drew Brees retires.
The offer sheet that restricted free-agent safety Rafael Bush signed with the Atlanta Falcons is worth $4.5 million over two years, a league source told The Advocate. The source also said Bush is hoping the New Orleans Saints won’t match the deal because Atlanta is offering a chance at a starting job.

Bush
New Orleans has until Tuesday to match the Falcons’ offer. If the Saints don’t match the offer, they will not receive any draft pick compensation from Atlanta.

The Saints have certainly been acting like a team that’s prepared to let Bush go this week. They agreed to deals with veteran cornerback Champ Bailey and former Canadian Football League safety Marcus Ball to add depth to their secondary.

Letting Bush go would free up $1.4 million in salary-cap space -- which the Saints probably need to be able to fit Bailey’s new deal under the cap. Bailey’s deal is worth up to $7 million, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Bush, 26, was expected to resume his role as the Saints’ No. 3 safety, which was practically a full-time job the way the Saints liked to use three safeties last year. The hard-hitting safety played 67 percent of the Saints’ defensive snaps when he was healthy last year (he missed three games due to injury). He finished with a career-high 42 tackles and five pass defenses.

The Falcons, however, are offering an even greater opportunity. They have a vacancy in their starting lineup since they decided to release veteran Thomas DeCoud last month.

Bush would become the second-most experienced safety on the Falcons’ roster. And he is friends with the Falcons’ other starting safety, William Moore -- making the switch even more attractive.

 
The Atlanta Falcons are hoping to fill one of their biggest needs -- and to dent their longtime rivals, the New Orleans Saints, in the process.

Atlanta signed restricted free agent safety Rafael Bush to an offer sheet, meaning the Saints have until Tuesday to match the offer or lose Bush with no draft-pick compensation.

Bush
Terms of the Falcons' offer have not been disclosed. The Saints previously offered Bush a one-year deal at the lowest qualifying offer of $1.431 million. The Saints have given no indication yet whether or not they plan to match Atlanta's offer.

The reason the Saints would receive no draft-pick compensation is because Bush originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2010 -- with none other than the Falcons in 2010. Bush then spent a year with the Denver Broncos before finding a home as a part-time starter and special teams standout with the Saints over the past two years.

Bush had 42 tackles and five pass defenses last year as a part-time starter for the Saints, who often featured three safeties together in their nickel and dime packages. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder has also been a standout in special teams coverage for New Orleans for the past two years.

Both teams could really use Bush, since they're both very thin at the safety position.

The Saints have two excellent starters in newly-signed free agent Jairus Byrd and second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. They also recently signed Canadian Football League transplant Marcus Ball. But those are the only three safeties on the Saints' current roster.

The Saints recently brought in veteran cornerback Champ Bailey for a visit. It's possible that Bailey could be used as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages if the Saints decide to add him.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has an even bigger need at safety after releasing longtime starting free safety Thomas DeCoud last month. They have a standout starter in strong safety William Moore. But the next two safeties on the Falcons' depth chart are unproven seventh-round picks from last year -- Zeke Motta and Kemal Ishmael.

Motta, who replaced DeCoud for a game last season, is coming off of surgery for a cervical fracture.

The Falcons released DeCoud in part because of his $4.8 million salary-cap cost and in part because they didn't feel he was a physical enough tackler and didn't make enough plays on the ball.

Bush, who was primarily used as a deep safety for the Saints, does bring some physicality to the position.

Moore and Bush are friends, and he previously said that he had talked with Bush about the possibility of joining the Falcons.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed to this report.
A look at the New Orleans Saints' projected defensive depth chart as it stands today:

DE1 –- Cameron Jordan, Tyrunn Walker

DE2 –- Akiem Hicks, Glenn Foster

NT –- Brodrick Bunkley, John Jenkins

OLB1 –- Junior Galette, Keyunta Dawson, Kyle Knox

OLB2 –- Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, Rufus Johnson

SILB –- Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber

WILB –- David Hawthorne, Kevin Reddick

CB1 –- Keenan Lewis, Rod Sweeting, A.J. Davis, Trevin Wade

CB2 –- Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Terrence Frederick, Derrius Brooks

SS –- Kenny Vaccaro, Rafael Bush

FS –- Jairus Byrd

Thoughts: There aren't too many glaring holes here. I keep ranking cornerback as the Saints' top defensive need because they could use a more proven starter opposite Keenan Lewis. But they obviously have plenty of depth at the position.

Conversely, the Saints don't have much depth at safety. But if they sign a veteran corner such as Champ Bailey, they could use him as a pseudo-safety in nickel and dime packages. They could potentially do the same thing with White, who played safety in college.

The one position I really think the Saints need to address at some point in the draft is linebacker. They could use young backups who can play special teams right away and eventually push to replace veterans such as Hawthorne and Haralson.

And as coach Sean Payton said last week, teams are always on the lookout for more pass-rushing help -- though they should be improved in that area with Victor Butler returning from injury and Rufus Johnson having another year to develop.
If the New Orleans Saints don’t re-sign safety Malcolm Jenkins, they will almost certainly need to add depth in free agency. Maybe in the draft as well.

The Saints already released veteran safety Roman Harper last month. Now they have only one safety left on their current roster: second-year pro Kenny Vaccaro. The good news is that Vaccaro looks poised to be one of their top playmakers for years to come after an outstanding rookie season. The Saints also like the potential of part-time starter Rafael Bush, whom they hope to bring back as a restricted free agent and might promote to a greater role.

The Saints need more depth, though, especially if they plan to continue the three-safety rotation that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan favored so much last season.

I doubt they will be in the market for the biggest names in free agency (the Buffalo Bills' Jairus Byrd and the Cleveland BrownsT.J. Ward). Hard-hitting San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner might also be too costly.

But there are still a handful of intriguing options in the next tier or two -- a tier that includes Jenkins, whom the Saints could still consider bringing back if the price is right.

The Saints have already brought in free-agent safety Louis Delmas for a visit after he was released last month by the Detroit Lions. But they don’t appear likely to sign Delmas, according to a league source.

Others in that same range include the Indianapolis Colts' Antoine Bethea, the Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons and the Carolina Panthers' Mike Mitchell.

Bethea was the best of that bunch in his prime, earning two Pro Bowl invites. He turns 30 before the season starts, but he has remained productive. He hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and has six straight seasons with at least 95 tackles.

ESPN NFL Insiders Matt Williamson and Adam Caplan both suggested Clemons, 28, as a possible fit for the Saints. He is a physical safety who is also decent in coverage.

“I really like Chris Clemons from Miami,” Williamson said. “He’s more of a free safety type, fits that mold of what I think they’d be after. Still young.”

The next tier includes younger veterans with promise, such as the New York Giants’ Stevie Brown, the Chicago Bears’ Major Wright and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Nate Allen. Brown and Wright played great in 2012, but Brown missed last season with a knee injury and Wright struggled along with the rest of Chicago’s defense.

James Ihedigbo is a 30-year-old strong safety who had his first 100-tackle season with the Baltimore Ravens last year after spending most of his career as a special-teams asset.

Film study: Reviewing Saints defense

January, 17, 2014
1/17/14
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There was a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints' defense in their 23-15 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks. They held Seattle to 277 yards, 103 passing yards and just 13 first downs. I was particularly impressed by defensive end Cameron Jordan and safety Roman Harper (more on them later).

However, I have to start this season's final film study with what went wrong on Marshawn Lynch's two long touchdown runs -- which ultimately sealed the Saints' fate for the 2013 season:

Beast Quake, the Sequel: Lynch's 31-yard touchdown that essentially clinched the game in the final minutes was awfully reminiscent of his legendary 67-yard “Beast Quake” touchdown run against the Saints three years ago. The only differences were that this time Lynch cut back around the left end instead of cutting inside to the right, and this time he only made one defensive back (Keenan Lewis) look silly in the open field.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch, Keenan Lewis
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints weren't able to contain Marshawn Lynch when they had to in the fourth quarter.
In the Saints' defense, they couldn't afford to give up any more ground to Seattle in that situation (down by 8, 2:48 remaining, no timeouts left and the Seahawks entering field goal range). So they probably sold out more than they should have to try to stuff Lynch for a loss or no gain. The Seahawks were in a jumbo package, and the Saints had 10 men in the box. Jordan actually got great penetration up the middle, forcing Lynch to cut outside to the left. But Lynch's cutback was nasty, and it gave him tons of open space since linebacker David Hawthorne, safety Malcolm Jenkins and Lewis had all cheated toward the inside.

Seattle's blocking was huge, too. Tight end Zach Miller stood up outside linebacker Junior Galette at the line of scrimmage. And receiver Jermaine Kearse took out Jenkins with a perfectly executed crack-back block. Lewis eventually caught up with Lynch around the 14-yard line, but he didn't have a great angle, and Lynch didn't budge as he easily batted away Lewis with a stiff-arm.

More Lynch: The Saints did a nice job against Lynch at times, but he burned them often enough as he racked up 140 yards on 28 carries. Lynch's first big highlight was a 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. This time, the Seahawks were in more of a passing formation, and the Saints were in their nickel defense. But the result was the same when Lynch used another nasty cutback to the right side to make several Saints defenders over-pursue (including Hawthorne, cornerback Corey White and safety Rafael Bush). Harper then missed a tackle from the side near the end of the run.

Lynch made just about every Saints defender look foolish at least once. He's known for his power, but his speed on those cutbacks was even more impressive in this game. Hawthorne, Jenkins, Galette and Akiem Hicks each whiffed on him once in the open field (Hicks and Galette on the same play in the fourth quarter).

Jump balls: The other play that stood out as an absolute killer for the Saints was receiver Doug Baldwin's 24-yard catch on third-and-3 on the play right before Lynch's last touchdown. The Saints' defense had been completely shutting down Seattle's offense throughout the entire second half. But on this play, Wilson essentially tossed one up for grabs, and Baldwin went up and got it over White. Baldwin then made a fantastic effort to hang on to the ball and stay in bounds as White tried to jar the ball loose.

White's coverage was decent, but he was a step behind after jamming Baldwin off the line of scrimmage. So Baldwin had the chance to turn and locate the ball, while White did not. Wilson completed an almost-identical jump-ball pass to receiver Percy Harvin against White for a 16-yard gain on third-and-8 in the first half, which led to a field goal.

[+] EnlargePercy Harvin
Harry How/Getty ImagesPercy Harvin was shaken up after a collision with Rafael Bush. Harvin would eventually leave the game with a concussion after another rough hit.
Big shots: Another big passing play for the Seahawks came on their opening drive, when Saints safety Bush was flagged for unnecessary roughness against Harvin while breaking up a third-down pass. It was the right call, since their helmets collided at full speed. But it was a tough break since Bush was leading with his shoulder and Harvin appeared to crouch down into the hit as he braced for impact. That's the risk that safeties like Bush take in today's NFL, though, when they launch above the strike zone.

Harvin later had to leave the game after another brutal hit when his head struck the ground after an incomplete pass in the end zone. This time the Saints weren't penalized, though. Safety Jenkins came over and shoved Harvin as he was coming down, but Jenkins appeared to ease up a bit and led with his hands. Their helmets never made contact.

Wilson's best: Wilson didn't have a great game, but he showed off what makes him so dangerous on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. On second-and-15, he scrambled away from pressure. And just as he was about to cross the line of scrimmage, he tossed a pass to wide-open receiver Kearse for a 25-yard gain. It was exactly the kind of play that Saints defenders had warned about before both meetings with Seattle this year, but Lewis and Hawthorne both got burned by abandoning their coverage to run up toward Wilson.

It can be a no-win situation for a defense, though. Because on the next play Wilson appeared to be in even more trouble deep in the pocket, but he scrambled free and turned on the jets for a 7-yard gain.

Jordan sensational: Jordan had a lot of monster performances this year, as he earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. But this one ranks up there with his best. He was outstanding all game long, both as a pass-rusher and run defender. At different points, he chased down both Wilson and Lynch in the open field (earning a 0-yard sack on the play against Wilson and stuffing Lynch for a 4-yard loss). He stood up tight end Miller to force no gain by running back Robert Turbin. He forced a holding penalty on another run play. And he pressured Wilson into at least two key incomplete passes, among other highlights.

Two of the plays mentioned above (a forced incompletion and the sack) came on back-to-back plays inside New Orleans' 10-yard line, forcing Seattle to settle for a field goal.

Harper's best for last? Harper's future with the Saints is in doubt since the 31-year-old has become more of a part-time player, and he is due $3.15 million in salary and bonuses. But as I've written in the past, I wouldn't be shocked to see him come back at a reduced rate. And Saturday's performance against the Seahawks makes that possibility even more attractive. Harper had probably his best performance of the season, flying around as fast and aggressively as he did in his Pro Bowl prime.

Among his highlights: blowing up left tackle Russell Okung to disrupt Lynch and force a 2-yard loss on third-and-6 in the third quarter; chasing down Wilson in the open field and pulling him down by his shoulder (narrowly avoiding a horse-collar penalty) for an 8-yard gain on third-and-10 in the fourth quarter; crashing down on Harvin after a quick out pass for a 1-yard loss in the first quarter; and sticking Baldwin in the open field for a 6-yard gain on third-and-9 in the first quarter.

Other highlights: That goal-line stand in the second quarter started with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. But the entire Saints defense swallowed up Lynch for a 5-yard loss -- starting with safety Jenkins and followed by Hicks and Jordan. … Defensive tackle John Jenkins was credited with a sack when he snagged Wilson as he tried to scramble up the middle. … Lewis had a nice pass break-up against receiver Golden Tate on a third-and-2 stop in the fourth quarter. … Linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley also stood out on a handful of solid run stops and pressures.
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (chest) and safety Rafael Bush (ankle) were held out of practice with injuries on Wednesday. Everyone else fully participated.

Thomas
Thomas is a new addition to the injury list. The severity of his injury -- or when it occurred -- is unknown. Thomas did not touch the ball in the fourth quarter of New Orleans’ 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday, but many starters hit the bench late in the game since the score was so lopsided.

It’s always possible that the Saints just wanted to give Thomas an extra day of rest on Wednesday, so his status could become a little clearer on Thursday and Friday.

Thomas would be a significant loss for the Saints. He has been one of their most reliable offensive weapons this year with a team-high 549 rushing yards, a career-high 77 receptions for 513 yards and five combined touchdowns. He also has an impressive history of producing for the Saints in cold-weather games like the one they’re expected to face Saturday night at Philadelphia. Earlier this week, the Chicago native said he loves playing in cold weather.

If Thomas is out or limited, however, the Saints do still have good depth at the running back position with Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, impressive undrafted rookie Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet. Ingram has been playing terrific in small doses over the past three weeks with 108 rushing yards on 17 carries (6.4 yards per carry) and 49 receiving yards on four receptions.

Bush, meanwhile, would also be a significant loss for the Saints since they also lost rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro to a season-ending ankle injury last week. But it’s also unclear how severe his injury is. Bush has been dealing with the ankle injury for the past month. He missed three games, but he returned to the lineup last week against Tampa Bay as the Saints’ third safety behind starters Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper.

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