NFC South: Zach Strief


METAIRIE, La. -- One of the most frustrating examples of the lack of maturity and professionalism that so many New Orleans Saints veterans harped on this season was an inordinate amount of players showing up late to meetings or flights.

Though nobody was singled out individually, several players acknowledged Monday that there was an increase in fines for such things. At some point, coach Sean Payton even showed the team a chart illustrating that clubs with less team fines will often have more success.

"Look, all of those things become more heightened with losses," Payton said. "That wasn't unnecessarily higher than the norm. But there's an element to what has brought us success here. Success for a long period of time. And all of a sudden, when you have a season like this, you gotta look closely at, hey, let's make sure the little things are being taken care of. It's one of the topics we talked about in the team meeting."

Payton
Payton
Players insisted such indiscretions didn't reach the level of some of the issues being reported with young players being punished in Cleveland this past week. And players insisted that there were never any major concerns with a "poisonous" atmosphere in the locker room. In fact, offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "Considering the difficulty of the season, I thought the locker room stayed together really well."

But Strief said issues like that became very frustrating to him as a veteran leader who needs to police such things.

"I think the biggest problem is it wasn't taught that those things are not OK. It was assumed that you would know that," Strief said. "The perception sometimes from a young guy could be, 'Well, maybe being five minutes late didn't lose that game' -- which is true. But a bunch of guys with the mentality that the rules don't apply to them can lose that game. So that's why you talk about the 'little things.'"

"It's been higher this year than my first two years here. We had so many people late this year, guys late for planes. It's been so many issues with just basic stuff like showing up on time," said cornerback Corey White, who said he had never been fined himself. "Little things like that, I would hate to say that's the reason why we haven't had success on the field. But things like that you can control, you don't want to give 'em a reason to point to something out like that."

Payton and players have been equally frustrated with letting the "little things" slide on the field. Payton mentioned jumping offside on fourth-and-2 or losing the turnover battle in too many hard-fought games.

A few weeks ago, Payton's message to players was that they've become "that team" that they used to plan against, knowing they'd eventually beat themselves.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said that message also applied to the off-field issues.

"Coach Payton, we pride ourselves on being an organization that's not that organization," Vaccaro said. "You heard him say a couple weeks ago that we're 'that team' that's making those mistakes. Well, 'that team' he's talking about is doing things like [arriving] late to meetings, late to the planes, having rookies do this, rookies do that.

"You just don't hear about that with the Patriots, you don't hear about that junk with the Packers. And we're part of that group of a team that's built that culture. So we've just gotta get that out.

"Honestly, looking back on the season, those things, I don't think they determine the outcome of games. But at the same time, those little things are just stuff we didn't do last year. Last year, we didn't have any of that in this locker room. So you're gonna look to things like that when a season goes this poorly."

Though no specific instances were revealed, we do know of at least three player discipline issues that came up this season. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt was released by the team, reportedly because of missing or being late to meetings. Receiver Joe Morgan was suspended for two games for an unspecified team issue. And defensive tackle John Jenkins was left behind on a road trip for a game for an unspecified reason early in the year.

The good news, according to Strief, is that this should be "fixable stuff."

And as veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton said, a season like this will help drive home the point.

"One thing about football, what it does, it humbles you. So I think a lot of guys were humbled this year," Lofton said. "You've gotta do the things that put you in the position that got you here."

"Stay humble, stay hungry," White added. "That's the attitude we've gotta have next year."
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and his players talked about wanting to “finish the season the right way” next week at Tampa Bay.

And perhaps pride will inspire them a bit as they get one last chance to release the frustrations of this crushing 6-9 season.

But the more important motivator will be what offensive tackle Zach Strief talked about Sunday: auditioning for the future.

[+] EnlargeBen Grubbs
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe woes of the offensive line contributed to the Saints' falling out of the playoff race on Sunday.
This is the kind of season that demands change in the offseason. Payton talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of finding out “who your guys are.” And he again stressed after Sunday’s 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that when the Saints review this season, they’ll take a close look at what they’re doing -- and who they’re asking to do it.

“When you’re 6-9, everybody’s job is on the line. That’s the reality of the business,” Strief said. “People are not going to be here, especially here, where there’s an expectation of winning. There’s going to be changes made, and you know that leaving the season, so there’s a lot to play for.”

Who, exactly, is on the hot seat is tougher to predict than ever heading into this offseason.

On one hand, the Saints veered so far off the track this year that all options should be on the table.

On the other hand, this team was built to win now with quarterback Drew Brees turning 36 next month. The Saints have invested heavily in several core players still in their primes (a lot of which I agreed with when I broke down their 2014 offseason moves last week). And there were a lot of folks suggesting New Orleans had the most talented roster in franchise history heading into this season.

So not only do the Saints need to decide whether a major overhaul is realistic with their salary-cap constraints, but they first need to decide whether it’s even necessary.

The first big decision will be the fate of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints’ defense was awful for much of this season. But Payton strongly defended Ryan’s passion and work ethic a few weeks ago. And the defense showed signs of life over these past two weeks.

What the Saints do with Ryan might be the best indicator of whether they believe more in the potential this defense showed in 2013 or the implosion we saw in 2014.

It’s even harder to believe that Payton will pin the blame for this year’s failings on the longtime assistant coaches whom he’s trusted through thick and thin (Joe Vitt, Pete Carmichael, Greg McMahon, et al). The Saints’ kick-return game was stagnant this year, but that was the only area that provided a spark during Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, thanks to a 99-yard return on the opening kickoff.

As for players, I’ve already written about some of the escalating salaries that jump off the page (Marques Colston $7 million in salary and bonuses in 2015, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne $4.5 million each, Jahri Evans $7.5 million, Ben Grubbs $6.6 million).

The offensive line has to be first on the priority list because we’ve seen regression there from older, expensive players like guards Evans and Grubbs -- but we haven’t seen a backup plan develop yet.

The Saints also have several decisions to make at a cornerback position that was a revolving door all year outside of top guy Keenan Lewis. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker -- not to mention deciding how much to invest on a possible successor for Brees in the draft.

The 2015 offseason might be the toughest one we’ve seen yet in the Payton-Brees era.

At least they’re getting a head start.
METAIRIE, La. -- Zach Strief said he could feel the lack of energy in the locker room before the New Orleans Saints' 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

And that was the one thing above all others that made him both "angry" and "embarrassed" as a captain and veteran leader.

"Because if there's one thing that should be consistent, it's energy and readiness," said Strief, who spent a long time Monday explaining what he and other veteran leaders described after the game as an "unprofessional" performance.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports"I think a lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough. It's not," Zach Strief said.
"I think a lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough. It's not," Strief said of an issue he said has crept up more than once this year. "‘OK, I put my uniform on, I look good, I walk out on the field. And now that we're here and we're the Saints and we have this history where we'll win games, now we're just gonna win this game.' And that's not the reality of this league.

"The teams that created that perception here, it wasn't like that. It wasn't that we expected, or they expected, to show up and they just win. There was that sense of urgency, that emotion, that energy that you have to have."

Strief insisted that doesn't mean he's pointing the finger at younger players -- "I refuse to do that," he said. Strief also specified that he wasn't referencing Junior Galette, who made controversial comments last week about former teammates.

In fact, Strief said he was just as disappointed in himself for recognizing that feeling in the locker room and not figuring out a way to change it.

Strief said different players create that energy level in different ways. He himself is not a yeller and screamer. But he pointed to former Saints fullback Jed Collins as an example of a guy who fires himself up by yelling and jumping around after the national anthem.

"The second you don't go out and have everything that you've got to put on the field, that's exactly what's gonna happen," Strief said of Sunday's drubbing. "I don't think it's intended. I don't think its guys walking in like ‘I don't care.' I don't think that's what it is. I think it's not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful."

Strief also insisted that he doesn't have any problem with the way players have practiced and prepared during the work week -- something which coach Sean Payton and other players in the locker room agreed with. They all said they've liked the attitude and approach during practice.

As for the pregame atmosphere Strief described, Payton said that's probably easier for a player to recognize. Though Payton pointed out that the Saints' game at Detroit earlier this year was an example of one where he felt everybody was "ready to play and play hard." (They had their best start of the year in that game before a late collapse).

There were a lot of varying interpretations from Payton and other players on Monday about whether the problem has been a lack of energy, a lack of effort, a lack of execution or some combination of all three.

Payton and safety Kenny Vaccaro both stressed that they didn't see guys loafing on the field. But as Vaccaro put it, "you can be doing your job real fast -- and real wrong."

Payton said one of the disturbing trends he's recognized is, "I don't know how mentally tough we've been when we've gotten hit in the mouth. And when you play in this league, you're going to have to be able to collect yourself, get on to the next play."

Overall, though, nobody who spoke to the media Monday disagreed with the assessment from veteran leaders like Strief, Drew Brees and Benjamin Watson that Sunday's performance was unprofessional.

"Everybdoy's gotta be a pro," defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker said. "I learned that from guys like Drew, (Marques) Colston, Strief, learned it from (Jonathan) Vilma, Will (Smith). It comes with the territory, you gotta learn to be a pro."

"I don't take offense," said Vaccaro, a second-year player. "I prepare hard all week, I watch all the tape, I take all the notes. So that doesn't (offend) me. But we are (struggling) as a group. So it is what it is, (they're) right.

"They laid the foundation, those guys that were here before us. They're the reason why our expectation level is so high, and we've gotta uphold that. And that's the standard that's expected. I wasn't here when they won the whole thing. And that's the standard. So whatever I gotta do to get to that, I'll do it."
METAIRIE, La. -- With so much talk about the New Orleans Saints’ maturity and professionalism after their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, it’s natural to connect the dots to the controversial comments made by captain and outside linebacker Junior Galette late last week.

Gabbert
Galette
Some current and former veterans chaffed at the way Galette belittled former leaders like Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma by saying the current players are better than they were and, “it’s not even close.”

However, Saints offensive lineman and fellow captain Zach Strief -- one of the players who stood up for Smith and Vilma on Twitter -- insisted that the two issues aren’t related.

“I’m not talking about Junior [when talking about maturity and professionalism issues]. No, I’m talking about the way that this team plays, top to bottom,” said Strief, who had a great breakdown of the intensity that he feels is lacking from the team on game days, which I’ll post later today.

“I don’t think [Galette’s comments] are as big of an issue in the locker room as it is an issue for the guys that were here with those guys. My comment to that is in defense of teammates that I went through very special moments of my life with that I love and appreciate. … But I don’t feel like a rift in the locker room is the cause of our issues.”

Captain and veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton also said he doesn’t have any concern over fissures in the locker room.

“I think everybody’s on the same page. It’s just like any other team, you disagree, a lot of guys disagree with each other,” said Lofton, who had disagreed with safety Kenny Vaccaro’s decision to express some of his frustrations with the media last month. “But it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. I think we’ve been together and we’ll stay together. Either way we’re not gonna quit, we’re gonna keep going.”

Galette has not made himself available for comment since last Thursday.

From my outside view, it’s a tricky issue to pinpoint.

There’s no question that the leadership has changed drastically on the defensive side of the ball with younger, more outspoken and more brash players like Galette, Vaccaro, Cameron Jordan and Keenan Lewis joining Lofton as leaders in their respective position groups.

At the same time, I don’t know that anyone would question the work ethic or the intensity of those guys in particular. In fact, those appear to be strengths of all those players, even though they’re not getting the expected results on the field this year.

Clearly, though, the locker room dynamic has changed from years past and we’re seeing those growing pains play out on the football field.
NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints have lost their home mystique in stunning fashion.

Their 41-10 drubbing by the Carolina Panthers on Sunday was their most lopsided home loss since 2003. And they’ve now lost four straight games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time during a single season since 1999.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill HaberSean Payton has watched the Saints lose four straight at home for the first time in 15 seasons.
This from a team that had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs, before the streak started.

Up until a month ago -- when the Saints routed the Green Bay Packers in this building -- the idea was that the Saints had one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. Now nothing could be further from the truth.

But as Payton explained, it has nothing to do with the venue and everything to do with the team.

“Let’s be clear on this, because I think it’s a fair question,” Payton said. “It’s happened on the road and at home. And it probably has nothing to do with the building, the bricks, the venue. It probably has a lot more to do with … you’re staring at. You could be in Atlanta, you could be here, you could be in Cleveland.

"'Cuz the season started off the with the idea being, 'Hey, can they play well on the road?' That was half of the year. And so my point is it probably has nothing to do with the venue. We play like that, it doesn't matter where we play. Downtown, uptown, across the lake at Mandeville High School or at another NFL venue. You play like that, it doesn't matter really.

“And that’s the unfortunate thing, because you’d like to take advantage of our home crowd. We’ve had great support, and yet we don’t even give them a chance because it’s, shoot, two scores or three scores before they even sat down.”

Instead, the sound of boos cascading through the crowd has become commonplace.

The Saints have been booed on their way into the locker room at halftime during three of their past four home games. The boos were relentless throughout the game Sunday.

At one point, a fan threw a beer onto the field, which inspired the PA announcer to remind fans about the code of conduct. Then the PA announcer got booed, too.

After the game, Saints players such as Curtis Lofton and Zach Strief specifically apologized to the fans.

“I don’t blame any fan for being disappointed not only [for] this game, but [for] this season,” offensive tackle Strief told The Advocate. “I do not blame them for that whatsoever. We have to come and play; we have to come and give them a reason to cheer; we have to give them a reason not to boo. End of story.”

Worse than losing the fans, though, is that the Saints are putting no fear into their opponents and no pressure on them to make mistakes in a hostile venue.

ESPN analyst Steve Young said after their previous home loss to the Baltimore Ravens on "Monday Night Football" last month that “the whole league” used to know that no matter how the Saints were playing, they could come home and “get healthy, things could get right.”

“Now that’s all gone. You have nothing left,” Young added.

No one appreciated that more Sunday than Panthers safety Roman Harper, who spent his first eight seasons in New Orleans.

"We did a great job of making them boo by halftime, which is always a great thing when you're the visiting team,” said Harper, who said he had never seen anybody throw a beer from the top row -- and that he knows the fans are better than that.

But, Harper added, “To go on the road in a tough environment and win the way we did, as a fan I would be kind of frustrated, too. And it's not like they're sober.”
video
NEW ORLEANS -- The worst loss in the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era also appeared to be the most eye-opening for the two men.

Payton and Brees both spoke bluntly about the New Orleans Saints' shortcomings after a stunning 41-10 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

One week after they seemingly salvaged their season with a big win at Pittsburgh, the Saints (5-8) tried to throw it away again in fewer than 10 minutes. They fell behind 17-0 with two turnovers on their first three offensive snaps and a defensive performance that wasn't any better.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsPoor preparation by the Saints' players proved costly on Sunday, quarterback Drew Brees said.
"Obviously, that was embarrassing, how we played, how we coached," Payton said. "You pick an area, you pick a phase, and it was awful."

Although they both pointed inward at their roles as leaders, Payton and Brees were clearly upset that a certain standard isn't being upheld.

Brees questioned the professionalism and maturity of the team for not handling the ebbs and flows of their "roller coaster" season well enough. Payton made it clear players will be held accountable for any lack of effort that shows up on film and said it's "absolutely" not too late to make personnel changes.

"That's not a threat. All I'm saying is what's madness is to continue to get up here after a game like that, with our fans and say, 'We're gonna have it right next week,'" Payton said.

When asked how coaches can make players listen to that message, Payton referenced a comment from Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer earlier in the season and said, "Their concern should be about how we see them ... more than the other way around."

"I'm very comfortable with our approach, our program and all those things. And yet we keep paying attention and looking at some of the mistakes. ... They keep repeating, and we've got to find other people to do those tasks," Payton said. "Because ultimately, at some point, they'll find someone else to have in charge of the other people."

Brees also made several strong, though vague, comments.

"We obviously still have a lot of maturing to do," Brees said. "I'd say the thing that I feel like I've learned from my career is consistency in your preparation and in your mindset equals consistent performance. You know, maybe that's it. Maybe we just need to be more professional -- and I say, 'we.' It's the entire team."

Brees threw himself in there after he had one of the worst games of his Saints career; he threw an early interception and had a passer rating of 35.4 through three quarters. But it was clear the whole performance didn't sit well with him.

The defense barely laid a finger on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after sacking him 13 times in their previous three meetings. He threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 83 yards and a score. Running back Jonathan Stewart ran for 155 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown.

"That's not something any of us want to hang our hat on or leave our signature on," Brees said. "But we've gotta go play like it. We've gotta prepare like it. We have to handle ourselves throughout the week like professionals, like men, with a level of maturity."

When asked if the Saints have the kind of veteran leaders they used to have -- players such as Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma -- Brees said, "I feel like there are, and yet there should be more."

It's impossible to know if comments such as those were specifically tied to comments made this week by current defensive captain Junior Galette, who took shots at former leaders such as Smith and Vilma.

Neither Payton nor Brees nor any of the veteran leaders who stuck around to face the fire in a mostly barren locker room pointed to any specific players. All of them said they liked the energy and effort during the work week.

But all of them, including Payton, agreed it's possible this team has had too much of a tendency to relax after big wins.

"They shouldn't. We're not that good," Payton said. "That's painfully obvious."

"Maybe some guys feel that way, and that's bad," said offensive tackle Zach Strief, who said it's up to the veteran leaders to teach players just how hard it is to win in this league.

"I'm used to the inconsistency at this point, and that's sad. That's embarrassing," Strief said. "But this game is fair. You get what you deserve. ... And we deserved to lose that game by 30 points because we were not ready to play."

That word "embarrassing" was thrown around a ton Sunday by pretty much everyone who spoke. One word that wasn't: playoffs.

Because even though the Saints still have a good mathematical shot to win the NFC South, on Sunday, they sure didn't look like a team that deserved it.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers:

Brees
Blunt assessments: There weren't many players left in the Saints' locker room after a long news conference by coach Sean Payton. The veteran leaders who did stay to face the fire all used the exact same word Payton used in his opening sentence: "Embarrassing."

Quarterback Drew Brees and offensive tackle Zach Strief also mentioned professionalism. When asked what he meant, Brees explained that the team obviously isn't doing a good enough job of handling the ebbs and flows.

"I think one of our problems is we don't appreciate how difficult it is to win in this league," Strief said. "I think guys on this team feel that you can show up, and it'll happen. And that's on us [veteran leaders] for not teaching that."

Effort to be scrutinized: Payton shot down the notion that the coaches may have "lost" the players, saying that wouldn't explain the ups and downs, including a big win last week at Pittsburgh. But he said it's fair to ask whether the team has relaxed too much after big wins.

"We're not that good [to do that]. That's painfully obvious," said Payton, who added that the players should be concerned about how coaches see them more than the other way around.

When asked if it's too late in the season to consider personnel changes, Payton said, "Absolutely not" and said the film will show who was putting forth the proper effort.

Lofton on shoving Newton: Curtis Lofton said he had no regrets about shoving Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to spark the end-zone brawl that spilled into the tunnel in the first quarter. Newton was taunting Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan at the time, and Lofton said, "I don't take kindly to that. I saw it as straight disrespectful. ... I'd do it 100 times out of 100."
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints (4-7) helped two divisions make history Monday night with their 34-27 loss to the Baltimore Ravens (7-4).

The NFC South is now the only division in NFL history with every team at least three games below .500 at any point in the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And the AFC North is now the only division to ever have every team at least three games above .500.

Remarkably, New Orleans is still tied for first with the Atlanta Falcons (4-7), despite having lost three straight games -- all at home.

Obviously, that’s a great incentive to keep plugging away. In any other division or any other season, New Orleans would just be playing out the string at this point.

But it should come as no surprise that Monday night, the Saints weren’t taking any comfort or motivation from the rest of the division’s failures when their own are so prevalent.

“I ain’t even worried about no hunt. There ain’t no hunt when you’re 4-7,” Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said when asked about still being in the playoff hunt. “You gotta worry about winning the next game. There’s no such thing as a hunt when you’re 4-7.”

“You don’t really take a lot of solace right now after a loss,” coach Sean Payton said. “Obviously, to be playing for something is important. And yet we’ve gotta make sure that some of the things we did better tonight we continue to build on, and then some of the things we didn’t do well, we get corrected. … I completely see -- and our players completely see -- ‘Hey, these are some things we’ve gotta be better at. And if we’re not, then it’s not gonna matter.’”

The Falcons currently hold tiebreakers based on head-to-head record and division record. But the Saints could erase those tiebreakers by winning their final three games within the division (vs. Carolina in Week 14, vs. Atlanta in Week 16, at Tampa Bay in Week 17).

That alone might be enough to win the division at 7-9.

Heck, the Saints might even still be considered the front-runners -- as NBC analyst Rodney Harrison suggested.

But as offensive tackle Zach Strief pointed out, the Saints still have to figure out how to actually start winning games for any scenario to play out.

“The reality is this team needs to fix itself, because it’s not gonna matter. Because we have to win games,” Strief said. “So if it wasn’t that scenario, it shouldn’t change what guys are playing for in here. If you can’t elevate yourself to care enough based on pride and based on responsibility to each other to your fans to your coaches, then you’re not a professional. So it shouldn’t matter.

“The reality is all we have to worry about is fixing ourselves, because everything’s gonna come from that. If we don’t fix ourselves, nothing else matters.”
METAIRIE, La. -- A new six-game season kicks off tonight for the New Orleans Saints.

That's the message coach Sean Payton sent his team heading into tonight's home date with the Baltimore Ravens (6-4). Payton showed players a chart at the beginning of the week with all of their statistics reading zeroes.

Evans
"Basically the idea is, 'Play our best football now,'" Saints guard Jahri Evans said. "We still have a shot at it, despite our 4-6 record and the mistakes we've made. We're still in position to accomplish all the things we want to accomplish."

That's the beauty of the NFC South, which has become a laughingstock to everyone outside the division. To the Saints, it's reason for hope.

It's the one good break they've gotten this year in a season filled with bad breaks.

Since the Saints are in the division lead, they have a golden opportunity to host a first-round playoff game should they maintain hold of that advantage.

And as offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "Once you get in, it's free for anybody to take it."

Strief
Although Payton stressed that it's important the Saints don't ignore the mistakes they've made so far this season and that they learn from them, Evans said the message is that they don't "carry those mistakes forward into the now."

"Certainly we're concerned with the way that we're playing. We don't want to turn in games like we did last week," Strief said of the Saints' 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals -- their lowest scoring output in a home game since 2006. "But everything is still in front of us, and this team can still turn things around.

"So we could listen to the message of, 'What's wrong with you guys? You guys stink.' Or we could turn things around and get into this tournament and see what happens."

It may sound like a tired message since the Saints have continued to take two steps forward and two steps back all season. But several players credited Payton for being straightforward with them about where they stand -- but also about what they can still accomplish.

"We know we're a good team. And we haven't played it or haven't shown it, but we're still very confident. And all of these problems, they will be addressed and they will be fixed," Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "Coach Payton has been very real with us. 'This is exactly where we're at in the NFC, and this is exactly what we've gotta do. And if we do this, then at the end of the year we're going to be very happy.'

"And this is what it's about. So guys gotta see that. You've gotta feel it, you've gotta breathe it and you've gotta believe in it. And you have to do everything in your power to make this team better and make yourself better for these last six games."
METAIRIE, La. – New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday for the first time since suffering shoulder and rib injuries in Week 7.

Thomas was in great spirits while talking with the media, but he playfully refused to reveal whether he expects to play Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

Thomas
“You’re gonna have to find that out. You’re gonna have to wait and see,” said Thomas, who even threw in a suspenseful sound effect at one point: “Who knows when it’s gonna be? It might be Monday. Oooooh.”

“I did not think it was gonna take this long,” Thomas added. “But, hey, I had to make sure it was right, and I still have to make sure it’s right before I step out on that field so I don’t have any setbacks. Because I don’t want to put myself out here and play one game and get hit and then that’s it.

“No, I want to finish this season out and then continue on into the playoffs, too. So I want to help out my team and help myself as much as possible. I gotta be smart about my decision. That’s what I’m doing.”

Thomas’ return would be a huge lift for a Saints offense that just lost dynamic rookie receiver Brandin Cooks to a season-ending thumb injury. Thomas has always been a big part of the Saints’ passing game, especially on screen passes – an element of their offense that they’ll miss with Cooks out.

Plus, fellow pass-catching running back Travaris Cadet was held out of team drills Thursday with a hamstring injury, the severity of which was unknown.

Thomas can also help relieve running back Mark Ingram, who has carried a heavy load with 26 carries per game in the past four weeks.

Fellow running back Khiry Robinson also has been sidelined since Week 7 with an unspecified arm injury. Robinson remained absent from practice Thursday. His timetable remains unclear.

“Oh, man, he’s been holding it down. He’s been holding it down, seriously,” Thomas said when asked about Ingram, who had three straight 100-yard games before the run game was shut down last week against Cincinnati. “I mean, Mark’s been doing a job we all knew he could do; he’s just getting more reps.

“With this organization, with this team, we rotate, and it’s hard to get on a rhythm. And he was on a rhythm. He was moving the ball; he was holding it down for some of us running backs that was down. He was doing the job that he needed to do. Everybody knows that he can do the job. Everybody knows that he can step up to the challenge, and he answered. I’m proud of him.”

Other injury notes:
  • Cornerback Keenan Lewis was absent from practice Thursday as he continues to rehab a lingering knee injury. Lewis also missed two days of practice last week before practicing on Friday and playing 10 snaps – although he admitted he wasn’t as healthy as hoped. Lewis said Thursday that he’s still optimistic and getting better each day, and the extra day of rest before a Monday night game should help.
  • Linebacker Curtis Lofton (ankle) was held out of team drills, though he also was limited last week in a similar fashion before playing a full game. Linebacker Kyle Knox was held out of team drills with a hand injury.
  • Receiver Robert Meachem returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. His role in the Saints’ offense could also increase if he’s healthy enough to play Monday, as he has proven ability as a deep threat (another area where they’ll miss Cooks).
  • Right tackle Zach Strief practiced fully after leaving last Sunday with a concussion – a great sign for the Saints, who will be facing two of the league’s best pass rushers Monday in Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals don’t see much of each other, but they have a lot in common.

Strief
Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, a Cincinnati native who grew up as a Bengals season-ticket holder, even pointed out that they spent years running into the same red and gold wall.

“There’s actually a pretty strong parallel to Cincinnati and here in terms of the teams and their successes and the chants ('Who Dat' vs. 'Who Dey') and the team that was the cause of all the woes in the years that we were good and had a chance, and who took that away from us,” Strief said. “The Saints played in the division with the 49ers when they had Joe Montana and Steve Young, and they could never get over that hump. And we went to the Super Bowl twice and lost to Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. So there’s a lot of parallels there.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer also wrote a detailed behind-the-scenes piece on how the two cities battled to land the 16th NFL franchise back in the 1960s, with the Saints beating out the Bengals.

Brees and Dalton: One parallel that hasn’t quite come to fruition yet is the development of fourth-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) was compared by some to Saints quarterback Drew Brees coming out of college because he’s a smaller, cerebral quarterback. But so far Dalton has been hit or miss, with three playoff appearances and zero playoff wins.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis mentioned when talking about Brees this week that he tries “to get Andy to emulate Drew all the time.”

Brees
Dalton
Dalton
When asked how specifically, Lewis said, “The way Drew goes about it as the leader, the leader of the offense, the leader of the team, working through his progressions, how hard he works in practice, even how he enters the huddle and the things he does. It’s what you want from the leader of your team.”

Brees said he has met Dalton only once, during a past Pro Bowl. But he said he admires what he’s seen and heard about the fellow Texas native, saying they have somewhat of a shared background because of their paths through big-time Texas high schools and less high-profile colleges (Brees at Purdue, Dalton at TCU).

“I have a lot of respect of what he’s been able to accomplish and what his team’s been able to accomplish,” Brees said. “I haven’t spent a whole lot of time with him, but from everything I hear, he’s a great young man.”

Payton and Still: Saints coach Sean Payton also established a new bond between the franchises this season when he was moved to buy 100 jerseys in support of Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still, whose daughter is battling pediatric cancer. The two will meet in person for the first time Sunday.

“I think players in our league, people in our league, in a time like that when someone needs help, they really rally around their own people,” Payton said this week of why he was moved by the way the Bengals supported Still through a charitable promotion with his jersey sales. “That was good to see, and it’s still good to see because I’m sure it’s a long fight.”

Bengals news: For all your info on the Bengals this week, check out their team page on ESPN.com and follow ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey on Twitter @ColeyHarvey.
NEW ORLEANS – Even the New Orleans Saints players themselves are admittedly tired of saying the same things about needing to finish off these close games. But they also didn’t ignore the fact Sunday that they’re still playing good football and have a great chance to make the playoffs. Their 4-5 record still leads the NFC South pending how the Carolina Panthers (3-5-1) fare on Monday night.

Here are some of the highlights of what players said after the game:
  • Brees
    “The bottom line is and the fact of the matter is we still control our own destiny. I mean, it's right there in front of us,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “We don't like to suffer a loss like that, we certainly don't like to suffer a loss like that at home. And I think it just goes to prove nobody’s invincible. You don't just win at home just because you're playing at home. You've got to execute, you've got to play well, you've got to take care of the football. And I think we did that for the most part today, but the turnovers got us.”
  • "We know we're a good team. We're 4-5, but we're a scary 4-5," cornerback Keenan Lewis said, according to The Times-Picayune.
  • “We’re not making plays [in the end of these close games]. What’s hard is it’s a half a second, it’s a half a yard, it’s horribly close. So we have to make plays at the end of games. Other teams have, and we have not. It's a simple thing," offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "It’s a game of inches, and we’ve lost a whole lot of inches this year."
  • “We’re good. We’re not going to break. We started off so bad the first of the year that [Sunday] was nothing. We’re light years away from the way we started. … Like Coach [Sean] Payton says, we play like we did the second half the rest of the year, we’ll win every game, I’ll tell you that,” said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who quickly clarified that those weren’t Payton’s exact words but his own spin on what Payton said. “We’re going to be tough to beat, that’s what he said.”
  • “No team can beat us [if we play like that]," outside linebacker Junior Galette said of the postgame message. "But we’ve got to start early, especially against a team like that. We can’t start late. We can’t give a good team like that a lead. It’s tough to win already. ... It’s frustrating. We played our tails off. It’s frustrating that these wins can go either way.”
METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram is officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. But he insisted this week that his shoulder injury is nothing serious and he will be ready to go.

Ingram
And chances are, Ingram will continue to carry a heavy load since fellow running backs Khiry Robinson (arm) and Pierre Thomas (shoulder/rib) have officially been ruled out.

Ingram said he suffered the unspecified injury during the 28-10 victory against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 30. He still carried the ball 30 times for 100 yards in that game, and has had an extra few days of recovery time since.

Saints linebacker David Hawthorne (hand) was also ruled out for Sunday’s game. Offensive tackle Zach Strief (chest), center Jonathan Goodwin (knee), and receiver Robert Meachem (ankle) are listed as questionable. It’s tough to predict all three of their statuses, since Goodwin is recovering from a sprained MCL and the other two missed at least two days of practice this week. Strief was able to do at least some individual work during the portion of practice open to the media on Friday.

Tight end Jimmy Graham (shoulder) and receiver Kenny Stills (thigh) are listed as probable. There is little concern about Graham, who has practiced fully all week. Stills was limited in practice, but also appears good based on that designation.

If Meachem can’t play, the Saints will likely activate Nick Toon as their fourth receiver. Toon has been active for one game this season, and played only on special teams.

The third-year pro admitted that it’s tough to deal with not playing -- especially after he felt like he performed well in training camp. But Toon said he understands the Saints’ depth at the position and said he just tries to take the mentality each week that he’s preparing to play.

"You guys (in the media) were at camp, saw the camp that I had, and I feel like it was a solid camp," Toon said. "But I don’t make the decision on who’s playing and not playing. It’s just about being ready, being patient and being prepared."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Once again, bad things were happening to the New Orleans Saints on the road Thursday night.

An interception on the opening drive that bounced off the hands of receiver Kenny Stills and into the waiting arms of a defensive tackle. A fumble by quarterback Drew Brees on the second drive after fullback Erik Lorig got shoved into him.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Mike McCarnDrew Brees and the Saints overcame their mistakes and stayed aggressive on the way to their third win in four games.
Once again, turnovers were threatening to derail the Saints’ season.

But if you think the Saints turned things around in their 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers by getting conservative or playing it safe, then you haven’t been paying much attention to Brees and coach Sean Payton over the past nine years.

“You play to win the game!” Brees said, channeling Herm Edwards’ classic rant. “Listen, if you’re worried about bad things happening all the time and you play conservative and you play not to (lose), that’s when things don’t go your way.”

So the Saints kept their foot on the gas even when they were facing a third-and-10 from their own 15-yard line with 1:40 remaining and no timeouts left in the first half. And it paid off with a 1-yard TD pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with three seconds remaining.

Later, Brees scored on a 1-yard TD dive on fourth-and-goal when he had the option to snap it or call a timeout based on what he saw from the defense. (Was there any doubt?)

“You’re trying to be smart and not foolish,” Payton said of the two-minute drill, which included another sack-fumble against Brees (that he recovered). “You’re very comfortable saying, ‘Hey, if we have to we’ll punt it here or run out the clock. But, listen, Drew was outstanding on that drive.”

The TD pass was set up by a huge 32-yard pass interference penalty when Brees took a deep shot for Robert Meachem in the end zone.

“You cannot play quarterback in this league being afraid of what might happen. You’ve got to trust that the guy’s either going to make a play on it or he’s going to play defense,” Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said of the throw to Meachem. “And he did. But we’re never going to become conservative. Ever.”

Brees' aggressive nature admittedly led to some forced interceptions earlier this season. But he's always been willing to push the envelope, and the good has outweighed the bad throughout his career.

“We’ve rehearsed that two-minute drill, we’ve done it so many times,” Brees said. “How many times have you seen us go down and score inside of 30 seconds? Are there going to be mistakes at times, are you going to get stopped or worst case, turn it over? And you try not to let that happen, but it’s football. And sometimes it does, and you’ve got to overcome it.”

The Saints also opened up their game plan in general as the game went on.

They clearly went into the game with an intention to run the ball a lot against a Carolina defense that ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed per carry. But the run game wasn’t getting off the ground. So even though they had the early interception and fumbles, they continued to aggressively air it out.

Brees finished 24-of-34 for 297 yards, one touchdown, one pick and four sacks.

They went back to the run game late once they opened a lead, and Mark Ingram finished with 100 yards on 30 carries -- the most by any Saints back in the Payton-Brees era.

The Saints will never stop being aggressive. But if they can do it while being balanced, all the better.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 28-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night:

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

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

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

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

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

The payoff for the Saints' extra-short turnaround between a Sunday night home game and Thursday night road game is that now they have 10 days to heal up for the next one.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC SOUTH SCOREBOARD

Sunday, 1/25