NFC South: Terron Armstead

One thing is for sure. Champ Bailey's new teammates with the New Orleans Saints are fired up about the arrival of the 12-time Pro Bowler and future Hall of Famer.

Several of the Saints’ players expressed their excitement to play alongside one of the NFL’s all-time great defensive backs, via social media. Here’s a sampling:

The New Orleans Saints could still “very well” re-sign center Brian de la Puente or another veteran in free agency, coach Sean Payton said Wednesday at the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Payton spoke highly of second-year lineman Tim Lelito as a possible contender for the role, as well. And he said it appears to be a good draft class for interior linemen. But he said the Saints have not finalized their plans for the position yet.

“It’s still unfolding, so it’d be premature to say, ‘Hey, here’s our plan today,’” Payton said. “We feel we’ve got some good young linemen in the building, and I’m sure that as we get back to New Orleans and we still continue to look at our boards, I wouldn’t be surprised if there possibly is a player signed.

“But Tim Lelito would be a guy that’s gonna be in the mix, someone that will be competing for that opportunity. Well see who he’s gonna be competing against. But he’s someone that we feel has a chance to be that player. And yet we think there could be the potential to have someone (else). And it could very well be a guy like de la Puente or another guy who’s out there.”

De la Puente visited with the Washington Redskins last week, and other teams have shown interest. The Saints remain in play as he mulls his options, according to league sources.

That list of other veteran possibilities includes former Saints Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin, who remains unsigned after three years with the San Francisco 49ers.

Or the Saints could wind up drafting a potential center. Payton briefly mentioned the interior line positions while discussing what holes the Saints still have to fill and what their priorities might be in the NFL draft.

“You always put a value on corners and pass rushers, defensively,” Payton said. “I think offensively we’ve been able to hit on some young linemen. We had six (undrafted) free agents from last year’s class make the team. So I think that you look at your linemen and you look at the board, and are we going to be able to find an inside player potentially. You don’t stop looking for a tight end. … It’s a deep draft we think at receiver, so there are a lot of teams that are going to be able to draft maybe a good player there.”

One position that won’t be a priority for the Saints in the draft is left tackle after Terron Armstead finished strong in that role during his rookie season in 2013. Payton made it clear that the Saints plan to stick with the third-round pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff going forward.

“I think that Charles (Brown) came in and did a good job for us (last season), but it was nice to have had a chance to evaluate Terron and then see the production we got from him,” Payton said. “That clears things up a little bit as you approach the draft, as opposed to getting through the season possibly not playing and maybe not having the exposure, too. I think he got better each week.”

W2W4: Saints at Eagles

January, 4, 2014
Jan 4
PHILADELPHIA – During the week, I’ve broken down several players and matchups that I think will have the biggest impact on tonight’s playoff game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. Among them:

Here are a few more things to keep an eye on in this week’s expanded edition of What 2 Watch 4:

Avoiding turnovers: The Eagles come into this game with the 32nd-ranked pass defense in the NFL. But when the Saints were asked about that number this week, they often pointed to another one – the Eagles’ 31 takeaways, which tied for third in the NFL.

Turnovers are always one of the biggest factors in any football game. But they’ve especially loomed large for the Saints in their road losses this year. They’ve got to avoid those early turnovers that swing the momentum toward the home team.

“They’re really good at causing turnovers. They’ve been doing that very, very well lately,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “And obviously on the road we have to be able to protect the ball. That’s kind of been our downfall on the road. And if we can do that [Saturday], we give ourselves a chance.”

Rattling Foles? On the flip side, recent history suggests the Saints will have trouble forcing turnovers in this game. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles threw just two interceptions all season after taking over as the starter early in the year. And according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints have collected a league-low four turnovers since Week 9, while the Eagles have surrendered a league-low five turnovers in that span.

But this will still be quite a test of nerves for Foles, a second-year pro, in his biggest game to date. The Saints’ duo of young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette need to create pressure on him, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will certainly try and confuse him with certain looks.

“I think he’s just the glue to it,” Saints safety Roman Harper said. “I think he really has a great understanding of what they’re trying to get done each play. He gets the ball in there. He’s accurate. He holds onto the ball and gets it where it needs to be. He’s not flustered by pressure.”

Jimmy Graham: The Eagles’ McCoy and the Saints’ Graham might both have a worthy case to be considered the top playmaker in the NFL this year. Graham led the league with 16 receiving touchdowns, while catching 86 passes for 1,215 yards. … And his brief playoff history is even better.

Graham has only appeared in two playoff games – after the 2011 season. He caught 12 passes for 158 yards and three touchdowns in those two games, including a 66-yard catch-and-run score that almost lifted to the Saints to a come-from-behind win at San Francisco.

“Obviously last year was my first year not in the playoffs, and it just didn’t feel right,” said Graham, who was injured during the playoffs in his rookie year. “So to be back in a big game and in the playoffs is special. And obviously if you’re a good player, you have to play better. And if you’re an OK player, you’ve got to play good. That’s what the playoffs is about. You have to bring your A game. And the tempo, how physical the game is, everything is a new level in the playoffs. So, obviously, I’m excited for it.”

Armstead vs. Cole: Saints rookie left tackle Terron Armstead got his wish this week. He was barely approached by the media after being swarmed during his first two weeks on the job. But even though he has now settled in with two career starts under his belt, the pressure won’t back off now that he’s in the playoffs.

And neither will the level of the opposition. Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole has been one of the league’s top pass-rushers for nearly a decade, with 79 career sacks in the regular season. And the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder has been especially hot lately. All eight of his sacks came over the last eight games of the season.

“He’s a veteran guy that’s got a lot of career sacks. He’s proven to know how to rush the passer,” said Armstead, who said his mindset hasn’t changed from the past two weeks. “I’m just gonna approach every game the same, with the same focus and preparation.”

Armstead happy to go unnoticed Sunday

December, 30, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees completed his first 11 passes in Sunday's 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And by the time the first half was over, Brees had thrown four touchdown passes -- three of them from 40 yards or more.

You may not have noticed what the left tackle was doing during those plays. But Terron Armstead is perfectly happy if that's the case.

That's exactly what the Saints' rookie said was his goal earlier in the week -- to go unnoticed in his second career start.

"That was the plan," Armstead said with a smile.

When asked if he's OK with Brees getting all the credit, Armstead said, "That's fine with me. Don't give me none."

Armstead did have at least one hiccup -- when defensive end Adrian Clayborn beat him for a shared sack with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on a third-and-long in the second quarter.

But for the most part, Armstead operated in the shadows all day while the Saints racked up 468 yards. It was a far cry from the spotlight he was under while allowing 2.5 sacks and committing two false start penalties one week earlier at Carolina.

"I felt a lot more comfortable today," Armstead said. "Just from week 1 to week 2, being with the first unit again for another week, felt a little more comfortable."

Brees said he talked to Armstead late in the fourth quarter, and Armstead said it was like "night and day" from the previous week.

"Just in regards to that maturation process and experience level, even with just one game under his belt," Brees said. "Kinda knowing what to expect. You know, the feelings and emotions going into a game, then obviously as the game unfolds, how you play it and technique and all those things. He's got a great group around him, so that helps. But he did great today."

Of course there will still be growing pains for the third-round draft pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, who hadn't played an offensive snap until he was thrust into the starting lineup in place of struggling veteran Charles Brown last week.

But Sunday did help vindicate coach Sean Payton for the faith he showed in the rookie. And the confidence in his development should only continue to increase.

The Saints only allowed one sack in the game -- an overall improvement after allowing 10 over the previous two weeks.

"Like I said, he did a pretty good job last week, obviously with tough conditions on the road," Payton said. "Without having looked at the tape, we were getting a lot of pressures, a lot of safety blitzes today, a lot of linebacker pressures. It made the running game 'feast or famine,' if you will. ... We felt that way coming into the game that we were going to see that. I thought those guys up front really did a good job in giving Drew time."

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 29, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 42-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which moved them to 11-5 on the season and clinched their spot as a wild-card team in the playoffs.

What it means: Who knows what this means? Obviously it was a good sign that the Saints still know where the “on” switch is inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Their offense was as dominant as ever, with 468 total yards and four touchdown passes by Drew Brees. That has to be a nice confidence boost heading into the playoffs after a nasty two-game losing streak in Weeks 15 and 16.

But we still don't have any idea if the Saints can figure out how to take this show on the road, where they've struggled all season. The disparity between the Saints' home and road performances this year has been stunning. And now they'll have to be a road team throughout the entire playoffs -- with plenty of potential nasty-weather sites on the horizon.

Brees gains, loses records: Brees was sensational Sunday, throwing for 381 yards and four touchdowns (all four of them in the first half). He also ran one in for a TD during the second half. In the process, he passed the 5,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career -- something no other NFL quarterback has done more than once. Brees finished the regular season with 5,162 yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in one of the best seasons of his 13-year career.

However, his most historic achievement fell on Sunday when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning broke Brees' record for passing yards in a season. Brees threw for 5,476 yards in 2011 while Manning threw for 5,477 this year.

Stock watch: Saints rookie left tackle Terron Armstead obviously held up much better in his second career start. He did give up one half-sack early in the game when the pocket collapsed up the middle and around his side on a third-and-long. But for the most part, he helped allow Brees to get comfortable in the pocket for his huge day -- which included several deep throws that took time to develop. I'll take a closer look at Armstead's performance in this week's film study. ...

Meanwhile, the Saints' secondary broke down on one big TD pass when safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Corey White both appeared to bite on the play fake. It's hard to say that they missed safety Kenny Vaccaro because of that one play. Overall, the defense was pretty solid, especially after New Orleans took a big lead.

Up next: The Saints will play at the winner of tonight's Philadelphia-Dallas game, finishing as the No. 6 seed.

It's hard to ignore the Saints' road performances this year -- and adverse weather conditions could certainly hurt their passing game. But it's also hard to imagine they can't turn things around with an offense that is obviously so potent at times.
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints offense is rolling, as usual, now that they’re back inside the comfort of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense is trying its best to stay in this one. Here are a few thoughts on the action so far:

Brees on fire: Saints quarterback Drew Brees easily shot past the 5,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career (something no other quarterback in NFL history has done more than once). He’s been on fire throughout the game, completing 17 of 21 passes for 321 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.

The first TD was a 44-yarder to receiver Lance Moore, who beat cornerback Leonard Johnson down the field in single coverage. The second was a 10-yard strike to tight end Jimmy Graham in a tight window. The third was a 41-yard bomb to receiver Robert Meachem against cornerback Darrelle Revis on third-and-10. And the fourth was a 76-yard bomb to receiver Kenny Stills, who broke wide open on a third-and-6 play.

Solid line play: All eyes were on new Saints left tackle Terron Armstead heading into this game, but he hasn’t been noticed much -- which is a good thing. Armstead did give up a half-sack when pressure came both up the middle and around his side on a third-and-long play. Other than that, Brees has had ample time to throw.

The Saints have tried to stay balanced, as well, with 12 rushing attempts. But some runs have worked better than others as they’ve totaled just 29 yards on the ground. The long was an impressive, tackle-breaking 15-yard run by Mark Ingram. The worst was a 4-yard loss by Darren Sproles.

Defensive breakdowns: The Saints defense has been solid at times, “leaky” at others, allowing two touchdown drives and a total off 195 yards. The low point came when they got torched by a flea-flicker in the first quarter for an easy 48-yard touchdown pass from Mike Glennon to Tiquan Underwood. Both Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Corey White appeared to bite on the play fake -- but it wasn’t obvious which player was supposed to keep track of Underwood. He wound up about 10 yards behind the entire defense.
METAIRIE, La. – Everybody on the New Orleans Saints’ roster participated fully in Thursday’s practice – including starters Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Terron Armstead, who were limited on Wednesday.

Saints coach Sean Payton explained that the team decided to limit Brees’ snaps on Wednesday on account of his bruised right knee because “we just felt like we had a day to do that.”

Apparently the team took the same approach with a handful of players following a physical 17-13 loss at Carolina last week. Brees, Colston (back), Evans (knee) and Armstead (shoulder) all played through the entire game at Carolina.

Also upgraded from limited to full participation on Thursday were backup safety Rafael Bush (ankle) and backup linebackers Keyunta Dawson (calf) and Kevin Reddick (shoulder).

Of that group, Bush is the most important since he could see several snaps in nickel packages now that starting safety Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season with an ankle injury. Bush has been sidelined for the past three games, but he said he is optimistic about his progress.

Armstead's confidence hasn't taken hit

December, 26, 2013
METAIRIE, La. -- Rookie Terron Armstead had his “Welcome to the NFL” moment Sunday -- a few of them, actually -- during his first start as the New Orleans Saints’ left tackle. But his confidence didn’t take a hit.

Like coach Sean Payton said earlier this week, Armstead said he felt even more encouraged by his performance after watching the tape. And he said he feels even better about his chances of playing much better this coming Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

[+] EnlargeTerron Armstead
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty ImagesTerron Armstead drew a tough assignment in his first NFL start, facing off against Panthers pass-rusher Greg Hardy.
“I plan on it being a whole lot smoother. I plan on you guys not noticing I’m out there,” joked Armstead, who has obviously seen an increase in media attention over the past week since being thrust into the starting lineup in favor of struggling veteran Charles Brown.

Armstead, a third-round draft pick out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, played the first offensive snaps of his NFL career in Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

He certainly had his share of high-profile low moments -- including two sacks when he was torched by Carolina’s standout pass-rusher Greg Hardy, late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter, and two early false-start penalties.

Armstead was also beat for a sack later in the second quarter -- though quarterback Drew Brees admittedly held on to the ball too long on that one. And Armstead was beaten again by Hardy in the second half when Brees took a hit on an incomplete pass.

But all told, Armstead did improve as the game went on and held up OK on a day when Brees dropped back to pass 51 times.

“I feel like I played a pretty solid game,” said the athletic, 6-foot-5, 304-pound Armstead, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash time by an offensive lineman in the history of the NFL scouting combine (4.71 seconds). “I had a few mental things that are unacceptable and can't happen; that needs to be fixed ASAP. But I feel like I had a pretty solid game.”

Armstead said it adds to his confidence that Payton stuck with him through the entire game and firmly committed to him as the starter again this week.

Payton was asked Wednesday to elaborate on why he said he was “extremely encouraged” by Armstead’s debut performance.

“I think one of the things that we saw in the running game, he did a really good job finishing,” Payton said. “I thought we did a good job up front overall. There were a number of times in protection that we were encouraged with. So when you grade the film out, there’s a handful of things going on with how we protect. We had him for two sacks, but overall, we were pleased. First time out on the road against a good player like he went against and a good front, that’s encouraging. It was real encouraging.”

Brees agreed, despite being sacked six times in the loss at Carolina (tied for the most since he joined the Saints in 2006).

“I think people are going to look into it how they want as far as last game goes. I thought he played extremely well,” Brees said Wednesday. “I thought he played against a very tough pass rush, some really good pass-rushers, and listen, some of those sacks were on me just getting the ball out.

“But I think all in all, I loved the look in his eyes throughout the week, his preparation on game day, just kind of the even flow of the game where you’re going to get beat from time to time, but the next play he’s 20 yards down the field pancaking a guy. I thought he bowed up and played very well.

“He’s still young, still raw, still learning, and is only going to get better with experience. This is how it goes. I think everybody who’s been here in the past: Jermon Bushrod, [Zach] Strief, and others, they grow they develop with reps, with live action.”

Brees also wound up on the injury report this week for the first time all season -- listed as limited Wednesday with a knee injury -- though it’s unclear if the injury is significant or if it came from any of the hits he took during the game. (The injury report came out after Brees spoke.)

Even before Armstead entered the picture, Brees has been sacked far more times this year than ever in his 13-year career. He’s been sacked 36 times this year, including 10 over the past two games. His previous high was 26, which came last year.

Brees said it would be wrong to suggest the offensive line is struggling, though.

“No. That’s unfair,” Brees said. “Throw in all the factors of me hanging in there trying to get some balls down the field [something else the Saints have had a harder time doing consistently this year]. That’s on me not throwing the ball away maybe. But then there have been those times where you hang onto it and you do get the big play. It’s give-and-take.

“I think our guys up front have played great. I think they’ve done a great job of allowing us to be balanced. Our run-game numbers, I think this year especially at times when we might have abandoned it, I think we’ve really stuck with it. I think those guys have done a great job.”

Even with the Saints’ sack totals way higher than they’ve been in the Brees-Payton era, they still rank in the bottom 10 in the NFL in sacks allowed.

And up until these last two losses at St. Louis and Carolina, Brees was having one of the most efficient and productive seasons of his career. He has thrown for 4,781 yards, 35 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions, with a completion percentage of 68.2 and a passer rating of 101.8. He’s on pace to have the third-best season in every one of those categories during his eight-year tenure in New Orleans.

When asked about whether there has been a drop-off in the offensive line’s performance, Payton said, “I don’t want to use the word spoiled, but shoot, that’s something that has been very exceptional. And you don’t have those numbers he’s put up, even this season, without those guys playing well.”

“You’re still statistically looking at a group that has done very well per pass attempt,” Payton said -- adding that he’d rather wait until after the season to give any more specific evaluations. “We’re not grading any players right now. Or grading lines. You guys can, though.”
METAIRIE, La. – Rookie Terron Armstead will “absolutely” remain the New Orleans Saints’ starting left tackle, according to coach Sean Payton.

Armstead struggled in his NFL debut in Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers, allowing 2.5 sacks and committing two false start penalties -- all in the first half. But Armstead and Payton both said after the game that they were encouraged by the way he settled into the role as the game went on. And Payton’s praise was even stronger after watching the tape on Monday.

“Listen, I’ve read a handful of different articles about his performance,” Payton said. “Certainly there are growing pains, but there are a lot of things that he did very well. I think as a staff, going through the tape now twice, I was extremely encouraged by the way he played.”

Armstead’s struggles were more obvious to the naked eye than his successes.

He was beaten badly twice for sacks by the Panthers’ standout pass-rusher, Greg Hardy -- once late in the first quarter and once in the early second quarter. Both false start penalties also came in the second quarter. And he was pushed back again by end Mario Addison for a half-sack late in the second quarter -- though the entire pocket collapsed on that one as quarterback Drew Brees was caught holding the ball too long.

On the plus side for Armstead, he went practically unnoticed during the second half -- which included 22 drop-backs by the quarterback.

The Saints gave up a total of six sacks in the game, but only one in the second half -- on an all-out blitz by the Panthers that flooded the right side of New Orleans’ line.

Armstead, a third-round draft pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff, hadn’t played a snap on offense all season before Sunday -- appearing in only four games on special teams. But Payton turned to the athletic rookie after veteran Charles Brown struggled in Week 15 against the St. Louis Rams.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The New Orleans Saints’ bold switch at left tackle didn’t work out as they'd hoped. Rookie Terron Armstead struggled early before finally settling in during the second half of Sunday’s 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Armstead gave up two sacks where he was clearly beat by Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy in the first half, and at least one more in which quarterback Drew Brees probably held on to the ball too long. Armstead also committed two false-start penalties.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy and Terron Armstead
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCTTerron Armstead (right) gave up two sacks to the Panthers' Greg Hardy in the first half.
But after the game, everyone from Brees to coach Sean Payton to Armstead himself spoke optimistically about the way he survived the early onslaught.

“I played a decent game. I gave it everything I had. I had a couple of mistakes that need to be corrected,” said Armstead, a third-round draft choice from Arkansas-Pine Bluff who hadn’t played an offensive snap until Payton decided to bench veteran Charles Brown and replace him with the rookie this week.

Armstead said he got more comfortable as the game went along and understood better what the Panthers were trying to do up front. He also said his teammates were “great.”

“They were behind me 100 percent. Even after I had a mistake here and there, they were still behind me,” Armstead said. “That’s all I’m trying to do is learn and get better every game.”

Brees was sacked six times in all – tied for the most in his eight years with the Saints. But he was correctly critical of himself for holding the ball too long on certain occasions – and complimentary of Carolina’s pass coverage, which was outstanding throughout the game.

“I felt like he played great, and our line played great,” Brees said. “Some of those sacks were on me, just getting the ball out, especially when we were in field-goal range.”

The Saints’ other big roster move this week – releasing kicker Garrett Hartley and signing veteran Shayne Graham – worked out fine. Graham made both of his field-goal attempts, from 40 and 24 yards.

Payton also made some bold moves during the game, and the results were also hit-and-miss.

The Saints successfully converted a surprise onside kick in the first half, which let to a field goal an early 6-0 lead. But they failed when attempting a fake field goal in the second half, with backup quarterback Luke McCown throwing incomplete to a well-covered Jimmy Graham.

“We weren’t holding anything back,” Brees said. “We were playing to win.”

W2W4: Saints at Panthers

December, 21, 2013
There’s really no overstating the importance of this game for the New Orleans Saints (10-4).

If they beat the Carolina Panthers (10-4), they can prove to themselves and others that they’re capable of winning a big game on the road against a quality opponent. Better yet, they get to stay home for at least the first two weeks of the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

Lose, and the opposite happens. The questions about their ability to win on the road will continue to grow – and they’ll be forced to face those demons throughout the playoffs as a wild-card team.

The Saints just walloped this same Panthers team 31-13 two weeks ago inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. How can they get the same result away from their home comfort zone? Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

In Brees’ hands: Saints quarterback Drew Brees will be the best player on the field Sunday – and he’ll give the Saints their best chance to win. He threw four touchdown passes against the Panthers two weeks ago. No other quarterback has thrown more than one against Carolina all season.

But Brees has got to be more consistent than he has been in previous road performances. Specifically, he has to protect the football.

When Brees turns the ball over, you can instantly feel the momentum shifting inside of a stadium. And that’s happened in the first half of each of the Saints’ three most disastrous road losses this year (two interceptions at the New York Jets, a fumble at the Seattle Seahawks, two interceptions on the first two drives at the St. Louis Rams). If Brees and the Saints avoid those disastrous results early on Sunday, they’ve got a much better chance to avoid that “snowball” effect we’ve seen in recent road losses.

This year at home, Brees has been nearly perfect (23 touchdowns, three interceptions). On the road, he’s been far too human (11 touchdown, seven interceptions). He can’t afford to be human in this one.

Defensive priorities: Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins has insisted all week that there’s no “voodoo” or magic formula that has prevented New Orleans from winning on the road. They know exactly why they’ve been losing on the road – the two things that every team preaches in every game: Win the turnover battle and stop the run.

In their past three road losses, the Saints have forced zero turnovers. And in their four total road losses this year (including a close loss at New England), the Saints have allowed an average of 152.5 rushing yards per game.

Both of those trends will be tough to reverse Sunday. The Panthers are good at running the ball, and they’re good at protecting the ball. Even when the Saints blew them out two weeks ago, the Panthers still ran for 128 yards and didn’t turn the ball over once.

The Saints have only forced two turnovers in their past seven games.

“We just keep emphasizing it, and we’ve been talking about it, but we just haven’t been getting it done much,” Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “We’ve really been emphasizing [takeaways] this week. Everybody’s been buying in. We’re working as hard as we can on trying to knock the ball out and finding different ways to do that. We’ve just got to. That changes games when you get turnovers, so we’re doing everything we can as players and as coaches to get that turned around, and it will this week.”

The new guys: Do I even need to write this here? Is there anyone who won’t be watching Saints rookie left tackle Terron Armstead and new veteran kicker Shayne Graham on Sunday, anxious to see if coach Sean Payton’s bold roster switches pay off? Obviously Armstead is the biggest, boldest move since he plays such a critical position, since he hasn’t played a snap on offense this year, and since he’ll be going up against one of the NFL’s most disruptive pass-rushers this season in Greg Hardy. Certainly the Saints will try to give Armstead some help with chips and double teams – as well as calling plays that don’t require Brees to hang out too long in the pocket.

Key matchup: The Saints’ offense features two of the most unique matchup problems in the league in tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles. But Carolina can counter with two of the NFL’s best linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Graham had a big day the last time they met, with six catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns. But obviously the setting will be different this time. And Carolina’s defense has only allowed 11.9 points per game this season at home. … I think Sproles, in particular, needs to have a big day after a relatively quiet second half of the season.

Know the enemy: Saints on Johnson/Hardy

December, 20, 2013
METAIRIE, La. -- For the fourth week in a row, the New Orleans Saints will be facing a dynamic duo of pass-rushing defensive ends when they face the Carolina Panthers and ends Charles Johnson an Greg Hardy on Sunday.

Obviously the Saints didn’t hold up well in pass protection last week at St. Louis. But they did do an excellent job against this same Carolina duo in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome two weeks ago, holding them to a combined 0.5 sacks in a 31-13 Saints victory.

[+] EnlargeGreg Hardy and Charles Johnson
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsCarolina defensive ends Greg Hardy, left, and Charles Johnson, center, have combined to make 17 sacks on the season.
The Saints won’t be in that same comfort zone Sunday, however. Not only are they playing on the road, but they’ve inserted untested rookie left tackle Terron Armstead into the starting lineup. Armstead will mostly face Hardy, though the versatile 6-foot-4, 290-pounder often moves inside on passing downs. Hardy has eight sacks and is tied with St. Louis’ Robert Quinn for third in the NFL with 20 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.

Hardy is also a fascinating personality who introduced himself during that "Sunday Night Football" game as "Kraken" from "Hogwarts."

Johnson (6-2, 285) has nine sacks and eight quarterback hits, according to PFF. Here’s what the Saints have been saying about them this week:

Coach Sean Payton: “They’ve got very good burst and quickness. When you combine that with power … the elite rushers have that edge speed, but they also can convert it to power. Then you find yourself setting for speed and then having to deal with the transitional rush. Both of those guys do that extremely well. And so when you look at their hurry and sack totals, they combine both of those elements as well as the inside rush. It’s different when you do one of those two things well, but when they do both of them well like these guys do, it becomes problematic.”

Guard Ben Grubbs: “They each have their own game. Hardy’s tall and long, long arms. And Johnson’s a big, strong, stout rusher. He’s able to turn the corner as well. But I also think those guys in the middle occupy the guards and kind of leave the tackles 1-on-1. So they’ve got a good defense. And, you know, we were able to contain them for the most part the first time we played them. But of course they’re probably gonna bring something different to see if they can get to Drew [Brees] more. …

“I went up against (first-round draft pick defensive tackle Star Lotulelei) some. But on third downs, Hardy came in as the three technique. And that’s another thing they use to their advantage. You know, a lot of guards are not used to guys that athletic in the middle. But I think Jahri [Evans] and myself did OK. But we’ll look to correct some of the mistakes we made and hopefully come out this week, on the road, with the best road game we’ve played thus far.”

Left tackle Terron Armstead: “[Hardy is] a high-motor guy. Ability to change direction. A really good player. [When they switch to nickel packages], [Mario] Addison comes, Wes Horton comes, Frank Alexander comes. All of those guys have a high motor. They work together well. They’ve got good depth. Those other guys come in and play with the same type of motor.”
METAIRIE, La. – If New Orleans Saints rookie Terron Armstead is supposed to be overwhelmed by being thrust into the lineup for his first NFL start this week at Carolina, then he’s not playing along. The third-round draft pick from Arkansas-Pine Bluff stressed that this is the opportunity he’s been working toward all season.

“I really don't look at it as too much pressure,” said Armstead, who has not played a snap on offense this season, appearing in only four games on special teams. “It's what I came here to do; to play. It hasn't happened until now, so I just have to take advantage of my opportunity. … I've never stopped competing since training camp.

"I love it. I love the challenge of it, and that's why I play football.”

Armstead said he has become good friends with recently demoted starter Charles Brown. But he said they’re both competitors.

“So I’m sure Charles is still shooting to get his spot, the same way I've been fighting to get the spot,” Armstead said. “So we’re still competing against each other and pushing each other.”

Armstead (6 foot 5, 304 pounds) said he felt comfortable in his first practice with the first team Wednesday - once he get used to quarterback Drew Brees' cadence, which he said is a little faster than backup Luke McCown's. Armstead said his biggest emphasis dating back to summer practices has been refining his technique – putting in extra time before and after practice to work on all the technical aspects that go with playing on the offensive line in the NFL.

Veteran right tackle Zach Strief said that’s the biggest adjustment for any NFL linemen, since technique isn't as important in college, where linemen can generally rely more on their natural physicality and athleticism.

Armstead certainly has plenty of that. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash by an offensive lineman in the history of the NFL scouting combine (4.71 seconds), and recorded the highest vertical leap of any offensive lineman this year (34.5 inches). And those dazzling workouts backed up his impressive performance in the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, which together solidified his spot as a highly touted third-round draft pick.

“What’s great is I think we've seen him constantly improve every week,” Strief said. “You can watch it on scout team going against our best guys. And he’s been practicing against very good competition, and I think he’s ready for it. …

“I think everyone here has plenty of confidence in him. I think Terron, sooner or later, was gonna be a starter in this league. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I think his talent level is easily high enough for him to be not just a starter but a good starter in this league. Look, just like anybody, there’s gonna be things that happen to Terron because he’s young. But at the end of the day I think we have more than enough confidence that Terron will be a good player for us.”

Brees expressed the same confidence.

“I honestly won't think twice about it other than making sure communication is really, really good,” Brees said, explaining the need to make sure Armstead is on top of all the on-field adjustments. “You've got to trust him, trust that he knows his job, he's going to do his job. And then you just roll."

Saints have had success with young LTs

December, 18, 2013
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' decision to thrust untested rookie Terron Armstead into the starting left tackle job is obviously a bit of a stunner -- especially considering that it's Week 16 and it's such a critical game against the Carolina Panthers. And I certainly don't know what to expect from Armstead, since we haven't really seen him in action since the preseason.

But at this point, Armstead is probably as good an option as any other. Among the alternatives: sticking with Charles Brown after benching him in the middle of last week's loss at St. Louis; moving Zach Strief over from right tackle; or promoting Bryce Harris, who has slightly more experience but projects as more of a right tackle.

[+] EnlargeTerron Armstead
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsNew Orleans Saints rookie Terron Armstead will start at left tackle on Sunday against Carolina.
I know this: Coach Sean Payton made the move with conviction on Wednesday. And it's not like Armstead is a complete unknown. Heading into training camp, there was an assumption that the dynamic athlete from Arkansas-Pine Bluff might be talented enough to compete for the starting spot before it became clear that Brown had a stranglehold on the job.

Plus, we have seen the Saints have success in the past when young left tackles have been thrown into the fire.

It happened with Jermon Bushrod late in the 2009 preseason after Jammal Brown was injured. It also happened with Strief during his rookie season in 2006, when he played great in a spot start at left tackle at Tampa Bay. And it obviously happened with four-time All-Pro guard Jahri Evans, who earned a starting job as a rookie out of Bloomsburg University.

“Players get injured and thrust and put into positions,” Payton said of Armstead's lack of experience. “I think it falls on all of us to help him have success, including Charles [Brown]. And I think that his teammates will make sure they do everything they can to make sure he's in a position to have success. We will as a coaching staff. ...

“He's athletic. He's someone who has a pretty good feel of what we're doing. Certainly there'll be growing pains when you play a young player like that. And yet, it's a guy like him who's been around now for eight months, nine months in our program. But I think he's smart. I think he'll prepare and study and do all the little things. I think he'll get great support by that room. It's a pretty close room. So I'm anxious to see him compete.”

It's safe to say everyone is. This move made the Saints' kicker switch from Garrett Hartley to Shayne Graham feel like small potatoes by comparison. This one will have a huge impact on the Saints' success against a Carolina defense that features two awfully good pass-rushers in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.

But I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Armstead hold up well, based on the past history of young linemen in this offense. And I know he'll get help from chipping tight ends and double teams.

As for Brown, it's also hard to predict what the future holds for him, since he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. The former second-round draft pick from USC was having a decent season in his first year as the starter. Some highs and some lows -- but he certainly never struggled as badly as he did against Rams star Robert Quinn (allowing two sacks and a hit that forced an interception and committing two costly penalties).

“I visited with Charles this morning,” Payton said. “Of course he's disappointed, as he would be. I'm sure he'll respond the right way and handle this the right way in a professional manner. And it's the nature of the business. And again, a decision based on just looking at a lot of snaps and looking at consistency and the things we're looking for. And I think there were a handful of things that happened in that game the other day that really prohibited us from having some type of success.

“And I said this after the game, it wasn't just one player. There was a lot of hands that were in that mud, including mine. But this is something that I think is necessary right now for us.”
The New Orleans Saints’ injury report shrunk a bit on Thursday. Only three players remained out of practice – linebacker Keyunta Dawson (calf), safety Rafael Bush (ankle) and tight end Josh Hill (hamstring).

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (back) returned to practice on a limited basis. Defensive lineman Glenn Foster (knee) remained limited. And offensive tackle Terron Armstead (nose) returned to full participation.

If Bunkley is able to play Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, the Saints would have all 22 projected starters available.